Very tired but very fulfilled… 22 days after Sendong

(Note: This was written by Ayi on Sunday, 8 January 2011)

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/10 January) – I cannot remember when was the last time I felt so tired that I had to exert too much effort to stand up from bed. I woke up later than usual, violating my New Year’s resolution of waking up before sunrise. I realized that the combined heat of the sun and the weight of the boxes we carried yesterday was just too much that I lay flat on the bed that night and had a very hard time convincing myself not to violate my promise to myself.

Yesterday, the whole Balay Mindanaw community joined hands with the Disaster Aid Response Team, set up the first 40 tents in coordination with the Archdiocese, DSWD, the local school that generously offered their vacant space, the barangay government and the office of the Congressman. It was our first time to set up a tent of an international standard that can accommodate a family of 8-10 persons.

The positive energy was very contagious. For instance, loading and unloading the family survival kits that weigh 63kg each appeared easy to do. The process of setting up the tents was a joyful experience for everyone, particularly the first-timers. But as the sun rose with its scorching heat, reality set in, and tested our resolve. After all, we were mostly wearing T-shirts as no one thought of bringing their long-sleeved shirts nor their sunblocks. My two daughters were joking that I have to buy them whiteners after being exposed to the sun for at least four hours, gamely showing their arms turning red while their skin under the sleeves remained light.

It took us six hours to fully complete the installation, which include divisions for the children. Everyone was happy with his accomplishment. On a side comment, Ed Cox told me he has been all around disaster areas but he never worked with a group whose members are so obviously happy even though their skin got burned by the sun. From a distance, Kaloy was happily observing us and leading the discussion with the barangay government, the school teachers, and the social action center of the Parish. Last night he texted everyone: “Congratulations to the Balay Mindanaw tent building team! You did great today! Padayon…. Not just peace builders but also tent builders … what a great evolution! Congrats! Padayon!” The other day with KPMFI he said he had never been as proud of Balay Mindanaw, then he tried hard to hold back his tears, but failed…. and we couldn’t help but also get teary eyed and feel proud of him as our mentor and leader.

At 5:30 p.m. the families started arriving in the tent site. The physical tiredness disappeared immediately, we were again in our high energies as families slowly descended from the trucks. Msgr. Tex Legtimas decided to hold the Holy Mass outside but as we were setting up, it started to rain. So we had to move to the chapel. In an unusual manner, he declared a general absolution to everyone who took communion. As a closing program, the families turned on the solar bulbs as a symbol of hope as Msgr. Tex blessed them and prayed upon them.

The big challenge ahead

When the Social Action workers were calling the names of the head of the families, the real life stories began to come. I had goose bumps listening to them. For example, there was a woman who still has a blank stare; she was disturbingly silent all throughout. I didn’t have the courage to look at her eyes after I learned she lost five of her seven children. Belle related she met a couple who survived the flood. They both lost consciousness as they hang on to the roof. They were later rescued by fishermen in Camiguin, 41 nautical miles from Cagayan de Oro. The sad part, they lost their two children.

Knowing their stories makes me more worried about how we can fast-track and make our psychosocial intervention in place and focus the assistance to the families who survived but lost their loved ones, just like the two cases I came across. Another story was of the mother who was swept from Cala-cala to the shores of Opol. She had four broken ribs, bruises and wounds all over her body. When she recovered consciousness, she noticed a child with a very weak voice asking for help. Even though she was in a very difficult situation, she forced herself to get near the girl and pulled the little one towards her. She heard the girl’s three deep breaths and thought those were her last. When the light of dawn came out, she slowly lifted the girl’s face, only to find out it was her five-year-old daughter. They were later picked up by a large fishing vessel in the area. While she was happy to have saved her daughter, she is still hoping her 11-year-old boy is still alive. Until now the father is still blaming himself on what happened to his boy because he saw him got lost in the strong current of the flood.

The three cases can easily be multiplied to 100 if we have to take the case of Sitio Cala-cala in the barangay where I lived. The most devastated I suppose, the sitio used to have 250 households. After the flood, only three houses remained standing, including the house with a red roof house, whose owner I met yesterday.

If the city has a thousand dead and another thousand missing, the task to provide psychosocial intervention is a heavy journey ahead. We cannot afford to hear another suicide story in the cramped evacuation camps, like what happened three days ago that caught the whole city in shock. Without immediate psychosocial intervention, we will be experiencing another shock in the days to come.

