DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 Dec) — Kagawad Boy Polinar, his wife and I were surveying what used to be three blocks of houses in Purok 4, Barangay Poblacion, New Bataan in Compostela Valley that drizzly morning eighteen days after these got buried under mud and rocks and timber. Five boys, ages seven to ten, quietly came up to us and aimlessly loitered about. I registered their need to be near adults.
The village official said there were a lot of children in the evacuation camp.
“Seventy-three,” volunteered one of the boys. Kids hear and see a lot. They’re welcome in places adults and outsiders are not. It’s worth listening to them when official communication is hard to come by.
The drizzle turned heavier and we followed the boys to shelter beside a ruined shack. At close quarters, I was now able to see the ravages of the storm on the bodies of the little ones.
Cupping 7-year-old Lowiemar’s face in my hands, I gently asked him, “Nasugatan ka sa baha, ‘nak?”
Haunted eyes looked up to me. He nodded. “Sa bato. Madaming bato,” he replied.
“Masakit pa?” I asked.
“Hindi na. Muntik na ako mamatay.”
“Ako rin, ‘te,” piped up irrepressible 10-year-old Carlo Miguel, grabbing my attention. “Muntik rin kami mamatay.”
He hiked up his pants to show me an ugly superficial wound running the length of his tibia. His friends did the same, showing me a nape and the length of their backs.
“Naanod mi. Duha namong kauban namatay. Grabe ang baha, ‘te, murag gapilo-pilo ang lutak! Tapos, daghan – dagko ang bato, ang kahoy!”
Carlo Miguel was speaking in excited bursts. Their companions nodded vigorously at everything he said. Lowiemar was quiet, sad eyes downcast, his hands listlessly worrying the spool of the VHS tape they had salvaged from the ruins, turning it around and around. The other boys told me that they were now housed in the evacuation center. I noted that they had clean clothes and that their wounds had been seen to.
The rain had stopped. My heart about to burst, I asked the boys where they lived before the flood came. The boys led me away from Kagawad Boy and his wife. I noted they walked with ease, albeit with much nervous energy. They brought me back where the spread of rocks started.
“This wasn’t a river before. The river was over there,” Carlo Miguel helpfully pointed me to a blue building about half a kilometer away on the left. It was a chapel, he said, where the outstretch arms on the statue of the Blessed Virgin had seemingly warded the deadly flow away.
“She lost her hands, but she kept the mudflow from coming any further and hurting the people,” they helpfully told me.
I leapt across a narrow stream to get a better view. The boys followed along, each one trying to outdo the other at leaping farther and landing like a cat on his feet. I walked up a big coconut trunk that was held down on both sides by a pile of rubble. It was lodged so fast and true, it made for a steady bridge across the rocks strewn on the ground. I tried not to think about what lay buried under those rocks. The boys trailed after me.
Balance and coordination okay. A lot of laughter, but no jostling. And no fear of the rocks and tree trunks. They nervously chattered about how the debris flow had hit at them with terrifying force during the storm, how they tried to avoid the worst of it.
(I remember doing a walk-through of the disaster site hereabouts with another 7-year-old boy two days after he had lost his 9-year-old sister at a crossfire in the summer of 2006. That boy had turned mute until I came).
Lowiemar quietly said, “I was buried in mud. Only my head was showing.”
Lump in my throat, I asked, “What did you do? Did you shout for help?”
He shook his head. “I just waved my hands about. My uncle fished me out.”
The boys laughed and simulated frantically waving their hands about. “You must have shouted,” said one. “I would. I’d shout, ‘Tabang! Tabang!’”
Lowiemar’s face broke into a sad attempt at a smile. The clinician in me filed that check mark away. The boy was trying to connect, to accommodate, to cooperate.
“No school?” I asked, changing the subject. “What do you guys do all day?”
“We’d love to play, but only one ring is left in the basketball court. And we don’t have a ball,” they volunteered.
“Hmm. Are you sure you know how to play basketball?” I asked.
They immediately picked up coconuts lying around and showed me how to shoot. One of them even instructed me how not to shoot like a girl. After much tossing around, they came up to me again, hitching up their shorts.
“Wala kami brief, ‘te,” they candidly explained, inviting me to merrily laugh with them.
Carlo Miguel said, “I’d really rather play football, ‘te.”
I remember former Philippine Sports Commissioner Butch Ramirez’ inquiry about tying up with COPERS at the psychosocial rehab of child survivors. I called him to ask if he would come down with me to New Bataan on the 27th to play ball with the kids. Hearing my end of conversation, Carlo Miguel tugged my hand to ask in a conspiratorial whisper, “Pila premyo sa manalo, ‘te?”
“Hmmm. Let me think about it, basta naa. How about a basketball?” I asked.
Hearing that, the boys excitedly ran around, launching their VHS spools like mini Frisbees across the rocks.
I stayed balanced atop the fallen coconut trunk, recording their precious free play on my cellphone videocam. I needed the distance to stop myself from crying.
(Gail Tan Ilagan, PhD, Director of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University, writes the column, “Wayward and Fanciful” for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews)