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.

Tragic mistakes

For some survivors, Haiyan will forever remind them of the snap decisions they were forced to make, and the tragic consequences of wrong choices.

Mr Walter Valdez, a waiter, took his family to his mother-in-law's house the night before Haiyan hit, thinking they would be safer in her concrete house than in his hut hugging the coastline.

When the sea inundated Tacloban, the house became a deathtrap.

Mr Valdez saw his brother- in-law push two of his children out one window as the water rose rapidly to the ceiling, and they were swept away like rag dolls.

That was the last thing he saw before he himself had to fight for his life. He remembered the strong current tossing him with the density and force of wet cement as he walked out the door.

"In just five minutes, the water was as high as the electric cables. I wanted to go back inside the house, but I was already being swept away," he said.

He grabbed at a coconut tree, only to lose his grip. He hit a second tree and tried to hold on to that, but slipped again. When the third tree came along, he wrapped his arms and legs around the trunk and held on for his life.

For two hours, as 300kmh winds and raindrops as sharp as needles hit him, he clung to that tree.

Afterwards, he found his wife and youngest child, just three years old, locked in a tight embrace in his mother-in-law's house. They were dead.

His two other children were listed as missing, but he had given up hope of finding them alive.

When I interviewed him, Mr Valdez was still wearing the clothes he had on the night Haiyan struck. He showed me the bruises on his arms and legs, and where his skin had been scraped away as he clung to the tree that saved his life.

His only possessions were two bags of relief goods.

His plan was to make his way to Manila, but all he had was the name and address of a friend he had not seen for years. He looked so defeated I was moved to hand him 1,000 pesos (S$33).

"I am back to zero. I have nothing," he said.

Many countries and international relief agencies rallied to Tacloban's aid in the days after the typhoon.

But many survivors, taking shelter in schools and hospitals filled to the brim with evacuees, were reduced to rummaging through filthy debris for sustenance - even though there was food and water.

The head of the emergency relief team from the World Food Programme told me his group already had five warehouses filled with sacks of rice from donors abroad.

At one building inside Tacloban's city hall complex, boxes of bottled water were piled so high they blocked a cavernous hallway.

But not a single box was distributed in the two days I was there. It appeared that no one was taking on the responsibility of distributing the supplies to those who needed them most.

A few paces away, in a lean-to wedged against the building, was the family of Mr Samuel Bacalla, a fishmonger.

His family had received only one ration of rice, two containers of water and some canned sardines the day after Haiyan struck, he said.

The relief supplies had dried up after that, he said, and it was unclear where he was supposed to get his next ration. So he'd make his way each day to a place that used to be a market and dig through the rubble. A good day was when he stumbled upon a pack of instant noodles or a can of pork and beans.

Seeking a happy ending

Sunny Tacloban had turned into a dark place.

By day, there wasn't much that people could do except wait for their next ration. By night, they huddled together and sought safety in numbers.

I had been to Tacloban once before, in the 1990s. It was not as bustling as Metro Manila. Back then, it was idyllic in a provincial way.

There were no tall buildings or gated communities with imposing mansions, but there were signs of commerce and decent housing everywhere. There were several hotels, resorts and shophouses, and it had most of the trappings of modern life: a fairly large shopping mall, cinemas, parks, marketplaces.

The city was the main gateway to Eastern Visayas, one of the main regions in the Philippines, and it was part of a chain of key hubs in the Visayas for people and cargo travelling by land from Luzon to Mindanao.

Now, Tacloban lies in ruins.

Yet, a day after we left Tacloban on Nov 17, there were signs that the process of rebuilding had already begun.

Taps were again running in some places. A grocery store had reopened for business, the first sign of commerce and self-reliance. Some people were gathering wood and nails from the mountains of debris to cobble together simple houses that they could again call home.

The people in Tacloban even seemed to have regained their sense of humour. Some posted a photo on Facebook of a wooden sign a typhoon survivor had put up asking donors not just for food and water, but also for a car and a swimming pool.

Since leaving Tacloban, I have often wondered what my fate would have been if I had been living there when Haiyan struck.

Like many others, I probably would have made some preparations. But I would likely also have been nonchalant about the multiple storm warnings - and ended up paying for it with my life.

And had I survived, I'm not sure I would have been able to summon up the courage displayed by Mr Valdez and so many others moving on from so much tragedy and loss.

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