Stories left untold from Tacloban

Stories left untold from Tacloban

On an ordinary day, it would have been a short, relaxing flight. Four hours from Singapore to scenic Cebu in the Philippines, and another hour from Cebu to Tacloban, a city in historic Leyte province.

This was no ordinary day, however. I was arriving five days after Haiyan - history's most powerful typhoon - had pummelled Tacloban on Nov 8, levelling it and sending it back to the Stone Age.

Nearly all the city's 220,000 residents lost their homes. Over 5,000 people lost their lives, though the exact toll may never be known. Most of the dead remain nameless corpses buried in body bags in unmarked mass graves.

I flew to Cebu with my ST colleague, photojournalist Kevin Lim, and we secured a commercial flight to Tacloban the following day.

We spent the next four days as witnesses to a tragedy too immense to put into words or capture on camera. It was haunting. It was heartbreaking.

Just minutes after we stepped out of Tacloban's airport, I was ready to get on the very next plane leaving. I suddenly understood why everyone else was trying to get out. There was something discomforting about the place, like hope had gone on sick leave and would not be back for a very long time. It rained heavily that day.

Death everywhere

But we stayed, to compile a catalogue of desperation and loss.

There were stories of courage, survival and tearful reunions, but the overall narrative was blighted by the putrid smell of rotting corpses that wafted everywhere.

The stench of death was a constant presence. It hit us as soon as we left the airport, and accompanied us everywhere. It was impossible to ignore.

Each day, as rescue workers dug through a landscape of tangled steel, wood, concrete, earth and vegetation, body bags would pile up along a highway leading out of the airport.

At one bus stop, we saw the remains of a woman wrapped in a blanket. The driver of our pedicab (a bicycle with a carriage for two passengers) told us the body had been there for five days.

Kevin pointed out a dark, wet stain on the blanket. It meant maggots were already at work.

People were still dying even as we prepared to leave Tacloban at the end of our brief assignment. While waiting for our plane, I overheard an Australian rescue worker asking for a van to take one of his group's patients back to Tacloban.

They had wanted to airlift her to Cebu for surgery. "She didn't make it," he said.

Death did not discriminate. Many of the dying and the dead were children, some only days old.

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