COMMENTARY: Witnessing Yolanda’s shadows

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 3 December) – It has been a week now since I came back to Davao from a five-day stay in Tacloban.

I wanted to write about what I witnessed and experienced in Tacloban immediately upon arrival but thoughts and feelings were so warped I could not decide how to start.

The images of the debris, the torn down houses, the bent steel and hinges in the buildings and fences, the uprooted trees, the toppled electric posts, the hanging cords and wires, the body bags along the streets, the flood residues in the building we stayed, the lamentation of the survivors, and the agonizing cries of those who lost loved ones who shared their stories…they reeled in my mind like a kaleidoscope…appearing, then quickly vanishing.

I am resolved though that I will write about what I saw and heard, and share my thoughts and feelings.

I joined Balsa Mindanao, a citizen movement responding to disasters (natural and humanmade), as a volunteer concerned citizen.

On November 15, I joined the group’s joint meeting in Butuan City with other Balsa Mindanao representatives from all over the island to discuss relief plans for the Visayas.

I remember Sister Noemi from the Sisters Association in Mindanao (SAMIN), explaining to the assembly that we were there in Butuan to respond to our fellow Filipino victims and survivors of typhoon Yolanda…because…we care!

Sister Noemi further explained to us that although Balsa Mindanao was initially organized for Mindanao, it cannot just be unmoved by the extent of damages Yolanda has caused to our brothers and sisters in Visayas, thus, expanding and extending the horizon of helping beyond Mindanao.

The caravan of relief to the Visayas was scheduled for November 21-26.

Balsa Mindanao for Visayas operation was composed of two teams: Caraga, West Mindanao and Mindanao-wide organizations; and Southern Mindanao, Northern Mindanao and Socsargen.

One team was assigned in the municipalities of Tanauan and Palo and Tacloban City (this is where I was assigned), and the other team covered La Paz, Dulag and Tolosa.

Balsa Mindanao was able to mobilize 600 volunteers that delivered 20,000 relief packs containing five kilos of rice, six canned goods, ½ kilo dried fish, and hygiene kit of toothpaste, five toothbrushes, and ¼ bar soap.

The services included relief aid, medical services, and psychosocial intervention.

Back to my personal sojourn, the initial gloom greeted us when we passed Tolosa. It was complete darkness as there was no electricity, but the silhouettes of fallen posts, trees and houses were visible.

Approaching Tacloban, there was a unison of sighs among passengers. “Oh my God…Oh my God!”

It was almost a ghost town.

Despite the fact that it was already almost 10 o’clock in the evening, there were people just staying along the streets, in their makeshift tents, as if they were waiting for something or somebody or watching over something.

I cannot fathom what since they were surrounded by a mound of debris.

I was not able to control my scream when I saw the first body bag on the road. I thought I will not be affected by the sight of it since it became a synonymous image every time there is news about Yolanda in Tacloban.

Seeing the body bags on television is one thing, seeing them real with the naked eyes is another.

And this was already two weeks after Yolanda.

Before entering the compound of St. Scholastica’s College where we stayed for the duration of our stay in Tacloban, we saw two more body bags. The numbing effect of seeing the first body bag did not make me scream again.

In the next three days stay in Tacloban we saw about 20 more body bags. The sight now of a rectangle black plastic lying anywhere brings back to my mind body bags in Tacloban!

In the two barangays where I facilitated sessions among mothers and fathers, they almost burst into story telling all at the same time when I asked them: “Kumusta na ho kayo? Noong kasagsagan ng bagyo at pagkatapos ng bagyo? Paano ho kayo nakaligtas? Ano ang ginawa nyo?”

For the two groups, the women always started telling their stories, most of them crying while narrating. Some of them even recreated the sounds of the winds of Yolanda, and some even moved their arms and palms demonstrating how the winds seemed to be seething from the right side and then met by another surge of winds from the left side, as if one side was trying to outdo the other, seemingly in rage, then with a big splash, meet in the center and then again a surge of winds coming again from the right, and from the left, on and on for about two hours, and they were just waiting and watching and wishing they would end, and praying that whatever was protecting them from being carried or blown away by the forceful winds will not collapse.

