LETTERS TO TACLOBAN
The story of a trip turned letter delivery mission
By Claudio Accheri
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The boat creaks as it cuts across the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s almost midnight, the TV hums in the background and water drips through the door onto a floor covered in rust.
I’m crossing the strait between Matnog and Allen, and in my backpack there are ten brown envelopes. Inside each of them, there is a picture and a handwritten letter.
They come from a Dominican convent in Calabanga, a small town in the Camarines Sur region, where a group of children from Tacloban took shelter after the disaster.
Written on these little envelopes, are the names of their mothers, their fathers, brothers and sisters.
The names of the ones who survived the fury of Haiyan.
I don’t know who they are, I don’t know where they are, but here I am.
Heading to Tacloban, three months after the typhoon, on a road trip that has become a letter delivery mission.
Manila reveals itself as a paradise for photographers, as almost every second person stops to ask you for a picture.
It takes just one day to fully realise it: Filipino people just love being photographed.
Jeepneys and trains whiz by in a city inhabited by almost 12 million citizens in the metropolitan area.
It is there that I meet Valerie Buenaventura, a Lecturer of the Department of Political Science and a researcher in Humanitarian Aid For disasters at the University of Manila.
After a disaster, “everything starts with the immediate emergency response and then you move towards rehabilitation and then reconstruction. Right now I think we have entered reconstruction” Buenaventura says, “so they are building temporary shelters or bunkhouses”.
However, the reconstruction plan designed by the government presents its limits.
The management of the waste generated by the typhoon (spilt oil, debris, garbage) as well as the waste which will be produced after the dismantling of the temporary shelters are “the topics the government gave less attention to” Buenaventura says.
However, primary issues, such as the size of the bunkhouses and the management of the trauma for the population are another source of concern.
“The point is that you have temporary shelters that are very small, that are below international standards”, Buenaventura says, “how do you ensure that no further trauma is induced by the actual response to these things?”
To find out more I decide to undertake a bus trip south, towards Tacloban, but the first leg of my trip is in Camarines Sur, where a few nuns host a group of children who survived the disaster.
After 12 hours on a bus that resembles a freezer on four wheels, I reach my first destination. It is 5 a.m. in Calabanga, a little town 400 kilometers south of Manila, and the only people around the bus stop are the bicycle-sidecar drivers.
One of them, a 12-year-old child, offers me a lift to the convent.
The sun rises while he drives next to a malodorous river where children and adults are bathing.
When I reach the convent, I finally meet Sister Margherita dalla Benetta, the director of the Dominican school where I will spend the next few days.
“Our religious community started working in Calabanga in 1992" she says, “our main apostolate is the school, but we also run projects to help the poorest”.
When the typhoon hit Tacloban, the sisters decided to take action and gave shelter to 15 children who survived the disaster.
As dalla Benetta explains, the schools in Tacloban are so damaged that the students attend their classes in tents, but due to the unstable weather, they can attend just one or two lessons a week.
In Calabanga, “they can graduate, they can attend regular classes, they can benefit from the care of the sisters, and after, they will be back with their families” dalla Benetta says.
When I meet the children, I discover that almost every one of them speaks English pretty well. Their ages range from 5 to 17 years old, and I’m even more surprised when the eldest among them spontaneously tells me their stories.
“They did not say in the news that a storm surge was coming” says 15-year-old Lily. She was home when the surge hit. Her house was swept away and her family survived by climbing onto a refrigerator.
While a few of them faced the typhoon at home, the majority of the children wound up in the schools, where the situation wasn’t much better.
“There were many babies in the place where we were” says Trixia, a 13-year-old girl who had to stack dozens of cribs in order keep the babies away from the water.
“Most of the rooms in the school were full, and in every room somebody died” says 17-year-old Marilou, before shedding tears when she tells me that among the corpses were many babies. “Then, when the water subsided, everyone started checking for missing family members […] but they were not able to find them because so many people had died. Their bodies were covered with mud, their mouths were foaming, their eyes were bulging and their legs were bloated.”
“I am lucky because I survived”, says John-John, a 13-year-old boy who, as most of the children, had lost a family member. His sister and her 1-year-old son died. “She was holding onto her husband, but they were hit by a tree trunk and they lost each other” John-John says.
