06 December 2013, The Tablet

Eye-witness to Haiyan’s destruction – and a surprising hope

by Bishop John Arnold

This week Bishop John Arnold, an auxiliary in Westminster, travelled to the Phillipinnes with the Catholic charity Cafod. Here he writes of the devastation he found in areas wrecked by last month’s typhoon, a priest who buried 1,000 people in a single day – and a thankfulness and a lack of anger that surprised aid workers

Day 1

Setting off

At the November bishops' conference plenary meeting in Leeds it was agreed that one of us should go to the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan, to show solidarity and represent in some way 120,000 Filipinos in the UK. feeling the grief of their homeland. We owe a great debt to them in our society and we must stand with them now, as is happening both within the Catholic community and among many who have given to the disaster appeal. The UK is so generous in its humanitarian response.

Cafod was among the very first to respond to the destruction, and with partners in the Philippines and their network of contacts, it was best placed to organise the itinerary. Matthew Carter, Humanitarian Director, is with me on the trip and we are joined by Jim Murphy MP, who has come directly from being caught up in the tragedy of the Glasgow helicopter crash. He was involved in helping to bring the injured out of the pub, and after such an incident he is generous to be making this journey.

Day 2

Bright lights

Every flight to the Philippines seems full of concerned relatives and friends but the typhoon struck further north than Cebu, a modern city with few signs of disaster.

Ultra-modern shopping malls contrast with shanty town houses. I had hoped that a people of such faith awareness might have shown more overt signs of Advent, but instead, Christmas lights and decorations, commercialism and consumerism are here on a big scale. Eating in a restaurant brought a sense of discomfort, but those in the city need to have customers to make the money to employ the staff. Allowing cities to go into recession would only make further problems for more people.

We met several Caritas workers this evening, from Coraid (Netherlands), Caritas New Zealand and Trocaire (Ireland). Among the group that travelled with us today is Alistair Dutton who works in Rome for Caritas Internationalis as Director for Humanitarian Response. Also in our party is Peter Starkings, political assistant to Jim Murphy.

We have slightly different schedules but the journey with them was good and interesting. Jim has the portfolio for Overseas Development in the Labour Party and we had good conversations with thought-provoking ideas.

I judge that the mood here among the relief agencies is very positive, and they say that the courage and determination among the worst-affected is strong and hopeful.

Day 3

‘The priest buried 1,000 people in a day’

We took our 5am flight to Tacloban, in the heart of the devastated area, on an 80-seater plane filled with relief workers. The densely populated coast from Tacloban to Palo, Tanauan and Cogon had the worst damage and loss of life. Along the coast no buildings were undamaged, no matter how robust. The wind had done immense damage but the water surge actually moved whole rows of buildings hundreds of metres, and threw vehicles against buildings and into trees and open fields. Three weeks after the typhoon a great deal of work has been done to clear the roads of debris. Relief workers sleep in tents in the corridors as this helps to minimise the danger of mosquitoes.

At Tanauan we met Fr Abraham at his parish church. In the sports ground he had buried almost 1,000 people in a common grave two days after the typhoon. Many were well known to him, some as lay leaders.

Here we saw water distributed through "bladders", huge rubber sacks which can be refilled by lorries containing smaller "bladders". It is much more efficient than trying to build reservoirs and keep water clean. The church had been flooded to about 5ft and had been the evacuation point for 50 families. No-one had died there, but the people had set out to clean and repair it immediately, so that it stands out from the devastation all around. Next door was a very badly damaged school, but now the makeshift home for several families, including a young couple and their first tiny baby, born after the typhoon.

The next stop was to see a "Cash for work" group. The water surge has created great piles of debris – building materials, fallen trees, house contents, vehicles and anything else in its path. These piles are everywhere, several metres high and densely packed. Men are hired to clear them, gaining work and pay for essential family needs and providing a very necessary community service. The group we visited had discovered three bodies in the last five days. After three weeks decaying bodies and rotting animal carcasses are a health hazard and have to be handled carefully. We then went to a centre where hygiene packs were distributed and explanation given about their purpose and need. They contained soap, towels and basics utensils and medicines.

By 10.30am it was very hot and humid, the temperature well up in the thirties. The road to Ormoc marks the route of the typhoon. There are just one or two places where the wind had caused damage to the road surface and the villages away from the coast only suffered wind damage; but this is still immense.

Pylons were down in their hundreds, big trees uprooted and the same level of destruction for buildings. Big notices in many villages asked for help and food for the people. Food needs are now largely being met, though the sight of children begging was difficult.

I have said nothing about the people. That, if anything, has been the bigger surprise. Words fail, really, with so many smiling faces and a remarkable acceptance of what has happened and that things must simply start again. We heard stories of drama and trauma, of people having homes collapse around them, of lost relatives, ruined livelihoods – but never a word of anger. All I heard was much repeated gratitude. At the distribution centre 150 families had gathered and registered for their packs. They were full of smiles and thanks for the generosity of those providing the relief.

While it has been terrible to witness such destruction, there is an oddly positive feeling in the sheer determination of the people who are just getting on with life despite the setbacks and the tragedies of these weeks.

Day 4

Rebuilding body and soul

Today many organisations, almost all of them members of Caritas Internationalis, from Singapore, Spain, France, Canada, United States, Sri Lanka, Korea, Australia, Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Netherlands and New Zealand meet together, from 9-5.30 at Archbishop's House. There were reports from the nine affected dioceses about what progress has been made and what are the priorities for continuing work.

