The other tragedy in Cagayan de Oro: in search of missing loved ones in the city’s dumpsite

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY  (MindaNews/19 December) –   As a journalist, I have covered so many tragedies in Mindanao: wars, floods, landslides, bombings, massacres, airplane crashes, etc.. I  have cried with relatives of the dead and the missing but I was not prepared for what I saw at noon in the city’s landfill in Zayas, Barangay Carmen.

Whoever made the decision to dump some 30 cadavers there deserves the highest condemnation.  How can such an inhuman act be done in this “City of Golden Friendship?”

I broke down in tears inside the vehicle as we were approaching the area where the bodies were dumped, exposed to the sun, the rain, the wind,  the birds, the dogs, the flies, the worms, the maggots.

Froilan Gallardo and Toto Lozano got off  and tried to move a bit closer – not too near but not too far either – just enough to take photographs from where they could tolerate the sight, the stench, the flies.

We were a team of four – myself, Froilan, Toto and  Gregorio Bueno – and we were en route to Cabula  in Lumbia at around 10:20 a.m. to check on the bridge that used to connect Baungon in Bukidnon with  Lumbia in Cagayan de Oro City when reporter Cong Corrales sent an update from the City Hall conference he attended that tissue samplings and photographs of the cadavers would be taken prior to the mass burial. But he added something that really bothered me: “Ang mga decomposing bodies were transferred to the city’s landfill last night”


Cong said “baho na daw kaayo  ug namboto na ubn” (they said the smell is intolerable and the bodies had decomposed).

Landfill? Like they’re trash, garbage, waste?  Surely this city would have some vacant lot, not just this dumpsite?

Froilan asked if we would go to the landfill first or Lumbia. I said we’d  do the farthest first, Lumbia, then the landfill and would drop him off to his next coverage while we would proceed to Davao City, 300 kilometers away. (We were supposed to leave Cotabato City for Cagayan de Oro via Marawi afternoon of December 16 but opted to reset the appointment in de Oro for the next day. If we had traveled on the 16th, we would have been in the eye of the storm in either Iligan or Cagayan de Oro).

In Lumbia, only the approaches to the concrete bridge from both sides – Baungon and Lumbia – were left; the middle span found a few hundred meters along the Cagayan de Oro river.  .

Yellow rubber boats ferried people and goods across for free, courtesy of the Kalawaig River Tours. Nearby, a motorized banca was available for ten pesos per passenger.

Jojo Abaday, lead guide from the Kalawaig River Tours said they specialize in guiding people on a white-water rafting adventure across a 17-kilometer stretch from Talakag, Bukidnon to the Cabula bridge, navigating through 21 rapids, at P1,200 per person.

Abaday said they were among the first responders in Barangay Macasandig in Cagayan de Oro and were able to rescue a number of residents at around 12:30 a.m. on Saturday.DUMPED.At least 30 cadavers were dumped at the Cagayan de Oro City landfill in Sitio Zayas, Barangay Carmen Sunday evening. Relatives gather Monday noon near where the bodies were dumped, waiting for city officials to explain why the cadavers were brought to the dumpsite. MindaNews photo by Toto Lozano |

Delia Radasa,  a resident of Baungon who was waiting for her turn to ride the boat, narrated how their house was spared but her cornfields and some farm animals weren’t. She says her sister’s  cow was “napirdi.” In my Dabawenyo Binisaya, “napirdi” means defeated. In the Bukidnon-Cagayan Binisaya, she meant lost, gone, dead.

The stories from Iligan where we spent the night on the 17th,  I had yet to find time to write. There was this young couple in the funeral parlor informing the office secretary in Capin Funeral Homes that one of the cadavers there was their four-year old son. But they were still looking for their three other children – the eldest aged 6, another aged two and the youngest, at three months old.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask the mother (I was listening to her conversations with the secretary)  because after saying “three months,” she added, “mag-four (months) to sya karong adlawa” (She will be four months old  today). She covered her mouth with both hands to stifle her cry. Her husband, waiting a few steps away,  looked away as tears flowed down his face.  All their children gone.

After they left, a woman in her late 20s came to inquire about a private chapel for her loved one. The manager, Danilo Capin, said he could not oblige her immediately as there simply was no space. That early Sunday morning, the number of cadavers brought there  had reached 105.

When she left, Capin said she was supposed to get married next week to the groom who now lies in a casket.

And there were more stories in the funeral parlors, the devastated areas, the evacuation centers, the churches.

At the entrance to the landfill, Froilan asked a worker, “asa dapit gibutang ang mga patay?” (where did they put the cadavers?). I think Froilan phrased it that way because none of us in the vehicle could believe decent human beings would dump the dead like they were garbage.

Until everyone we asked along the way pointed to the direction, farther ahead,  past the mountains of trash, the outline of bodies  becoming clearer as we were getting nearer. I was seated behind the driver and just as soon as I figured out that, indeed, these were cadavers, I cried like they were all my relatives.

Images of grief in the five funeral parlors we visited in Iligan flashed through my mind: relatives in search of their loved ones from among the pile of corpses; and in the evacuation centers, the blank stares from survivors who cannot celebrate their “second life” because the rest of their family members were missing.

There were several people milling at what was perhaps the safest distance in the landfill. Toto said  they were relatives of the victims. Not all of the bodies dumped there were unclaimed or unidentified. A number of them had in fact been identified but had not been attended to because of the lack of embalmers.

But even if they remained unclaimed by Sunday night, they did not deserve to be dumped. They all deserve a decent burial.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)