A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A tragic tale of a city and a river

Rivers run through Iligan City, which is why its name is Iligan. The city’s linguistic origin is from the word ilig, which according to the Iliganons means to flow. There are many rivers that flow across the breath and length of Iligan City, some of which originate from the uplands of Lanao del Sur and ultimately are embraced by Iligan Bay facing the islands of Siquijor to the west and Camiguin to the east. However, the recent events of 16-17 December 2011 connecting this city’s history to Typhoon Sendong revealed that of all these rivers, it is the Mandulog River that will long be remembered by the Iliganons as the main site of a tragedy affecting a huge number of the city’s residents.

Mandulog. A Linguistics professor at MSU-IIT who is a friend of mine – Luz Cagas dela Cruz – texted me when I made the inquiry that this name could originally be Higaonon. This name also refers to the original inhabitants or the indigenous peoples of this part of Mindanao, long before the Maranaws and the Bisayan settlers came to seek their fortunes in this part of Lanao. With the influx of the Maranaws and the settlers from central Visayas just before the turn of the 1900s until the post-WWII era, the Higaonons have become a most marginalized minority in this place.

But looking closely at the names of barangays/sitios badly hit by the mad rush of flood waters coming down the Mandulog River, one is struck by their names, including Hinaplanon, Bayug, Digkilaan, Rogongon, Cabaro, Canaway, Saray and Lambagohon. These seem to be Higaonon names, rather than Maranaw. Definitely not Bisaya. The other places hit by the floods have Bisaya names like Mahayahay, Santiago and Gerona. But the former ones – even if their original meanings are now lost to most Iliganons – seem to be original names of these places that have survived the Bisayanization of most of Northern Mindanao in terms of changing original names.

Why am I bringing in this seemingly unimportant element of a story that has attracted worldwide attention given the enormity of the floods’ destruction? Me thinks for many reasons including this one: we all know that indigenous peoples have a way of gently living with nature. They must have experienced floods before the coming of non-Higaonons to this place. Geologists today tell us that – by its very location as a lowland area situated just below mountain terrains – Iligan City is prone to floods. The Higaonons would have known where to situate themselves within this landscape. Their local myths would have included flood narratives with a great loss of lives and property if these took place. My hunch is that no such myths exist; there must have been floods but they found ways to avoid being hit by the rushing waters.

Not today’s inhabitants in both the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. Many questions have arisen because of the enormous impact of the recent floods that hit Iligan City. Why didn’t anyone foresee that Bayug Island – located at the bucana (mouth) of the Mandulog River as it joins Iligan Bay – could be washed out to the sea one day and so no one should have been allowed to build a house there? Wasn’t it clear to anyone – and to the DENR and the local government in particular – that this island arose out of siltation and had no reason to be considered a place fit for permanent and stable houses? Given all the tragedies that already happened across this troubled archipelago (remember Ormoc? remember Ondoy?), why didn’t anyone see the connection between the logging in the nearby uplands and the possible trajectory of the fallen logs downstream? With the place so near a river that already had floodings before, why did the investors of the Orchid Homes Subdivision decide to build these houses along harm’s way? And why have the Iliganons not been oriented to the imminent dangers of their being in a geohazard locality so that disaster preparedness would have been a priority concern on the part of both local government and civil society?

These are hard questions and they must be expressed out in the loudest voices possible. Some people, agencies and organizations have to be “put on trial” given the extent of the tragedy; they have to be made accountable for the magnitude of the people’s grief and suffering made more dramatic as these were experienced during a season people looked forward to year after year for its promise of joy and festivity. Consider the statistics even as the State and its local units have not been able to come up with accurate facts as to how many have actually died, how many were wounded – physically and psychologically – and still need to be treated and healed, how many are still missing, how many families lost their homes, no longer have livelihoods, etc. The City government has till the middle of January to come up with believable figures but one isn’t sure if there will be satisfaction on the part of the city residents when the official report is issued.

All that we are told right now is that in Iligan City alone, there must have been 30,000 to 31,000 individuals who were victims constituted by 5,000 households. PDI reported on 27 December that “Sendong ravaged 21 of Iligan’s 44 barangays, affecting 45,000 people or almost a fifth of its population” and that “some 3,497 families, or almost 16,000 people, are staying in 28 evacuation centers.” Which have the more accurate data: media (who are their sources?) or the city government? It has been a month since the disaster, and Iligan City government still has no official accurate figures of the extent of the damage including the lives lost or missing. What is the use of the barangay units and the whole idea of village-based local government councils if you can’t get basic figures added up in a systematic manner? Ay pastilan!

