When typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit the Philippines, I was on the island of Biliran, more precisely in Maripipi, almost 60 km from Tacloban, a city now called “ground zero” by the Philippino media.
Due to this geographical proximity, I was able to get to Tacloban very quickly. I was there from November 10th to 13th and 15th to 21st, as well as December 9th to 12th. I will not probably go back there before my departure for Paris then Moscow.
I am not very good at telling stories from a first-person perspective about what I have experienced here: frustration, adrenaline, exhaustion, hunger, thirst.
I am not sure it would even be appropriate; a journalist is no victim. The bodies I have seen are not those of my loved ones, the houses I have stepped on are not mine. Hunger, thirst and exhaustion are only temporary: back in Manila I know a hot shower is waiting for me. Therefore, I would rather tell you the stories of the people I have met.
There is Cheryl. Her husband Marvin looks very handsome in this unique picture she was able to get from the debris of her house. He has a big smile, a nicely ironed white shirt and his hair combed back. Next to him stands Cheryl, in a gorgeous platted blue dress, and Lassie, their 6 year old daughter with her toothless smile. When the water started pouring in their living room, Marvin helped Cheryl and Lassie climb to the roof. He dried their tears. Then the water suddenly rose and the current became too strong for Lassie who lost her grip. Cheryl grabbed her by her dress but the fabric ripped and Lassie disappeared in whirlwind of dirty water. Marvin jumped in to rescue her. Today, Cheryl has lost hope she’ll ever find their bodies.
There is Jake. He is around 25 years old maybe 28, but looks much older nowadays. The full moon was shining upon Tacloban when he approached the well I was using to wash myself. I smelled his odor before hearing his steps. It was a very strong smell of death, sweet to the point of nausea. Jake is working as an accountant for one of the barangay (Unit from Manila). His superior asked for volunteers for Tacloban and he was one of the first to raise his hand. Since his arrival 10 days ago, he helps the firefighters to recover the decomposed corpses of the typhoon’s victims.” Today we found 25 more units in San José”, he says to me while pouring the bucket full of water on his body. “You mean 25 bodies?” I asked surprisingly. “Units” he repeats, “I am also counting the arms and the heads”.
There is S., a young Australian volunteer from an important and very efficient NGO. She was crying silently in the dark night of Tacloban, kneeling next to a child’s body, which the sea had brought back to shore. With one of her colleagues, we persuaded her to step away and go to sleep. Jake came to pick up the body, which was swollen by water and rotten by the salt. The next day, when I saw S., she asked me to forgive her tears and to keep it a secret. “There is so much to do. I hate myself for losing time to cry”. She had a dire look on her face.
There is Beya who is 16 years old. When she gave birth on November 12th to a little girl on a hospital floor, she hadn’t had anything to drink or eat for 4 days, since the typhoon. She now lives with about fifteen other families in the former stadium of their barangay. “The water rose 5-6 meters, we ran on top of the benches. I held on to the basketball hoop. One lola (grandmother) died trampled on and two kids drowned. In the end, we were lucky.”
There is Theia, who was a teacher at Tacloban’s prestigious Chinese school before the typhoon. She lives in San José, where the waves swept away most of the houses. Hers, in cement, stood still : the roof was blown away, the panes were shattered, and her living room is now a mud swamp, but the walls resisted : “and that’s something”. On the top of the tips of her portal, she found, when the waves went away, the corpses of three of her neighbors. “I walked for hours to see if my mother was still alive. I had to stop every ten meters to vomit, there were so many corpses… sometimes I could identify a friend, or one of my pupils, and I would vomit again”. One month after the typhoon, the research teams find between 42 and 10 bodies per day in Tacloban only.
There is this little boy who followed me for hours, his forearm enveloped in a type of blue dishcloth. Each time I would look at him, he would point at my camera and take a pose worthy of the best fashion shows. At some point, because of too much wriggling, the dishcloth felt down, and I saw on his little arm a huge whitish, blueish, greenish, fester wound. His father told me that he had already brought him to the hospital but that they had told him to come back in ten days. To amputate him ?
There is this child, whose smile haunts me because I think I recognized it on one of the corpses left on the side of the road. His photograph is hung on the door of the City hall where everyday hundreds of Filipinos go. Both his parents died trying to save him. Do I need to call to confirm his death? Or should I leave hope for his survival? I didn’t call. After all, I am not sure if I didn’t mistaken him with another toddler…
There is this ten years old girl whom I forgot to ask the name, that took me to her school, at the Fisherman’s village, on the seaside. About forty little bodies were piled up; the smell was unbearable. “Now you know” she said, with a huge satisfied smile. She took my hand to her forehead and then ran to her group of friends that were playing with a plastic kite on the side of the road.
Please help Cheryl, Beya, Mme Busaril, Theia, Mme Asturias… and so many others, to have a better Christmas: donate to Red Cross International, MSF, UNHCR, Unicef, Save The Children or Action Contre la Faim. If you live in Manila, you can also host a family of survivors for Christmas.
Thank you to Mélodie Seznec (who is going to volunteer in Ormoc in January) and Blandine Canva for their help in translating this paper.