The technical stuff went over my head but I could see the complexities of planning and co-ordination. Disaster Risk Reduction is becoming a more sophisticated science. Psychological "First Aid" was discussed and many priests, religious and deacons have been trained and are ready to go to disaster areas. Impressively, an offer of Bibles was warmly received. Rebuilding chapels and churches was seen as a priority – something that aid agencies are unlikely to help finance. An offer to priests for respite time in exchange with priests of non-affected dioceses was not thought to be right – the familiar priest should be with his suffering people at this time, although parishes might be twinned as a source of finance, one community assuming responsibility for the recovery of another. The danger of human trafficking of children and young women was also mentioned; priests should alert their congregations about this increasing practice.

During the breaks in the meeting we discussed travel plans for leaving early to travel north along Cebu island. It will mean having a fairly basic overnight somewhere in the disaster zone but it will be worth it. I am sure that the more we can do, in the short time that we are here, the better.

There was a Mass at 6pm. Asked to be the celebrant, I gave a reflection on the Gospel which was, appropriately, about the multiplication of the loaves and Jesus' great generosity in providing much more than was needed. I had an excellent conversation with Jim Murphy MP before his return to London. He has been a good companion and I have liked his integrity and sense of justice in providing for the needs of those in distress. I also spoke with some of the NGO workers, wondering at how they sustain a generous freedom to travel to where they are needed at a moment's notice, and to live abroad for long periods of time in places they have not chosen.

Day 5

Idyllic – from a distance

The plan was to travel to see the north of Cebu Island and two other islands affected by the typhoon. For 60 miles north there was no sign of damage; then it all became evident very suddenly. All along the way were fallen trees, their trunks newly cut to clear the road. In some meadows every tree had been flattened and houses had been destroyed. Again the estimate is that 90% of homes are damaged and 50% of those completely lost. Families are living in shacks using the debris or emergency tents and there were many makeshift signs at junctions asking for help and food for communities living off the main road.

After three hours we reached the northern tip of Cebu Island, to await the next ferry to Bantayan Island. Passengers included uniformed soldiers on relief work, some of them armed. Relief workers all had T-shirts with the logo of the charity they represent. Then there were individuals and families just making their regular journey; and there were tourists, as some of the hotels are still functioning. Can one be a tourist in such conditions? Whatever one’s view, tourists bring invaluable income, in this most difficult of times.

The island looked idyllic as the ferry approached, but it became immediately obvious as we docked that terrible damage had been done. Some of the modern concrete buildings seemed to have escaped the worst but the housing has suffered. We went straight to a little community called Pili on the other side of the island. The square was full of hundreds of people quietly queuing for goods at the distribution point. After registering names against the electoral roll families received a voucher listing the goods they would receive: food, toiletries and tools. They then presented the voucher and received the goods in a plastic dustbin (useful in itself). The calm was wonderful to see, with thank-yous and smiles. I would certainly have expected tension and frustration among people who have lost homes, livelihoods and family members: and this was the first distribution they had received.

Bantayan has two important food industries: poultry and fishing. We saw some enormous battery farms. One had lost half of its 18,000 chickens and the sheds had collapsed.

As I close this, at 11,15pm, there is a torrential downpour outside. I am not sure I could get used to these extremes, as the day has been very hot, in the mid-thirties, and humid. And now this rain.

Day 6

Finishing up

It is 4.30am, the rain has gone and it is already hot. At 5am I could just see a small boat one hundred yards off the beach. I joked that this was our boat and everybody laughed … but it turned out to be true! We waded out to it for the short journey to the island of Hilantagaan.

This is clearly a poor community but a proud one. Of 847 houses on the island only seven are undamaged, with houses tilted on their sides, houses flattened completely and most roofs gone. But what pride they have. It seemed that the whole village was up and busy with a team of ladies, young and old, sweeping the road and the sandy beach. Again the smiles and welcome - all the more startling in the face of such ruin. A main source of income and food is fishing. Of the 300 boats of the islanders, 48 were damaged and 4 destroyed.

We went to the local primary school, with no roofs and three classrooms completely destroyed. There were classes today under tarpaulin sheets for 825 shy, laughing Filipino children. Not too many discipline problems there! After all the poultry yesterday, I noticed many cockerels in the village – for cockfighting. They are increasingly confined to make them more aggressive. It seemed to me such a strange "sport" for such a gentle people. Yet it draws big crowds and betting is rife.

We left the island about 10am and fortunately there was some tarpaulin in the tiny boat to shade us. And now I am turning towards home. From Hilantagaan island back to Santa Fe, then the ferry back to Polambato on the northern tip of Cebu Island and then the drive to Cebu City in time for the flight to Hong Kong and on to London. We have to be back at the airport in less than ten hours from now and, given the unpredictability of ferry times and traffic, that makes one of two of the group quite nervous. I write this on the white sandy beach of Santa Fe on Bantayan island, an excellent holiday choice in better days.

We had quite a storm on the ferry trip back to Polambato, with very dark skies for just about half an hour, and heavy rain; then it was over and the heat intensified. Most people here travel in little open buses, with all the heat, or on one of the very many bicycles and motorbikes. It cannot make for comfortable traveling, particularly in the long traffic jams.

The group had a last meal together just before we [representatives of various Caritas bodies] split up. These are impressive people, driven by a sense of justice and of generosity. It seems quite unbelievable that we have only been here four full days.

You can read a longer version of the bishop's blog here. Photo: Diocese of Westminster

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User comments (1)

Comment by: Alan Whelan
Posted: 07/12/2013 09:34:56

Thanks to Bishop Arnold for this account, which helps us understand the need to continue our efforts on behalf of CAFOD, SCIAF and Trocaire. Thanks too to Jim Murphy MP, who was seen on tv in Glasgow only seven days ago, and who one expects will make his own report to parliament. I was especially touched by accounts of the positivity of the Filipino people.

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