By: Larah Vinda Del Mundo
The past week has been one of the most meaningful I had so far. I had the good fortune of joining a bus-load of volunteers who went back to the Yolanda-hit areas to find out how local government units and families are recovering a year after the historic typhoon devastated the area.
The truth is, I am not part of the group of volunteers who responded a year ago because I was somewhere far trying to finish my college education. I went on this trip as part of my current job. Nevertheless, I am more than glad to have come and be surrounded by such passionate and fun-loving bunch of volunteers. I must say that I could not possibly chronicle everything that transpired during our trip, because even with that, I would be doing my new-found friends injustice.
The trip was not an easy one. We had to travel by land and by sea because of meager resources. We slept on the bus 30% of the time and in the remaining ones, we were at the mercy of good-natured comrades we visited along the way. There’s Nay Vergie who literally served as our nanay while in Cabalawan; Ate Ruffa who helped us spread the news of volunteerism and disaster preparedness in Albay; Ate Veron and Ka David who were very patient with receiving an army of volunteers at their humble office quarters in Palo; Mommy Marlene whose home served as an oasis for all thirty-nine of us in Legazpi; and our dearly loved Ka Damian who became everything at once for us while we were in the Leyte and Samar leg. Even our colleagues from Sambisig-WEMS (Wilderness Emergency and Medical Services) went beyond being mere participants and ensured that everybody was safe at all times.
I experienced a lot of “firsts” during this trip. It was my first time to do volunteer construction work, first time to plant tree seedlings along the coastline, first time to witness how solar panels are installed, first time to witness an actual medical mission (I have been living in caves for years), and even my first time to belt out Titanium by David Guetta, but well, in my case, first time to belt out any song in front of actual human beings during our solidarity night. Not bad indeed, for my first job.
Along the trip, Ate Paeng, the overall bus commander, gave everybody the important task of knowing the community. I have never heard such stories of compassion and strength before going on this trip. Among the stories is that of Ate Grace, a community health worker from Brgy. Batang, Hernani, Eastern Samar, who lost her home during the typhoon and had no roof to shelter her children for months. When she became fortunate enough to be able to purchase a small portion of land for her home, she decided to put the needs of the community before her own. She donated the land to the barangay so that Akbayanihan Foundation can erect a humble health center that can service not only Brgy. Batang but numerous other barangays in the area. Saludo ako sayo, Ate Grace, at sa lahat ng taong kasing buti at tatag mo!
Just a few hundred meters from Brgy. Batang is one of the most hardly-hit barangays in Western Visayas, Brgy. 3. But I would not have known this because when we arrived, the people were happily greeting and smiling at us. They were the most cheerful bunch we met and their sense of community was remarkable. As was said in the novel The Great Gatsby, these people, indeed, had an “extraordinary gift of hope”. In San Jose, Dulag, is another success story of organic farmers who are now innovating farming strategies. It is difficult to imagine that the thriving organic farm we saw started just after Typhoon Yolanda hit with no more than a jar of worms and some seedlings.
During the eve of typhoon Yolanda’s anniversary, we visited a mass grave located amid one of the major roads in Tacloban City. Hundreds of victims were buried in this rather small patch of land. The volunteers and I were given a candle each and were instructed to choose a tombstone to dedicate it to. As I scanned the entire mass grave looking for a stone marker to light a candle for, a friend drew my attention towards this tiny stuffed animal positioned across a tomb marker. When I looked closer, this dilapidated wooden tomb marker was actually devoted not to a single person, but nine. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief of carving nine of your loved ones’ names into a piece of wood. Unlike others whose full names were carved in marble and embellished with intricate curves and lines, this one only had the dead’s first names in them – Glenn, Art and Abigail are some of the names I remember.
What struck me about this particular marker is that it is unadorned but full of heart and tenderness. There was no need for an epitaph, no need for their birthdays, not even a need for others in the community to recognize who these buried people were. The one thing that mattered to the person who carved nine of his or her loved ones’ names in a piece of wood and left a tiny stuffed animal was that he or she remembers them and honors their memories. Perhaps, what was important to this person was that he or she may continue to tell the stories of how they lived, not only of how they died.
It was in that moment when I realized that I may be losing sight of more important things. After weeks of helping arrange the logistics of this trip, observing how there has been a shift in the nature of local industries after Yolanda, looking into how families have gradually regained their ground, and how government efforts have been significant but insufficient, I truly have lost track. I was an outsider looking in. Unconsciously, I might have joined this trip so I can tell myself afterwards that I have done my part and therefore I should feel better.
During the entire week, various government officials, civil society groups, humanitarian workers and members of the media were looking back at what happened to the Yolanda-hit areas and “checking” how these families have been recovering or not recovering as if they were specimens under a microscope. And I admit that I am guilty of this. In one of the debriefing sessions we did, Ate Paeng told us that if we are in Tacloban to do anything at all, it would be to be really present for all the survivors we would meet. I thought I understood what she meant, only be slapped in the face the day after while staring at that humble wooden tomb marker.
I came to Tacloban looking for an adventure, searching for stories of grief and success that can inspire me, and seeking to tell myself afterwards that I did a good job. Unfortunately, I came to Tacloban for all the wrong reasons. However, I don’t regret having to come because I realized that if ever I would go back, or if the time comes that I will have to volunteer again, I will do so with the attempt to understand and find out not what disasters mean to me, but what calamities like these mean to the victims. I realized that one can only begin to help if one truly empathizes and identifies with the plight of the people one is seeking to help. Most importantly, I have come to recognize that in any effort to extend a helping hand, we should do so not “as outsiders looking in” because, in the end, we are all victims in one way or another.
Larah Del Mundo graduated from the University of the Philippines Baguio and is a new staff member of ACF, Inc. It is her first time to visit Tacloban City and Eastern Samar.