I spend most of my days in the convent with the children, listening to their painful stories or simply playing soccer and chatting. But for most of the time, I can’t stop wondering how they cope. How they sleep at night after what they saw.
“With the children, we found several psychological traumas”, says Neth Penetrante, the director of the ‘Children and Youth Wellness Technical Advocacy Center’ in Legazpi. However, according to the doctor “10 to 20% only [sic] displayed strong psychological disturbances”.
For Dr. Penetrante, the most affected victims are the adults who “are burdened with the responsibility to cope earlier, the faster and the better because they have to take care of their families”.
After speaking with doctor Penetrante, I realise that the children are just one side of this story. Hundreds of kilometers away, there are several families waiting for their children, mourning their relatives, dealing with the slow reconstruction process and the lack of basic infrastructure.
That day I decide to take photos of the kids to print out and give to their families.
These pictures would become the first photos of their children after Haiyan washed out their homes and their memories.
Before leaving the convent, the children ask if I could also carry their handwritten letters to their families.
It is from that moment on that my trip becomes a delivery mission.
After hours on a bus and about 50 km on a terrifying motorbike-sidecar driven on the opposite side of the road, I finally get on the boat to Allen, a little town where I find a crappy hotel to spend the night.
The morning after, my backpack is covered with bugs, which scatter after a couple of kicks, and at 6 o’clock I jump on the first of three mini-vans which will bring me to my destination.
When I finally cross the bridge to Tacloban, downtown almost looks rebuilt, but 5 minutes on a jeepney is enough to understand that the city is still in terrible condition.
In the Rawis and Anibong Bay districts, where 8 boats were washed ashore by the typhoon and killed hundreds of people, the smell is terrible and dead bodies are still being found under the rubble.
The lack of proper housing forced some of the survivors to look for shelter inside the same boats which brought destruction and death just a few months before.
On the outskirts, far away from the city centre, and disjointed from the rest of the area, I visit the infamous bunkhouses.
The rooms of these ‘temporary shelters’ are so small that it would be hard to fit three people inside. It becomes hard to believe that an average Filipino family can live in there.
“The bunkhouses are not fit for habitation”, says Antonio G. Cinco, officer in charge of Leyte council. “During the 13 days of rain in January, we inspected the bunkhouses and in many of these the water was dripping through the roof […] They are small, they cannot accommodate a regular Filipino family”.
According to the statistics, an average family in Leyte is composed of 4.5 members, but real life is not made of statistics. In the poorer suburbs of Tacloban, most families have 6–8 family members, and despite being used to living in small spaces, 8 people confined to a 9 meter squared room, is still quite overwhelming.
The concern for the small amount of space given to the victims is not the only issue. “What if […] a typhoon blows over? I know that lives will still be in danger”, Cinco says.
When I finally reach the Fisherman’s village I quickly become a novelty for dozens of children who guide me to the families I’m looking for.
It is there that I finally find the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of the children.
There, they still live in shacks half submerged by water, surrounded by mosquitoes, without electricity and basic services.
When they open the envelopes, they smile, some of them laugh while crying.
Some can’t read and have to ask their friends for help.
I cannot understand what they’re saying, but it is in that moment, in the corners of this God-forsaken world, that I have for the first time, a glimpse, a faded feeling of what ‘pag asa’, the Filipino word for ‘hope’, means. Something intangible that pushes them through the desperation and the loss of their beloved. Something that helps them smile, even though they’ve lost everything.
My delivery mission is accomplished.
A few days later, I leave the Philippines, and I can’t stop thinking about those people, and if you ask, I still wonder what those families are doing now.
When I started this trip, I thought I was going to find stories of desperation and destruction, what I found instead were stories of resilience and hope.
Stories that showed me, that in Tacloban, there were two kinds of victims.
The ones who lost their lives on November 8th, and the ones who kept surviving. Fighting against diseases, against unemployment, against the invisible shadow of corruption.
Stories about the ones who still have hope.
The ones who still have ‘pag asa’, no matter what.
This story was written by Claudio Accheri.
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