Another reason I brought in the ethnographic data that Mandulog could be a Higaonon term is to highlight the fact that – once more like other calamities that hit various parts of the world – when disaster strikes, no one is spared. Categories and constructs of people that at many times cause conflicts and wars – class, ethnicity, cultural and faith tradition, race, gender, etc. – are of no importance when the wrath of nature is unleashed! Moro, Higaonon, Bisaya, those of Chinese descent – all are hit by flood waters. Christianity, Islam, indigenous belief bow down to the primal movement of the earth! Men and women, the old and the young, the strong and the weak, the widow and those with mistresses cannot escape the quick rise of waters that could drown anyone!

Which is why until today – 30 days later – the tales of woes suffered by tens of thousands of Iliganons continue to be told and re-told, if only to provide all with the opportunity to release those fears and traumas as a way to get on with their lives. For those of us who were not in Iligan that night of 16 December and the dawn of 17 December, we have to be open to listening to people’s stories. Some who have come to help in this disaster – trained in various psycho-social therapy techniques like the nuns and volunteer students under the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines – are better able to help in this regard. But even just using common sense, anyone of us can just sit there and listen to those who went through the agony of the unfolding disaster tell their individual story. For each one’s story is quite unique even if there are thousands of them.

Some stories are heartbreaking; some can haunt both the teller and listener for years to come. Stories of voices heard – Tabang! Tabang! (Help) voices echoing through the dark night – the night of the floods and even so many nights after! An elderly woman tying her husband seated on a wheelchair to a post so that his body, if drowned, will not be swept to the sea and bidding farewell as she tried to save herself from drowning! (She survived but one can imagine the guilt that she bears!) There is also the story of a mother of three very young children, the youngest still breastfeeding. To save all three, she tied the youngest with a cloth wrapped around her waist while she held the hands of the two older ones. She only noticed that the waters have reached her breast when the baby already drowned!

The sad stories continue to pile up as deaths are still taking place. A few families are grieving over those who have died when their hearts couldn’t cope with the post-trauma syndrome. They survived the floods but not their weak hearts. A few others have also been reported to have died of leptospirosis, the deadly bacterial disease cause by the bacteria of the genus Leptospira, supposedly from rat’s urine. Meanwhile those who have lost some if not all of the members of their families go through life as if plants hit by a long drought! San Miguel, Iligan City’s beloved patron saint, must be inundated these days with prayer intentions!

In this city hit by the rushing waters of one of its rivers, one asks: in the midst of the muck that is everywhere, is there a way out of the collective grief? It is the nuns who do psycho-social therapy that provides an inkling of a minor shift that may have taken place. Once more, it is taking place in terms of our cultural milieu, the fact that Pinoys do have a way to cope with pain, agony and grief. As have been in many occasions, it is our sense of humor that provides the small opening to the possibilities of trauma healing. They say that those they have ministered to are beginning to find humor in those tragic incidents.

I did listen to some of these funny stories. There is a motel quite near the bridge spanning across Mandulog River and it has a rather attractive name, namely, LOVINGLY YOURS. Story 1: In the light after the floods, people saw that in one room a man and a woman drowned; till the end of their lives, they clung to each other. Upon investigation, it was found out that the couple were married not to each other but had another wife and husband. The husband of the dead woman – who survived and was told that his dead wife was at the motel – rushed to the scene. People expected a dramatic “confrontation”. Instead, they saw a smile on the husband’s face who said: “I am glad my wife died happy!” Story 2: Another woman saw her husband’s car in front of Lovingly Yours and wondered what it was doing there. She brought her husband to the scene and asked him point blank why the car was there. To which the husband quipped: “Na-anod man na diha, dear!” (The car got swept to this place, dear!).

Which brings us to Mandulog. The last five letters of the word constitute a Bisaya word – dulog, means to lie down with. There was certainly some couple who were into a dulog on the night of the great flood inside Lovingly Yours! In an exchange of texts, I was later to have some linguistics lessons from Ms. Cruz and our texts went this way (the original were in the kind of text messages usually sent; I am giving full words here):


Mine: Is Mandulog a Higaonon word?

Hers: Possible.

Mine: If it is Higaonon, could it be linked to the Cebuano word dulog?

Hers: As in nagdulog two rivers? Puede. The history dept (of MSU-IIT) has in its archives studies of place names..


Hers: …Dulog can be (also) hulog.

Mine: Wow! What irony if you bring in the Tagalog words – hulog ng langit! Fascinating linguistic derivatives!

Hers: Mao gyud….

(Still later)

Hers: There is also the Bisaya word dulhog meaning to come down from.

A month after the tragedy which made people around the world knew that there was such a place as Iligan City, the Mandulog River flows gently from the uplands of Lanao towards Iligan Bay. But these days, standing on the bridge at Hinaplanon which survived the floods – although major repairs have to be made to this bridge – and seeing the extent of the destruction brought by the floods, one knows Mandulog can once again become a mighty river capable of bringing a city to its knees! But for the moment, as the song goes, that old man river, it just keeps rolling along.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)