Of memorials and moving forward

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

Life after Yolanda, Log 3

Banner in Tacloban City says "Arise and Shine Tacloban -- God is with us." (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

One of many statement banners in downtown. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

TACLOBAN CITY—The longer our news team has been here, the daily grind of stories we’ve been telling in post-Yolanda Leyte and Samar has looked back less on the tragedy we’ve seen and has turned instead to the mechanics of moving on.

We see more people walking the streets during the day, especially in downtown. Sidewalk stalls selling everything from fruit to fashion are flocked with buyers. And except for the torn roofs and the tenantless ruins left as scars of the storm, it seems it’s business as usual.

We’ve reported on how businesses have begun opening again and on how clean water and electricity need to be restored fast. At our news team’s impromptu story conferences over breakfast, we’ve called these updates “normalization” stories.

But what here is normal? It’s a word that Tacloban vice mayor Jerry Yaokasin hears often (usually from reporters) yet questions.

“We cannot say the city is now normal, because we will never be normal again,” he told them.

Mourners light candles at the mass grave beside Palo Cathedral in Leyte. (Shot by Brian Pimentel, ABS-CBN News)

Palo Cathedral. (Shot by Brian Pimentel, ABS-CBN News)

Every 8th of the month is now a reminder of how everything changed here after that storm. And on December 8, the first “month-sary” of Typhoon Yolanda / Haiyan, we saw how faces now preoccupied with daily concerns would still break into tears as they recalled how they survived the storm and how they lost their loved ones who did not.

The month-sary was on a Sunday, and many of the emotional scenes were found in Catholic churches like the cathedral of Palo, Leyte.

All it took was a choir, a guitar, and an inspirational song to set some crying. At a program that followed the Mass, 30 children performed “Yesterday’s Dream”. Some survivors were asked to share their stories.

One was Reggie Agner, who lost his mother and 3 siblings in the flood. Left with his father, he is facing the reality of their loss only now. He asked aloud, “Why didn’t I die with them?”

“I think about them all the time,” he said later. “Unlike before when it seemed okay since many others also died, now I feel sad.”

Mass attendees cry during a memorial service in Palo, Leyte at the first-month mark since Typhoon Yolanda. (Shot by Brian Pimentel, ABS-CBN News)

Mass attendees cry at a memorial service in Palo. Click to watch their stories from Pia Gutierrez. (Shot by Brian Pimentel, ABS-CBN News)

Over in Manila, the woes of the ordinary survivors took a backseat to “bigger” problems. Facing a Senate inquiry, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez wept as he lamented the supposed lack of help the city got from the national government in the aftermath of Yolanda.

Romualdez also questioned why Interior Secretary Mar Roxas had to ask him for a letter then asking the government to take over the city. An online video of the exchange also added fuel to their word war.

Yet the issue is hardly talked about in town, partly since many residents still don’t have electricity to watch TV. In one evacuation center, a generator is turned on twice a day to let people watch the noontime shows, one primetime soap, and the news.

Lining up for fast food, water, bread, and medicines in downtown Tacloban (Shots by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Lining up for fast food, water, bread, and medicines in downtown Tacloban (Shots by Anjo Bagaoisan)

People are instead busy trying to again earn a living. Some bakeries, restaurants, and hotels have begun operating on limited power. One branch of a fast food chain now serves burgers and fries via a food truck sent from Manila.

An outdoor gear shop that was swamped by the flood now sells its wares from an SUV parked by the storefront. Sold at slashed prices, the branded shirts, shorts, and bags are crowd-drawers.

A few rummage for dirtier items at trash piles still scattered in downtown: dented cans of fruit cocktail and condensed milk, caked heaps of wet animal feed, and mounds of soiled long-sleeves and jeans. Some salvage them for personal use. Others sell them again.

As families still search for thousands missing throughout Eastern Visayas, up to 35 bodies are still being unearthed from the debris every day. Some corpses still lie in the streets, waiting for someone to pick them up.

Even the bodies that have been recovered must wait outside a roadside health center to be processed. Residents can only bear the stench. Only after are the bodies buried in mass graves. 

Residents rummaging through trash for usable items in a Tacloban street. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

A sign is placed over a corpse in a Tacloban street asking for it to be picked up. (Shot by Evart Villar, ABS-CBN News) Trash in the street sides: Among them, the search for usable items [top] and the dead left untouched [bottom]. (Shots by Anjo Bagaoisan & Evart Villar, ABS-CBN)

Mixed emotions, more pressing worries. As they struggle to bury their dead and their memories of the calamity, people here try to find closure in what ‘normal’ they can return to. To them, the squabble in Manila will not help anyone.

“They never went through what we went through. We almost lost our lives, we almost lost our families,” said vice mayor Yaokasin. “The last thing we want is finger pointing and political one-upmanship.”

But ask those offering candles at a mass grave or tearfully praying at a roofless cathedral and you will barely hear a complaint.

Their thanks are overflowing–to God for keeping them alive, to the nations that came to their aid, to the volunteers helping them get back on their feet.

Despite his loss, Reggie Agner chooses to get strength from the support he and his father are getting. All of them who survived, he said, were “witnesses to God’s love.” Reggie sees life differently now–serious and not to be taken lightly.

Tearful singing at Tacloban's Sto. Niño Church during a service marking the first month since Typhoon Yolanda. (Shot by Ramel Gaddi, ABS-CBN News)

Tearful singing at Tacloban’s Sto. Niño Church (Shot by Ramel Gaddi, ABS-CBN News)

At a dusk memorial service where attendees sang “If We Hold on Together” with hands clasped, Tacloban’s city administrator Tecson Lim fought tears while asking if there was a purpose to why Yolanda visited them.

They survived, he said, “to fight against our human nature of fighting against one another.”

“We lived because we are now given the mission to make sure that our children and our children’s children do not suffer the same devastation that we did.”

As the priests blessed the dead, they called for a moment of silence—a short recollection to remind those remaining what they are now living for.

Candle lighting at Sto Niño Church (Shot by Ramel Gaddi, ABS-CBN News)

Candle lighting at Sto Niño Church. Click to watch the highlights from Pia Gutierrez’s report. (Shot by Ramel Gaddi, ABS-CBN News)

Other notes from Leyte:
1. Welcome to destruction
2. Dead Leyte firemen honored as heroes
3. Camp-out at Tacloban airport


One comment on “Of memorials and moving forward

  1. Pingback: A patch of buried dreams | PinoyJourn: Stories behind the Stories

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