DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/31 March)—Maundy Thursday was a good day to follow up on the post-disaster recovery of some of the communities that we served for emergency psychosocial support in the three months after Typhoon Pablo hit. Fresh off the ferry from Samal where I did a three-day seminar workshop at capacitating the heads of offices of the Polomolok LGU [in South Cotabato] for psychosocial support in times of community disaster, I joined a MindaNews team headed for New Bataan.
We stopped at Purok 4 at the Poblacion where two days after Christmas, COPERS affiliates from Xavier University and the Ateneo Grade School Unit guidance offices worked with about a hundred children. Three months later, many among the families that had been accommodated at the Tribal Center had relocated to bunkhouses and tent cities. Among those that remained was the family of 9-year-old Junar, one of the bagyo boys I met just before Christmas.
Hearing me ask at the purok chairman’s stoop where I could find his friend Louiemar, Junar jumped over the low wall and came over. I was told that Louiemar’s father had built a house down the road and that the family had moved in last week. Junar volunteered to bring us there.
We got off at the road’s end and trudged the rest of the way, skirting past the boulders and felled trees where I had first met the boys. Junar kept up a steady chatter about Louimar’s house and how they would still play among the rocks in the afternoon. He told me that the basketball ring was up again so sometimes they would take the basketball we gave them to play at the court. More often than not though, the older boys would come out to play also and soon they would just leave them at it.
“Where do you go? What do you play with?” I asked.
Junar pointed to a trophy glinting on the sand up ahead. It was resting against something that resembled a box. At first glance, it looked like some manner of debris left by the flood. On closer inspection, I saw that the makeshift structure was a miniature house, with the pillars of the trophy serving as the entryway. Twigs and scrap lumber held up patches of plywood and woven bamboo strips that made up the outer walls and the roof. Lifting off the roof, I found the floor of the toy house taken up by what used to be a cushioned backing of a bike’s extension seat. There it was; pink floral patterned upholstery laid flat on the ground, about the size of a place mat.
“That’s the bed,” said Junar.
“How long did it take you to build that?” I asked.
“Not very long,” he replied.
“Where did you find the parts?” I persisted.
“Just around here,” he gestured.
“When did you build this?” I asked.
“Some days ago,” he smiled as he bent down to fix the twig that anchored the roof in place.
At Louiemar’s house, his grandmother and aunt told us that the little boy had gone to play at the computer shop and that he usually does this when someone gives him money. They volunteered that the young boy is sometimes impatient and ends up running out of the house when he does not get what he wants.
“He wasn’t like that before the storm. He has changed,” said the aunt. “Like when he says he wants to eat uyap (fermented shrimps) and it’s not yet ready. He runs out. But after a while, he comes home. Sometimes, he won’t come in because he says he is scared his father would still be angry. We just try to reassure him. Then everything would be all right.”
“Well,” I said, “that sounds like a 7-year-old. It’s good that you let him say how he feels and that he can recognize where his anxiety is coming from. Just talk calmly to him when he is in that state. Don’t shout at him. Lots of angga-angga (soothing), but also remind him that he has to wait.”
“Here, his uncle sometimes yells at him when he is like that.”
From the corner of the room where the uncle and grandfather were listening in to the women talking, the uncle ruefully smiled.
He was the one who had fished out Louiemar from the mud where the young boy had been buried up to his neck for over eight hours. He did not give up looking until he found the little one.
“Why does he run?” asked Carol.
“Because he feels overwhelmed by frustration,” I said. He wants something and he’s not getting it immediately.
The impulse to flight is a normal human reaction to negative emotions. Seven-year-olds have yet to perfect emotion regulation. A meltdown now doesn’t have to be because of one’s stormy experience. It could be because of wanting uyap and not getting it.
I left the Alcano household hopeful about certain things. In that little house, the young survivor was surrounded by an intergenerational extended family that cared about his taste for Nestle Bear Brand choco milk, slices of loaf bread, and the occasional uyap with his steamed rice. Louiemar was free to venture out and negotiate what remains of his post-disaster world, making decisions where to spend his coins. And at the end of the day, he had somewhere to come home to.
The friends he had before the storm were still the friends he’d go with to conquer the boulders, root among the debris, and construct toy houses that stand untouched out there in the open as testament to the creative energies they had collectively devoted to the project. They could abandon casting old VHS spools like Frisbee when they tired of the game and find something else to keep them busy in their playground.
The powers-that-be in New Bataan argue for and against no-habitation zones while people in evacuation camps suffer through the insecurity of not knowing where they would end up. I found that it takes away a bit of the survivors’ distress to work at bringing back a semblance of things as they were before the storm. A grant of roofing materials was enough for the Alcano family to pool their resources together, build a house in their old neighborhood, and move out of the evacuation center. The house may be in the path of future disasters, but it is where on a run of sunny days, a 7-year-old and his friends could build a toy house from materials they salvaged from flood debris and it could stand out there in the open unmolested even by those who don’t understand what it is.
Next stop was at the 66IB headquarters to look in on another bagyo boy. In late December, this one charmed the world with his hospital-bed declaration that “Where we fell, we will rise again.” This young lieutenant fell as he valiantly tried to evacuate Andap residents who were caught by the flashflood. Haplessly carried several kilometers away by the debris flow, he sustained a puncture wound on his thigh, his face and limbs battered black and blue.
Almost four months later, he’s back in New Bataan as promised. I watched him easily striding to the gate to meet me, a cheerful smile on his face. He was, I’d soon find out, none the worse for the battering he took.
Later in the afternoon, we covered the Catholic ritual at the San Roque Chapel in Andap. This miracle chapel that saved a lot of people during the worst of the flashflood drew hoards of disaster tourists in the first two months after Typhoon Pablo. On Maundy Thursday 2013, it was just the community of Andap survivors that flocked for the re-enactment of the washing of the apostle’s feet and the Last Supper.
A 74-year-old bagyo boy dressed as Judas Iscariot told us that in years past he used to play Doubting Thomas.
“We lost three of our apostles,” he offered to explain the costume change.
I asked about the path the procession would take. He said, “We’ve put the stations along the old road. We’ll take the old road, not the new one.”
It looked like it was shaping up to be a ritual of community remembrance and mourning as well as the religious observance of faith so strong it could not be dislocated by a terrible tragedy. The old road was covered in boulders as deep as three meters in some places. It would be hard going, but it was the path they chose to take together.
Recovery is about that exactly. People move away from distress when they reclaim their worldview, reclaim their faith. They seek to re-establish the old patterns that had in the past brought them solace and assurance. For those who had abruptly lost it, the way it was will always be a comfort: A home where the family can have the privacy to heal each other, a job made more meaningful for the fact that one trained for it, a community where people take care of each other and the living fill in for those who had gone on ahead.
It would do us well to remember that as we all try to help survivors recover.
(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)