BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The stories of a tragedy named Haiyan

My latest post on The New Internationalist:

Dondi Tawatao [Related Image]
Dondi Tawatao. © Alanah Torralba
They saw flattened villages and crumpled homes; uncovered corpses strewn amid the ruins and vehicles thrown about like matchboxes. They saw dazed survivors desperately searching for food or water; they smelled the stench of death that pervaded the air as raindrops fell; they saw a three-year old girl buried under the rubble. They saw all this and more.
These are the stories of three photojournalists who covered the wrath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the province of Leyte in the east-central Philippines on 8 November, killing at least 6,000 people.
Jes Aznar, a freelance photographer who covered Haiyan for The New York Times and who has covered conflicts and disasters in and outside the Philippines, says Haiyan was like no other. He arrived at Tacloban airport in Leyte three days after the typhoon struck.
‘We saw bodies floating at sea outside the plane window. The gutted Tacloban airport greeted us upon landing. There was a strong breeze but the stench of decaying matter was overpowering,’ he recalls.
When he saw more of the destruction, he says it was as if Mother Nature had thrown a major tantrum fit: ‘Slabs of concrete that were once part of houses and buildings were like dominoes, one on top of another. Millions of pieces of broken lumber, stones and household items created a whole new landscape in this city of more than 200,000.’
Yet six days after the storm there was still no government presence. People were left to survive on their own.
‘Looting was rampant. The city was fast deteriorating. The first ones to arrive were foreign aid agencies. The Philippine government obviously was not there. This is what struck me the most,’ says Jes.
With the damage so severe, journalists found themselves much like the typhoon survivors they came to cover. They too had to deal with the logistics nightmare, with electricity shut off, mobile phone lines crippled and basic supplies unavailable. Many of them slept in what Jes described as a ‘torn-down airport’, at least during the first few days.
‘It was good enough shelter for all of us – a bare-bone building cramped with journalists. You could tell how long they had been there by the amount of mud on their boots and face.’
The government, he says, simply failed to do its job. 
‘It should have done what it was supposed to do in situations like this. Simply put, the government should have functioned as one.’
Dondi Tawatao, a news photographer who covered Haiyan for Getty Images, likened Tacloban to a war zone – ‘an incomprehensible mess’.
He has covered disasters in the past but like Jes, Dondi agrees that Haiyan’s wrath was by far the worst. 
‘The airport was utterly devastated when I arrived on 9 November. [There were] no communications, no power, no structures left standing save for the control tower, looking forlorn amid the twisted hulks of debris. I had covered disasters before, but I have never seen this much devastation. The scene was probably as close as you can get to a nuclear bomb explosion.’
Leaving the airport, he saw bodies lying on the roadside. Within 200 metres he counted more than 100 bodies. Those lucky enough to survive were walking aimlessly, dazed and grief-stricken. He walked some more and saw a line filled with hundreds of people waiting for potable water to drink. One begged him for just one gulp of water.  
‘I made my way towards the village of San Jose, the village nearest to the airport. Military soldiers were still in the process of clearing debris. The debris was so deep I couldn’t even see the road beneath me.’
Inside a two-storey structure, he found a corpse of a very large man hanging by his legs, which were snagged by twisted pieces of metal.  
‘The fire volunteers who went inside with me couldn’t get him out. He was too large, too heavy and would require amputating both his legs to free him. I chanced upon a seven-man police crew trying to extricate the corpse of a man and a woman inside a felled tree. They had no tools and gave up on it after a while.
‘What struck me most was the apparent helplessness of the first responders – the military and government officials who were on the ground that day. Few made decisions, or were in the “process” of making a decision,’ he says. 
The stories of survival also struck him deeply: 
‘Many were carrying children, the elderly, and nothing more than the shirts on their back. These people had lost everything.’
Some vowed never to return to the God-forsaken land. 
‘They were streaming by the thousands to the airport, anxious to get as far away from Tacloban as possible. Equally compelling are the ones who chose to stay. Most of those who stayed were the poorest of the poor – fishers, labourers, vendors and farmers.’
Tammy David, who covered Haiyan’s aftermath for The Wall Street Journal, was luckier. She arrived in the second week after the typhoon and so was able to prepare a bit more than others. But the scene that greeted her was just as lamentable:
‘To be frank, I had very minimal stress compared to the others, since I came in during the second week and my assignment was pretty easy. The Wall Street Journal team brought their own generator, stove and other supplies. My luggage looked like a mobile convenience store. In four days, I slept on a mattress, took a bath twice, ate every day, updated my Instagram and drank water when I was thirsty. I was practically in the lap of luxury, but the situation among locals was still very bad which is why to this day I encourage people to help out.’
Still, when she arrived, she recalls being greeted with the stench of the disaster.
‘It was humid and I could smell mud, sweat and piss,’ she says. ‘The smell was bearable but I couldn’t take the sight of people sleeping on the wet and dirty floors of the airport. The planes were noisy but people were sound asleep. They were probably dead tired from waiting for days to get a flight out of Tacloban.’
These are just some of the stories of a tragedy named Haiyan. The stories are as varied as they are painful. They tell of lost lives and broken dreams; of survivors who died because of the lack of medical care; of families torn apart; of thousands of corpses scattered amidst the chaos.
Haiyan was all these and more. It was an incomprehensible mess; a war zone, a nuclear explosion. It was an apocalypse of sorts. Forget the Mayan calendar. This was the day the world came to an end, at least for the thousands who died in the storm surge – including a three-year-old girl found buried in the rubble.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Notes from Tokyo

