NEW BATAAN, Compostela Valley (MindaNews/28 December) –They finally buried the dead three weeks after super typhoon Pablo hit this town on December 4, but only temporarily.
At the public cemetery in Purok 4, Barangay Cabinuangan on Thursday afternoon, the caskets had been placed in individual niches and the body bags in compartments, but the tombs had not been sealed.
Cemetery caretaker Faustino Tawaay said workers were not able to seal the tombs because they ran out of hollow blocks.
A total of 324 bodies were reported buried here between December 21 and 26.
But even if the hollow blocks were delivered and the workers sealed the tombs by Friday, these will remain temporary until the National Bureau of Investigation’s Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) teams return on January 4 to exhume the remains and take their DNA samplings.
Assistant Health Secretary Romulo Busuego told MindaNews he could not understand why the NBI took a break from getting DNA samples from the victims’ remains. Busuego came here Wednesday afternoon with regional health director Abdullah Dumama and provincial health officer Renato Basanez to ensure that the bodies, already in an advanced state of decomposition, were buried.
Fr. Edgar Tuling, parish priest of the San Antonio de Padua church, also wondered by the NBI left. He said he thought the NBI teams would return immediately after Christmas.
Municipal sanitary inspector Bernardita Pebujot said the NBI is coming back on January 4.
In last year’s Typhoon Sendong disaster, the NBI’s DVI teams worked continuously to get DNA samplings from an even bigger number — some 1,200 victims in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan – before the bodies were buried.
384 buried; 426 bodies “found”
Pebujot told MindaNews a total of 324 bodies of unidentified victims were buried in the public cemetery between December 21 and 26: 55 on December 21; 46 on the 22nd and 223 on the 26th. Sixty others were earlier claimed and buried by their relatives, placing the total number of buried victims at 384 as of December 26.
Of the 324 bodies, the NBI’s DVI managed to process only 55, Pebujot said. The remaining 269 victims await exhumation for DNA sampling before their tombs are finally sealed.
The white board at the Incident Command Center here listed 426 as the “number of casualties (dead) found” as of 1:26 p.m. of December 27, up by five more from 421 on December 23, as the clean-up operations in the town continue to unearth more bodies.
Marlon Esperanza, municipal information officer, acknowledges that the figures don’t tally.
If a total of 426 bodies were found, as the Command Center’s listing shows, and a total of 384 had been buried, where are the remaining 42 bodies?
Esperanza told MindaNews on Thursday afternoon that they are still validating the list. But he noted that some relatives apparently claimed to have identified their loved ones from among the remains even if they did not, so that death certificates could be issued. Death certificates are required to avail of government’s financial assistance or claim insurance benefits.
Pebujot said they buried the 55 victims already processed by the NBI on December 21, tried to bury the 46 on December 22 but fled the cemetery without sealing the tombs because “dako na ang sapa” (the waters in the new river were fast rising).
Since the super typhoon, the cemetery has been isolated, the road leading to it destroyed by the flashfloods or debris flow of rocks and boulders that carved a hundred meter-wide river course that cut across the road and swept away houses, banana plants and cornfields and portions of the cemetery.
Busuego’s team was not able to cross to the cemetery but from across the river at around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Dumama was informed by phone by the provincial sanitary inspector from the side of the cemetery that 119 bodies had been buried that day – 103 adults and 16 children – and that weather-permitting, they would be able to bury about a hundred more.
In the evening, Pebujot said a total of 223 bodies were buried and that there were no remaining bodies lying on the cemetery grounds anymore.
She said government workers constructed 108 individual niches and 12 compartments at 30 each that could accommodate a total of 468.
Esperanza explained they tried to bury the dead the following week but the intended graves that took two days to dig for the supposed mass burial on December 12, were not approved by the NBI.
He said the NBI told them to construct individual niches and compartments.
Esperanza said the bodies were initially laid down on the tennis court fronting the command center, the same site where now lie a hundred donated white caskets that arrived on December 22.
Pebujot said they could not use the caskets anymore because the waterlogged bodies wouldn’t fit and the decomposed remains were better off inside body bags.
As more bodies turned up, Esperanza said the NBI asked for a holding area, which was later identified to be the DA nursery. But Esperanza said the NBI asked for another holding area, so they moved the dead to the cemetery, to await DNA sampling and burial.
He said the NBI asked the town to provide them gloves, face masks and disinfectants but later informed them they would return “January 4 or 15.”
Looking for the missing
Esperanza said entire families were killed but they have yet to determine exactly how many. In Barangay Andap, barangay officials particularly at the purok level, had been asked to list down the missing in their areas. The Command Center lists 419 missing as of December 26.
Pebujot recalled that as soon as bodies were retrieved, they would immediately announce so that relatives of the missing could come to identify their loved ones. But as the days passed, fewer people would come to open the body bags.
She said she understands the situation not only because the stench of decayed flesh is unbearable but also because relatives complain they can’t identify their kin, anyway, from among the decomposing remains. Also, she added, time spent trying to identify a missing loved one from among the body bags, would be time spent away from ensuring the remaining members of the family can eat three meals a day.
Identifying the victims include checking on the thumbmarks, dental records and DNA sampling but getting the thumbmarks is no longer possible given the state of decomposition and only a few have dental records so the only option left is through DNA matching.
Emily Mulit, who lost 15 relatives in the hardest hit village of Andap, among them her mother-in-law, said her husband had tried to identify their loved ones from among the decomposing remains in body bags, but failed.
Mulit said those who had death certificates already received assistance from the government. She said their relatives remain listed under “missing” even if they were seen to have been swept away by the floods.
Esperanza said survivors whose loved ones have remained missing have repeatedly asked them when the NBI would take their DNA samplings.
He said the NBI has yet to finish taking samplings from the victims before samplings are taken from the surviving relatives. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)