Declogging the existing camps and settling the flood survivors into a place where fresh air, including basic necessities, is available would be of great help in breaking the atmosphere of despair and difficulty. The longer the delay the higher the potential for people in the camp to lose hope and be buried in the feeling of despair and will resort to suicide or other violent options for themselves or toward others.

Post Sendong Relief and Rehab Fund

While we fully appreciate the help of international and national based agencies coming over to initially help us, experience would prove that most of these organizations won’t stay long to take on the most tedious job of rebuilding the lives of the survivors. The long term and the most unseen work of rebuilding their confidence – through psychosocial intervention and making available livelihood and enterprise projects so they would have something to look forward to, with hope and more possibilities after a painful loss of lives and properties – is usually forgotten if not given enough focus.

These two critical points, including the preparation for another Sendong or maybe something even more devastating, will be more than just appeal for emotions. In the long run, these will be the most logical steps, the most relevant help we can provide the flood survivors. But these will be the most difficult. Personalities and organizations used to providing relief goods and announcing to the whole world – using tarpaulins, signages and other means – what they have done to the flood survivors may no longer be around for this next phase.

Just like what happened with Ondoy, it might be logical proposition to set up a Post Sendong Relief and Rehab Development Fund. With this, persons and institutions who are helping out in this difficult stage will get to see that their help will not only alleviate the painful situation of the survivors, but will rebuild the families through systematic assistance in terms of pyschosocial intervention, and providing options for income generation to get them out from the possible trap of becoming mendicants and beggars, apart from becoming mentally disturbed individuals. I deliberately took out the discussion of permanent housing because that again would have a lot of donors who can advertise their help in the structures that will be built. But when you invest in something strategic, it’s basically unseen and the results take longer to be noticed. It is thus more difficult to attract significant number of supporters.

Difficult as it may seem, the real persons and institutions who are not after “pogi points” will consider this proposal a viable one and will continue to throw support in maybe anonymous ways but deeply meaningful contribution. This fund should be managed and governed by local personalities with highest credibility and integrity, and those who have shown leadership during the crisis and are deeply committed to pursue the most tedious path to recovery and development, because they own the problem and they want to be part of the solution, however tedious, however difficult….

Notes on the kids’ thinking and emotions

After the Mass and the families were settled in their new temporary shelters, Ate Gabbi complained with passion why a lot of institutions and persons were acknowledged even if they were not there when the tents were set up. I calmly explained to her that they have done their part of preparing the land and other things and our part was to set up the tents. Even then she couldn’t agree with the acknowledgment. I just told her how proud I was watching her burn her skin in helping out. Sammi was so tired that when the Mass was about to start, she already fell asleep beside me even though I earlier advised her to sleep in the car. Later when we went home, she found time to post an FB message saying “Just set up 40 tents in Indahag. An experience that can never be forgotten.” Kuya Danni went the following day and he too had his experience of helping set up another 35 tents, which will be occupied today. He is not verbally expressive with his emotions, but you can readily see the happiness in his face. He was the youngest in the group that continued the work of setting up the tents. Whatever their complaints, I’m sure they have something to feel happy because they have contributed to make the lives of the survivors definitely much better compared to the too cramped evacuation camps.

Year of Service (YOS) annual homecoming

Before going home, we passed by the Archbishop’s House to attend the yearly homecoming hosted by the founder of the Year of Service Program, the Archbishop himself, Antonio Ledesma, SJ. As a father/founder of the 21-year-old volunteer program, he was just there, sitting with the families and friends of YOS volunteers, attentively smiling and even sharing a joke with us. It has been my commitment to attend the gathering not only because I’m one of the oldest – I was part of the first batch – but because it feels good to touch base, even just once a year, with a community that has a very strong shared value of volunteerism, devoting their professional life to the poorest and far flung areas of Mindanaw for a year. But many of us choose to live a life based on that experience.

On our way down to go home, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw kids running and shouting all over the house of the Archbishop. Sounds like a pre-school environment, but it’s an Archbishop’s house. But it doesn’t matter, after all, they are all his “grandchildren,” being the children of the YOS volunteers who look up at the Archbishop as their father figure.

[Ariel “Ayi” C. Hernandez is executive director of the Katilingbanong Pamahandi sa
Mindanaw Foundation, Inc., one of the NGOs under the umbrella of the Balay Mindanaw Group. He once served in the House of Representatives under the partylist group Anak Mindanao.]