TOKYO - I stepped out of the airport at past ten in the evening; the air was crisp and biting. I followed an old man in a worn-out blue coat to a waiting black van. He offered me a ride to Tokyo at a discounted rate.

I wondered, in the embrace of the cold evening, whether I walked the same steps more than twenty years ago when I first visited Japan.  Nothing seemed familiar, not even the weather. And I thought I was in a place where memories would collide, memories held by a 13-year old girl in green, pink or brown pants or her seventh grade uniform. She spoke Japanese then, at least she tried after weeks of studying the language. 

But now, more than twenty years later, I could hardly remember a thing, not even my broken Nihongo. Who was it who said that one can never go back to the same place ever?

Still, Japan enamored me the way it did the first time. I fell in love, all over again, with everything it had to offer. From its cold but kind weather -- the thermometer read seven degrees Celsius -- to its platters of sushi with wasabi-filled sauce.

I love the autumn leaves, too-- red,  yellow, orange and the bright crimson sun that sets at 5 in the afternoon. I love the river cruise and the ice cold Asahi beer. I love the temples of forgotten times and age-old trees sprawled perfectly in a lush green garden, hidden in the middle of the bustling city.

I love breakfast at seven in the morning and long walks along its busy streets. I love the bowls of ramen and Japanese candies and the endless search for Kitkat Green Tea.  I love those smoking rooms with mirrors all over, the efficient train system and Japanese time.

Japan is a memory of many, many years ago and of a visit a few weeks ago. It is different, yet it is the same. It is red autumn leaves and blue skies and quiet walks on cold evenings. It is good food and great beer but it is best of all, about being at home in a strange land, over and over, again and again, despite the passing of time. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dateline Tokyo

I am happy to share that I won the first runner-up prize in the Developing Asia Journalism Awards 2013 organized by the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo, Japan last week. It was an honor and privilege to have made it this far in the awards. Twenty finalists from all over Asia and the Pacific competed for the top prize. 

It was my first time to be part of the DAJA and was lucky to be part of such a group of passionate and brilliant journalists from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand and many others. 

The main prize of Development Journalist of the Year was awarded to Indika Shamindra of Sri Lanka for his story Trade Negotiations: Sidelining the Bigots while the second runner-up prize went to Thi Kim Le of Vietnam.

Other finalists from the Philippines, my friend Joyce Pangco Panares of Manila Standard and Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat of Manila Bulletin both received honorable mention while David Lozada of Rappler was named Young Development Journalist of the Year, a recognition given to journalists under age 30. 

Thank you ADBI for this. Thank you to my Philippine Star family, my editors Marianne Go and Roman Floresca, for the support and thank you to Deutsche Welle for having me in the ten-day regional integration workshop in Myanmar where I met Aye Aye Khaing, a garments factory worker I interviewed for my article. I thank her most especially for sharing her story.

Thanks, too to very supportive friends and family for their greetings and wishes of good luck. My adventurer friend for instance must have wished me luck a hundred times the night before I left for Tokyo. Thanks especially to the dear bf who despite being in the disaster area managed to find time to cut and post yesterday's digital edition.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

When the Winds Start Blowing

There is always something eerie when strong winds blow this way in this God-forsaken country.

The tension begins long before the harsh winds come pounding and the skies turn to gray. Weather forecasters are always the first to know and depending on what they see on the satellite images, their jitters may move as quickly as a raging storm.

“It will come in a few hours,” the weather bureau will warn everyone on the storm’s path. But really, it doesn’t have to. The signs are everywhere.  One just needs to look at the vanishing light and dark skies, the swaying leaves and falling coconuts. Almost everyone knows. Dogs howl in the dead of night. Days-old babies fret uncontrollably. The birds disappear with their flock. Grandmothers with Alzheimer’s will ask for blankets, one or two, anything to keep them safe and warm. They too know about the coming malaise. And they know it well.

