Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tacloban afterthought

As my cameraman so vividly described it, Tacloban looks like an effortless set of Walking Dead. "Natural na natural e, 'no?," Kuya Leo quipped. I was with the most veteran producers and cameramen that day but Tacloban was unlike anything any of us had seen, covered or even heard of before. The easiest videos were tracking shots, anywhere you point your camera to is an image of destruction, fallen trees, damaged houses, cars and posts flung into whatever piece it was that was also once part of something else.

And that's how Tacloban is right now -- once part of something else.

We had with us an ample supply of water and snacks to last us an entire day of coverage. But human nature told us to hand our bottles of water and packs of bread to Taclobanons instead. But it was not that easy. It had been 6 days since the typhoon hit, the grief of lost loved ones and devastation of lives hovered in the air that stunk of smell of decaying bodies and what is left is their gut instinct to survive -- to eat, or drink, and to find ways to do that at all cost.

If we hand them water or bread and not have enough for everybody else, there will be chaos. We had to be discreet.

And once we found an opportunity to help, we grabbed it. But it only made our hearts ache even more because we knew that not only was that bottle of water or piece of banana not enough for a person's daily need, they also wouldn't fill whatever it is that's missing.

People who look like they were rich and those who look like they were poor now all look the same -- dazed, clueless, but also, very determined.

Folks at the airport complain of having waited days for their spot at the C130 plane and never getting their turn. "Padrino system, ma'am e, kung sino ang may kakilala ng army, sila ang sinasakay," a man told me the second I stepped out of our own plane. This sentiment would be repeated through numerous people as our coverage progressed.

'May number ba kayo na pinanghahawakan,' we would ask. 'Wala,' they would all answer.

They would tell us stories of how men rob houses in the dark, and worse, even rape women.

Residents at the Redemptorist Church of Tacloban City said that the number of evacuees at the parish would increase at night, because some families are scared to sleep in their own homes, and would take shelter at the house of God.

Whether these stories were true or just concoction of hungry stomachs and hungry souls were not the point; the point was that these stories were borne out of desperation and frustration.

Frustration out of the fact that planes come and go during the day and yet the army had not formulated a system of who can hitch a ride and when. Frustration out of the fact that on the 6th day of post-typhoon tragedy, no main command post had been established; people didn't know where to go.

They keep their ears open for rumors of relief operations, oftentimes coming from independent organizations and volunteers riding in trucks, providing what their government could not.

"Narinig lang po namin sa isang babae na may tubig dito."
"Sabi dito raw magpapalista pero ewan ko kung saan."
"Nakita ko lang may mga dala silang plastic kaya sinundan ko."

That there had not been an established system by the 6th day baffles me. DSWD Sec. Dinky Soliman admits there were delays because "it is a complex emergency," roads were closed for days, she said, flights were limited, she said, "but there is government presence here," she said.

Yes, there is presence, but what was needed was so much more than just being there, the people of Tacloban needed them to function, to be efficient, to maximize the resources, to come through.

On the 6th day, there already exist towers of boxes and sacks of rice, truckloads of water and clothes, and yet, they sit inside dark rooms and factories, on the ground at the airport, only because there is bureaucracy involved. There is a process, of documentation, of waiting for authority, of inventory -- a process that eats away at precious time that survivors could have spent eating, or healing, or even feeling like they are being taken care of, that somebody was looking after them.

But no.

People felt helpless. They don't know whether to go to the airport and wait for a plane, or to the terminal for a bus, or by the streets for kind strangers in vehicles. Whether to be mobile to chance upon relief trucks or stay still for help to come to them.

You would expect that for a country always plagued by calamities such as Yolanda, our government would be better prepared, you would expect them to make wiser decisions, to know what to do when everyone else don't.

There was not even a medical post, where people with injuries could be tended to, where children could get medicines for diarrhea and fever, where infants could get vitamins.

At the same Church, we ran into a group of volunteer doctors from Iloilo who had flown to Tacloban armed with supplies; they were doing the checkups, the stitches, they were handing out tablets and capsules and evacuees lined up in peace, thankful that help had come.

You see, the survivors' tendency  to be violent and disorganized come from the lack of assurance that help would come; when the situation force it to become every man for their own, but when they know that there is someone behind them, order would ensue on its own.

But that was the problem, no one felt like there was someone behind them.

A lady we gave a ride to told me she was experiencing shortness of breath but walked the distance from the street that was serving as their home to the airport where the DOH was stationed -- they were turned away due to the lack of supplies. That night, another lady suffered what could have been an asthma (or even anxiety) attack but was again turned away by soldiers who told us "sabi ng doktor, wala na po."

We prodded and prodded and against our ethical convictions, intimidated them with our camera lights until they gave in and took the lady in. I wonder what would happen if we weren't there.

To be constantly told no, to be denied, to be offered nothing when you had just lost everything is devastation at its most cruel definition.

Other countries have praised our resiliency, amazed at how we find the ability to laugh and find the silver lining; they have celebrated the richness and kindness of our spirits to be going through such a tragedy with much hope and determination --

but we could only be patient for so long.

When our strength wavers, we should be allowed to break down. And damn it, our government should be able to cushion that fall, help us stand up and say "here, I'll show you the way."

I don't know whose fault it it is. But something in the system failed, and the fact that it's not the first time it did should serve as an awakening for every single one of us to hold those we elected accountable, to demand much of them, because it's their job to be demanded and it's their job to deliver.

We cannot just run on pure hope and faith every time. To do so would be giving the government a free pass to screwing up and allow them to abuse us, use us, and eventually, destroy us.

*Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect those of her employer

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