Most of them thought that had Yolanda struck at night, they would not have survived. When I asked them why, they said that they could have been struck dead by the flying objects carried by the winds because most of them got out of their houses and scampered around thinking it would be safer.

A quiet, 55-year-old fragile woman who was holding a towel wiping her tears, narrated that she lost four grandchildren and two daughters, one of whom was pregnant and was due to give birth in November.

Her pregnant daughter’s birthday was November 8, the day Yolanda struck and killed her with her unborn child.

Everyone was in tears while she was telling her story. I was crying, too.

Another father showed the scar on his head brought about by the big wood that hit him when he shielded his children with his body.

Another mother showed a swollen foot as she tried protecting her three children from a wall that was about to collapse.

Another woman considered as a miracle the survival of her 20-month son Emmanuel, who is suffering from third degree malnutrition.

The woman passed on Emmanuel to her 12-year-old son as she grabbed her 8-month old baby.

After the three-hour deluge, she learned that Emmanuel, who was placed inside a water pail and thrown under a banana tree, miraculously survived!

There were many more tales of love and care for family members and neighbors.

A 66-year-old woman welcomed to her small house 30 neighbors. They were all saved after three hours of staying together in her comfort room.

One sitio in Barangay San Agustin reported that the first relief they received was on the 16th day after Yolanda, and that of the 300 families, only 200 were given relief goods because the others were not on the list of the municipality.

Some also said that the contents of the relief goods were about two kilos of rice, and about four to five canned goods. Some of them had only biscuits in their relief packs.

When I asked them why they did not report to the ones giving them the relief that they had biscuits only, they reasoned they were ashamed and afraid.

When I asked them if they had any information from the local government about Yolanda, they said they did not get any. They learned about Yolanda from television news and they started telling their neighbors, especially those who did not have television, about Yolanda.

There were other stories that made me angry and made me ask these questions:

1. What is the point in making a list when all of the people in the community are clear victims and survivors?

2. In our five days stay in Tacloban, I did not see a single military personnel in the area, only a handful of policemen who even questioned our group for distributing relief and holding of medical services. Do we need a permit to do humanitarian services to our fellow Filipinos?

3. How come TV stations like GMA, ABS and CNN were able to install communication facilities even during the onslaught of Yolanda and thereafter and the national government did not?

4. Two weeks after Yolanda, the mounds of debris are still all over. The surroundings of Tacloban City and Palo are still gloomy, dirty, and depressing. Why can’t the national leadership order the Armed Forces of the Philippines to do their share of clearing and cleaning in the Visayas since there is no large scale engagement of Philippine soldiery in war, yet can send more than 300 soldiers in Golan Heights for peacekeeping?

5. We often hear the virtues of Filipinos like being brave and resilient, good, and I agree with that but when the government through the national media sings the songs of glory for having 5,000 US military forces doing relief and rehabilitation in the devastated areas of the Visayas, what is the subliminal message to Filipinos, especially to the young generation? Where is the sense of greatness and dignity and sovereignty?

6. Yolanda has been described as one of the fiercest to hit the world. I saw its description on November 7 through an international news network. I think one of the reasons why Anderson Cooper came to Tacloban was because of their news network’s interest to cover and witness the real impact of Yolanda.

Our weather bureau must have watched and realized the impact of Yolanda and I wonder if they understood enough what they pronounced as horrendous storm yet did not do enough to prevent or minimize the damage Yolanda caused.

Had our weather bureau used the language for “storm surge” that ordinary people could understand, maybe the damage could have been lessened, both to life and property.

My five-day stay in Tacloban has etched vividly how the onslaught of natural storm can damage places and people.


Non-government organizations, people’s organizations, and church, stand up in times of calamities doing complementation to what the government fails in, with neither intention of competing nor upstaging them. We do what we do because we simply want to sincerely serve the people!

The most disastrous in disasters is when the disaster becomes a free ticket for those who have agenda for opportunism, politically and economically.

Be that as it may, the people: victimized, survived, and in the process are politicized. They can now identify who are their real foes or friends are.

Disasters bring out the best in people, they also surface the beasts.

Yolanda is gone but its shadows hover.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Malou Tiangco of Davao City describes herself as “social worker, educator, performing artist”).