These are the portent of things to come, a foreshadowing of sorts.

An average of twelve typhoons visit the Philippines every year and they show no mercy. No matter how you think you are ready, you will never be, not when the water rises and the winds start punching like gladiators fighting to their deaths.

On Friday, November 8, even before the roosters woke up, a typhoon named Yolanda - the strongest typhoon to ever hit the Philippines -- came smashing and it came smashing hard, hitting provinces in the southern part. The hardest hit was the province of Leyte. People call it a monster, a cruel one. And rightly so.

As I write this, 151 people are dead but the actual number could go up because the reports are still sketchy, with cellular phone towers down and an airport wiped out, leaving nothing except for the runway. Malls are closed, homes have been washed away, and poles and transmission lines are down.

The house helper has been crying since last night. No words can bring her comfort. Her family in Leyte could not be reached. Phone lines are down and all flights have been cancelled. She has not heard from any of them for more than 24 hours now.  Not especially from her twelve year old son. She wonders where they all are but she is certain, as certain as a heartbeat, that their tattered house built from scraps of wood, standing in a borrowed land in the center of a sprawling rice field, has been blown away.  The pigs in the backyard are probably dead, she says; and the cows and the goats, too.

When a typhoon comes, there’s no telling how many will survive when the water rises and washes away everything and every man, woman or child that come its way. There’s no stopping flash floods filled with soot and trash from cutting through people’s lives. And there will be no warning. Death comes in seconds, even in a fraction of a second.

Once they are gone, everything is wiped out.

On Christmas Day two years ago in the province of Cagayan de Oro, down south, this is what I saw after a typhoon named Sendong battered the place:

We can smell the stench of death even before we actually stepped on Burgos Street, a place where two rivers converge nearby, one of thousands of devastated patches of earth here in the province.

The putrid smell of decomposing bodies; of dead carabaos, of cats and dogs; of men, women and children, pervades the air. I am standing in the middle of a long narrow road alongside Cagayan de Oro River. If pain had a smell, this would be it.

Both sides of the road are lined with houses devastated by the typhoon that struck in the middle of the night. The roofs are gone, the windows shattered. The doors are wide-open. The street is filled with remnants of the devastation.

Everything is covered with the thickest mud, smudged with soot and garbage: the heaps of clothes, bags, television sets, electric fans, tables, chairs, bed, curtains, pillows and whatever the residents have left. 

It is December 25, 2011 but here in the City of the River of Gold, where a tropical storm struck in the middle of the night while a father sang Christmas carols to his little girls, there’s nothing to celebrate.

There are no gifts to open, no jingling bells, no festivities, no laughter, just crumbs of homes to salvage.

Sendong, which came in the dead of night on December 16, left as swiftly as it came, killing more than 1,500 men, women and children and leaving many more homeless.

And in an island a few hours away, this is what happened:

For the skies, it was just another spit of rain, perhaps just stronger than in previous days.

But for people whose lives are shared with loved ones and are measured not by routines of Mother Nature but by family ties and relationships, the rains were a curse. A curse so mad, merciless and unforgiving.

And that curse is seen everywhere here in Bayug Island: devastated houses, coconut trees; shattered windowpanes, slabs of remaining concrete, crushed roofs; clothes; wooden dressers; sofas; refrigerator; photographs; mattresses.

The island, traditionally considered as the first settlement in Iligan, has now become a desolate land that breathed its last breath that fateful Friday night when waves, as if furious, came and pared off hectares and hectares of Bayug’s villages.

Located at the mouth of Mandulog River, the island has an estimated land area of 300 hectares, home to some 400 families scattered around eight sub-villages.

Now, large portions of the coastal village are barren. There are only makeshift altars assembled out of left over pieces of wood, for candles and flowers for the dead.

Every typhoon is different and every survivor has his story to tell.  A typhoon’s ferocity and violence have become part of the daily life of people in this country, of farmers who lose their hard-earned harvests, of fishermen who lose their boats and their catch and even loved ones, too, of students whose schools turn into evacuation centers for months and months on end; for every man, woman or child affected by the catastrophe.

It is perhaps like the scalding weather in Death Valley where the thermometer once read 54 degrees Celsius or the biting winter nights of Europe in December and January.

Except maybe, it’s harder here because there’s no telling when the winds will come, in the dead of night or in dry mornings, on birthdays or on Christmas Day.

It simply tells us the end is always so near. 

(The Philippine Red Cross and The Philippine Star are accepting donations for victims of typhoon Yolanda.  Email addresses are or /Old clothes are discouraged because there are simply too much to go around. Cash is best as this can help fund the specific needs of evacuees).