By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
Life after Yolanda, Log 4
PALO, LEYTE—Walk through this lot of makeshift graves and read the stories written on each mound and marker.
They are rolls of names etched by felt-tip pens on boards fastened to sticks. The lists number from two to ten to twenty, some too long to fit. Their surnames, often the same: spouses, children, and in-laws bound together in their last hours and in their final rest.
Beside the names, just dates of birth. Everyone here knows when all these people died. Many of the birth years are only past 2000.
Lit candles litter the mounds. Among them are keepsakes of the departed and offerings to the missed. Flowers—some real, some plastic. Rosaries. Stuffed animals. Watches. Bracelets. Portraits. Canned sardines. Biscuits. Containers of coffee and chocolate milk. Soda in half-empty bottles. Rice and pansit in aluminum foil.
A statue of Jesus Christ of the Sacred Heart towers over the graves—one arm outstretched, the other broken off. An eerie fit to this sudden cemetery along the highway of Palo, Leyte.
But the kids here say this was once a grass yard, the de facto plaza of the church of Barangay San Joaquin. Youth groups would practice hip-hop dances here.
Then came Yolanda.
“The water rose past those steel bars—18 feet,” says Kelvin Apurillo, the parish priest, as he pointed to a clump atop a broken concrete pillar on the back end of the church.
Father Kelvin and his 11 sacristans were trapped in the second floor of his house just steps near the church. Only four months in Palo, he calls Yolanda his baptism of fire.
“I was the last to go up. There, the water reached our chests,” he says. “The wind howled like demons. I really thought it was our end.”
They all survived. But some sacristans lost family members in the flood. Father Kelvin is thankful that the strong winds early that morning prevented him from opening the church doors to residents. Had people sought shelter there, they would have died, he says.
Many who evacuated to the school beside the church also drowned. At another evacuation center, at least 25 children lost their lives.
It’s the 40th day after the typhoon. For mourners, it is also the “babang-luksa”—the time to symbolically let the departed go.
Over 400 people were laid to rest in the mass grave, and mounds are still being dug as other corpses are found. Some contain almost entire clans. In one, 22 died out of 25.
A father stoops down and stays at a grave for an hour. He leaves and returns with a toy ambulance, places it on the grave and lights a candle. It’s for his son, who was valedictorian of his Grade 6 class.
A marker bears the names of Armand Librea’s wife and two sons, who drowned at their evacuation center. His in-laws now blame him for their deaths.
“If I didn’t have anyone else to talk to, I would have also let go,” Armand says.
Where children once went to dance, they now go to visit the tombs of parents and siblings.
Papoose Lantajo, the barangay captain, looks on at the youngsters running around the graves. His father and two councilmen are also buried here.
“I feel sorry for the kids,” he says. “They’re playing on shallow graves. The pit is only dug thigh-deep, then used for five bodies. Sometimes, dogs dig the ground out.”
“Kap” Papoose says he pushed for the mass grave to be dug since the bodies were piling up. But in the long run, he wants to turn it into a memorial garden.
“No more crosses,” he says. “Just a big concrete marker with all the names of those buried written on it.”
But that wish is behind other more urgent priorities. With the barangay hall gone, Kap now works from a donated tent beside the church and the mass grave.
He just got a laptop, a printer, and internet access recently through donors and relatives in Manila. In the Kap’s order of business are letting the outside world know they are alive and thankful for all the help.
“It’s hard but we’re trying to recover,” he says.
The candles Erlinda Villas lighted are already melting. She spent the afternoon around a grave here with her sons and nephew. On three boards are written 18 names of fellow Villas and other in-laws.
“We’ve been visiting here every day since they were buried here,” Erlinda says.
She was out of town when Yolanda came, but rushed here to check on her family. She was relieved to learn that her sons endured the flood.
A candid picture is taken of Erlinda and her companions at the grave. Unexpectedly, they face the camera and flash smiles.
“It’s good that you can laugh now,” they are asked.
Erlinda replies: “Many people are helping us.”
Along the path from the highway to the church, residents erect thick PVC poles more than ten feet high. On top of each is a solar panel connected to a clear tube inside a plastic bottle filled halfway with water.
As the sun sets, lights twinkle from the mass graves. Below, the lighted candles—at least 40 to mark the day. Above, the spark from the bottles magnified by the water.
The 15 to 20 solar light posts were donated by an NGO which brought the raw materials to Palo and helped the locals assemble them. Electricity has yet to reach this area. They’ll be putting up the bulbs in other alleys and corners of the barangay.
Kap Papoose fears that his town mates might get complacent with the help they’re getting. He has resorted to having them work in the clean-up and rebuilding effort in exchange for cash and food.
“There’s a lot of aid,” he says. “Our houses are filled with relief goods. But we know that will end. Then what?”
Despite the gloom of near darkness, the smiles of Palo’s children light up the night. One of them, Geselle, a choir singer, hands a folded sheet of notebook paper and asks for it to reach her favorite newscaster.
On it, she writes her wish—a small business for her mother so that they would no longer live off relief. At the back, she copies a Tagalog Christmas song, its lyrics a gentle reminder that the story of Christmas leaves no one behind.
Above the resting place of lives cut short by the same fate, their loved ones try to continue their ended dreams.