Thursday, November 28, 2013

Rich man, poor man

The vehicle reduction ordinance, or the number coding scheme, has been suspended in Baguio for the duration of the on-going Fil-am Golf Tournament. “Why?” My son asked on our way to school today, a Friday, the day we’re not supposed to bring our car to town for our plate ends in 9. For the benefit of more than a thousand golfers and their families and friends who are here for the annual Fil-Am Golf Tournament, I answered.

What’s wrong with making it easy for visitors to our beautiful city to go around town without having to worry about getting their SUVs stopped for having that particular last digit on their license plate on a particular day? It actually makes sense and I am sure that it was easy for the mayor to make the decision.

You know, like how easy it was for them to think of a way to ease the traffic along General Luna Street during the morning rush hour - ban public utility jeeps from passing there. You know, just like it was easy for them to grant SM the permit to mow down a whole forest so they can make the biggest mall in Baguio even bigger, and earn more money in the process. Just like it was easy for them to surrender our streets to Jadewell before, and the market to Uniwide – so that these businesses can do more business and earn more money.

Those who have less in life must have more in law. That’s not the case in our city. Here, those who have more in life are given even more in law and everything else. They don’t see anything wrong in looking the other way when it comes to the concerns of the moneyed.

Thousands have been clamoring to pedestrianize Session Road to help clean the air in the city’s central business district and provide the masses a some relief from carbon monoxide, but since it faced stiff opposition from the business owners in the area, the idea has been shelved. The welfare of a few against that of the greater majority, and for the powers-that-be, the former’s always trumps the latter’s.

Jeepneys carrying two dozens of the city’s children from the eastern part of Baguio on their way to school in the morning must walk the extra couple of hundred meters or so because their ride’s not allowed to enter General Luna Street, so that those comfortably in their cars can be dropped off right at their school’s doorstep. If traffic was the main concern for the decision, then ban the private cars instead and allow the jeeps in, for they carry more people.

What I don’t understand, I shared with my son, is why they find it very easy to make decisions that would benefit those who already have more in life, more often at the expense of those who have less?

In the meantime, be careful when crossing Session Road for the duration of the Fil-Am Golf Tournament: they’ve neglected to paint the pedestrian lanes with stripes for people on foot, and a golfer’s SUV is on its way.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ana’s bonfire (and her father’s portrait of Tacloban)

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 Ate Eva 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. 

Photo lifted from Jun Fernandez's Facebook page.
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.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mabuhay tayong mga Pilipino

Every one of us is in search of a handle, something to hold on to, something that can help us comprehend what just happened. Every one of us, victims, acquaintances, friends and relatives of survivors, witnesses, we are all finding it difficult to make sense of what just happened. Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest storm in recent world history, stronger than this storm-ravaged country has ever encountered, left thousands dead, hundreds of thousands injured and homeless, countless communities in total ruins.

Yolanda has vanished, and we can’t direct our anger at something that has ceased to exist. So who do we blame for the misery, the despair, hopelessness, for all this? Armed with an idea of a fraction of the whole scenario, we start point fingers. A reporter, from where he was standing at a particular moment, saw that survivors were left to fend for themselves with no relief operations in sight, corpses lining the streets, survivors desperately trying to survive searching for a morsel to eat or a sip of water. And there we all were like a mob kicking, punching, cursing at all government officials. How can they be so heartless? Where were they? We have no idea and our already conditioned minds fill the gaps for us and conjure images of top government officials comfortable and dry in their warm beds. Or of soldiers sleeping on the job, uncaring. And how, indeed, can someone sleep at night or be so uncaring at a time like this?

But what the reporter didn’t tell us was that he has no idea what was going on beyond his limited field of view. That maybe just a block or two away from where he was standing were a group of weary, hungry, perhaps even injured government employees putting together and distributing food packs to whoever was within their reach at the moment. Or somewhere beyond the nearest rubble could be soldiers immersed in floodwaters carrying women, children and the elderly on their backs to get them to a safer place. They didn’t see that, and they didn’t tell us about that, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And since this tragedy is so difficult to comprehend, to accept, we will find it hard to accept any answer to all our questions. If we were told that the government officials were there after all, much overwhelmed, yes, but there doing everything they can, we ask another question. How can they have not prepared for something like this?

But who can ever be prepared for something that nobody has ever experienced before? How can anyone prepare when nobody knew what was coming?

The country needs to rise from this tragedy, and it is hard for a weary, injured, heartbroken nation to do so when it continues to receive a beating just days after being at the receiving end of one of the strongest storms in world history. It’s like watching a parent hitting, pinching and screaming at a crying child for hurting himself while playing, being a child. The child certainly didn’t want to get hurt, and most probably the child had no idea that there was protruding rock in his path while he was running, he just didn’t see it coming. The child already suffered a nasty wound, it doesn't make sense to break his heart too.

Let’s stop seeing the government as something detached from ourselves, for we are the government. Like you, Mar too feels for every one of the victims. Like you, Dinky too has not been sleeping well at night, if at all, and would like be able to feed every single one of the victims. Like you, Noynoy too has cried several times in the last few days. Like you, the soldier too would like to be able to get every single one of the survivors out of harm’s way. The policeman from Tacloban would surely start helping everyone around him as soon as he buries his wife, or his child. The barangay captain too after he finds every single member of his missing family.

We are all wounded, some way more so than others, but wounded nonetheless. We all need a hug, a hand to hold, to be reassured that everything will be better tomorrow. And nobody else, not CNN, not the U.N., not Obama nor Her Royal Highness can make us feel better the way we ourselves can.

They need you, you need them, I need you, and you need me. Let’s not turn our backs on each other now. We need each other, let’s hold hands. Don't let go now.

Mabuhay tayong mga Pilipino.