Ana’s bonfire (and her father’s portrait of Tacloban)
Facebook Note by Karlo Marko Altomonte
23 Nov 10:07 am
When she noticed that water was flowing ankle deep into their home, she told everyone in the room, her family, that it was time to leave. She made her way to the door and as she opened it, the water started rising and her along with it. She grabbed on to a branch to avoid getting swept away by the current. She recalled how painful the wind was on her face. She stayed floating for a few minutes, and as rapidly as it rose, it started receding. She didn’t let go of the branch and in just a matter of a couple of minutes, from being in danger of drowning in floodwaters, she realized that she was in danger of falling to her death from her perch on the topmost branch up a kaimito tree some thirty feet up. She looked around and was relieved to see most of her family members grabbing on to the branches of the same tree. But not everyone was there.
Soon after the Typhoon Yolanda left, Jun Fernandez received the news in Baguio – his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren who lived in Tacloban were missing, and were presumed dead, according to eyewitnesses who last saw them. There was no way they could have survived after being swept away by a series of storm surges that brought tree-high waves. His younger daughter was determined, she told her father that she will travel to Tacloban that same night to look for her mother, her Ate and the two children, aged six and four. There was news that the body of her AteEva has been found, and Ana wanted to see for herself if the news was true.
Ana would call her father in Baguio after seeing the body of the woman she was told could have been that of her sister. “It’s not her,” she told her father.
After hearing of the situation in Tacloban in the days that followed, and realizing that Ana herself could be putting herself in harm’s way by going there, Jun decided to follow. He has accepted the loss, but wanted to make sure that his daughter Ana was safe. He arrived in Tacloban four days after Ana did. As they prepared to cook some food that night, Ana, together with her aunt who was saved by that kaimito tree, told Jun that the last time they received some relief goods was on the day Ana arrived four days earlier, they have had to stretch that small amount of rice and couple of canned food for four days. A cousin was able to buy rice in between, at P100 per kilo and only after walking for kilometers for hours on end in search of food.
“It was unreal, unbelievable” was how Jun described the scene before him. The dead lay unclaimed, unattended, survivors were preoccupied trying to stay alive to bother with them. The memory of the sight of the bodies of three infants by the road would haunt him forever, he said. One of the infants had an arm missing, along with much of its face. Nobody could ever be prepared for what Jun shared with us, “what can you do? Dogs were trying to stay alive too.”
The story of how one Iglesia ni Cristo church was closed to non-members of this sect. A sister of Jun’s wife was one of those who tried to seek refuge inside one, and was turned away. But not all churches closed its doors, the other non-Iglesia ni Cristo places of worship provided shelter and saved thousands of lives. Even a softdrink warehouse was opened to the people who needed shelter.
“Did that church close its doors on evacuees too?” Jun wondered as he passed a church with its doors closed. He decided to go closer to try to take a look inside and regretted doing so. Peeping through the gap on the church doors, he saw the whole inside of the church filled with lifeless bodies, piled up to three bodies high. That church, filled with evacuees before the typhoon made landfall, turned out to have been inundated in the blink of an eye, drowning everyone inside.
Ninety percent of the population of Barangay 88, according to what Jun gathered on the ground, died. The death toll could very well breach the initial estimate of 10,000 which top government officials have been trying to deny.
For a time, Tacloban was hamleted – nobody in, nobody out. This was due to the alleged infiltration and looting by rebel forces. In one instance, according to news reports, a military convoy bearing relief goods was ambushed by rebels.
Contrary to the picture of inept and uncaring government personnel that the mainstream media have been forcing us to accept, according to Jun, from where he was, he witnessed heroism and selflessness and portraits of self-sacrifice – he saw soldiers, policemen, government workers, themselves exhausted, wounded, hungry, also grieving, who hardly ate or slept to do all they can to ease the suffering of the survivors. There was enough food to go around, that’s true, but there were not enough hands to get them to the victims fast enough. Soldiers would take a bite or two from their own food rations before passing this on to the nearest survivor begging for food. A brief lull in between carrying sacks and boxes of relief goods or people on their backs was an opportunity to close their eyes for a few minutes to rest. On a regular day, we already know how we don’t have enough policemen and soldiers in this country, how we don’t have enough doctors in every town, what more in times like this when many policemen, soldiers are themselves victims? They don’t need to hear every single day how inefficient they were, how badly or wrong they’re doing their jobs. Specially coming from people who saw nothing more than what Cooper or Sanchez or Failon or Enriquez or Tianco chose to show them, in the warmth and comfort of their own homes swiping on a computer screen or clicking on a mouse. What Tacloban needs are extra pairs of hands.
In your opinion, based on what you saw, what could’ve prevented this much destruction, or this many deaths? I asked Jun. Nothing except evacuating whole provinces, he said. There was almost no escape, even those living far inland away from the shores were tossed around by floodwaters and strong winds, overwhelmed by unbelievably strong rains. And Jun points to poverty and the resulting illiteracy of many of our countrymen as an added culprit. The warning they received from the local officials was for a typhoon with potential wind speeds of over “300 kph” and the possibility of “storm surges.” “Kung sinabi nilang parang tsunami, o kaya parang dalawang Ondoy, mas naintindihan siguro naming kung ano’ng klaseng bagyo ang parating,” said one survivor. Tsunami they’ve been hearing a lot on the radio and on television, a “storm surge” is a relatively new concept, if not a totally alien term, for most of them. “300 kph” is just a number. As Jun shared with us, we did not speak to them in a language they could have understood better.
Jun would break down in between telling his story, or would try letting a chuckle out after a rather funny anecdote, or forcing a smile – they were all painful to watch.
Ana wanted to stay longer, stand by the shores of Tacloban in the hope that her mother, her ate Eva and her two children would show up. It would take a long time for anybody who lost a loved one or two, or four, or everyone and everything they had, to accept what happened. Jun and Ana got on the next bus out of Tacloban, and decided to start their own journey towards acceptance and healing.
One particularly cold evening after the typhoon, Ana, gathered some damp wood and started a fire. The soldiers have been trying to get one going, in vain, everything around them was drenched. But Ana, a true Baguio girl who can start a bonfire with her eyes closed, soon had a nice, warm fire going. People started gathering around her bonfire, soldiers gathered more wood and placed them in Ana’s able hands.
For one evening, amidst the destruction, the deaths, the despair and feeling of hopelessness, Ana’s small bonfire lighted up her part of the world, and kept people warm, eased their pain, started the healing of broken hearts. And most importantly, let everyone around her know that they were not alone, that there are people who can help provide some light in this time of darkness, and keep that fire going until the sun rises again tomorrow.