By POM CAHILOG-VILLANUEVA
They were the first people I noticed as we approached a mass burial in front of San Joaquin Parish Church in Palo, Leyte: two teenage sisters standing over an unmarked grave with only a single candle protected from the wind by a plastic cola bottle. It is an image that will probably stay with me for a long time.
I did not even get their names; my intention to interview them was lost when I approached and saw them trying to comfort each other through their tears. They just buried their mother, and two of their siblings’ bodies have yet to be recovered from the swamp. I asked them if I can take photos of the grave. They both nodded and one sister sobbed in Filipino: “We don’t even have flowers to offer to Mama.”
After I took photos I murmured my condolences and stood quietly beside them as the priest led the prayers. One of the sisters said it would be dangerous for them to attempt to recover the bodies by themselves. “We help each other because we get no help from the government.”
Earlier that day, in Dulag, Leyte, a group of kids followed me around as I took photos of the damage to their village. I talked to them as we sat near the beach among the uprooted coconut trees. We talked about their school and their favorite games. I, in turn, told them about how scared I was of helicopters as a kid as we watched one with relief goods hovering above us. Ten-year-old Marie Grace recounted how one truck with relief goods passed by their village days after the typhoon and how they all ran out of the schoolhouse where they were staying upon seeing it. The truck did not stop. “Maybe we scared them off,” she said. “But we are not really rowdy; we are just hungry.”
In barangay Diit, Tacloban City we met a family rebuilding their house from scraps of wood and metal sheets they salvaged from the debris. As the parents talked about taking temporary shelter in an abandoned van in front of where their house used to be and surviving on a piece of sweet potato once a day I noticed their youngest daughter who kept looking at me. I smiled at her and she promptly hid behind a house post. I took her photo and was finally rewarded with a smile when I showed it to her. Her name is Diday and she is four years old. I tried to talk to her but she could barely understand Tagalog, and I do not speak Leneyte-Samarnon. I tried a few Cebuano words and her face would light up when she recognized some words. “Maalam,” she said with a smile whenever I said something she understood. I noticed a broken school medal she was holding so I offered to fix it so she can wear it around her neck. Diday’s brothers who were playing nearby told me the medal was their eldest sister’s medal for academic excellence. She left right after the typhoon to try her luck in Manila. She is 16 years old and they have not heard from her since she left.
As I fixed the medal Diday and I kept our conversation going. She asked what I was doing there and I tried to explain as best as I could about my job. I asked her what she likes doing best and she said “What do I want?” I nodded. “I want a biscuit. That’s what I want now.”
I thought of the pack of biscuits in my bag. It was all the food I had allotted for myself that day. I knew it won’t be enough for herself and her brothers, but I gave it to her anyway. I told her to share them with her brothers, but they declined saying their sister needed it more than them.
There were more people whom I have met in Leyte those first few days after Typhoon Yolanda. I could go on and on about the stories they told me. A grandmother and her five year old granddaughter who walked for hours to find food and water for their family. The little boy who lined up for four hours outside Tacloban’s City’s Legislative Hall and only received a few pieces of bread, two small bottles of water, a cup of instant noodles and two packs of coffee. Five-year-old Janelle who lives in an evacuation center, misses her home and wants to go back to school. The mother who could not hold on to her son during the storm surge and has yet to find him. The grandmother from MacArthur, Leyte who took a ride to Dulag town with us and made us laugh with her stories. Other people I met when I walked down the streets, the same people one columnist so callously described as walking like “zombies”, who still managed to smile, greet me “Kumusta?’(How are you?”) or prod me and my camera with “Ate, picture!”
Many people told me it was a pity I did not see how beautiful the province was before Yolanda. I believe I saw that beauty through every person I have met there. I feel honored to have met them and I hope I am telling their stories well.
Back in Manila a friend asked me what was the most horrible thing I saw while I was in Leyte after Yolanda. After thinking the question over I believe it was not the bloated bodies on the streets. It was not even the sight of entire villages totally wiped out. It was actually the amount of food; the sacks of rice; the boxes upon boxes of bottled water; the mountains of relief goods in the ports, at the airport and in government houses we visited. Seeing those (hardly being moved by government people and relief agencies) and knowing that so many people were still desperately hungry; seeing those and remembering the children who only had a piece of sweet potato once a day because their parents do not know where to get more food. To me, those were beyond horrible. It was President Benigno Aquino III himself, on national television the night before Yolanda struck, who promised the relief goods were “prepositioned” and were ready for distribution. Then I met Marie Grace, Diday, the two sisters and many others, still struggling, still hungry, still waiting for their government to help days after the disaster began.