Philippines

An aid worker's reflection from the Typhoon Washi tragedy

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29 Dec 2011

By Crislyn Felisilda

Over a week has passed, and I feel I’ve had the busiest hours with World Vision after Typhoon Washi struck in Northern Mindanao - my home. I knew there was a typhoon coming, and I was even monitoring our areas. But like the weather experts and forecasters, I was stunned upon beholding the aftermath of Washi’s force and fury. Besides, it struck at the dead of night where many were caught asleep. Alas, I couldn’t believe what I’ve seen. As a humanitarian worker, I knew I should keep going.

Honestly, for more than four years with World Vision, it was the most difficult disaster I’ve encountered so far. It happened at my backyard and I put a huge amount of emotional dilemma seeing the tragedy. Although my immediate family was spared from harm, I felt being one of the families who also lost their homes and loved ones. It was quite personal. I have all the reasons to be weak and to become passionate to work at the same time.

I thought I’ve seen enough disaster already. But this time, I experienced the rawness of it all. While I was at the disaster site, I experienced some immense pain of loss. I saw a father squatting and cradling her muddied baby, limp and lifeless. There were no tears in his eyes, no words from his lips, but on his mouth was a frozen scream. I also witnessed children crying while searching for their loved ones. They were all wet, weak, and muddied. Other kids just sit somewhere, silent, staring on blank space from afar, wondering how they managed to survive from the rampaging flood. The most heart-rending scene was how the dead bodies were being pulled out one after another from the floodwaters. Yes, I’ve witnessed them all.

People from different walks of life including children were all waiting for more bodies to be retrieved. I heard a girl sobbing at my back. Her name was Remy. I stood beside her, and asked why she was crying. She told me what happened and broke into more tears. Her mother was found dead but his father and two other siblings were still missing. I regret I asked because I felt helpless in the end. I didn’t say anything anymore. I squeezed her shoulder and turned around to wipe my face. I could not picture anything more devastating than to hear Remy’s cries.

Everything in words and images have been said and seen about the immensity of the grief of the people who survived last weekend’s calamity. But there are not enough words and images to describe their loss and despair. Sad to say, more than a thousand died and many are still missing. The counting continues. It’s totally heart-breaking.

Personally, it is challenging to capture stories and images of devastation while your heart is breaking. It was challenging to talk with the wailing and the weeping while you wailed and wept too. At the short span of time, I think I’ve seen too much, quite disturbing - dead people, dead animals, debris, mud, water, wreckage, decay, hunger, thirst and worst of all, immeasurable loss. However, after death and destruction stared in my face, my soul cringed from empathy and my heart was awakened enough to immediately help. My channels are my stories and images. I realised how powerful they can become.

Despite the disaster, I see Bayanihan (a spirit of communal unity) among us. The government, non-government, and private individuals and groups are jostling to respond to their immediate needs. I’m thankful World Vision has been quick to respond. Food, water, and non-food were being distributed to the families. A lot of kind-hearted individuals also signed up to donate and volunteer with World Vision. Child Friendly Space has been conducted in some areas already. Somehow, I’m grateful to see some smiles of the families and kids. But I know those were just temporary smiles because behind those smiles were the pain of loss and the anxiety on how to move forward. Nevertheless, I see hope. Nevertheless, I see God working gracefully in the midst of suffering.

Like the affected families, I also experienced an immeasurable pain this Christmas season. But the positive side of this is the quick reaction and support of the local and international communities to find concrete ways to send assistance to the affected families and children. The government cannot do it all. Nor can any non-government organisations like World Vision do it all. It is individuals, with or without connections, who can make the difference. There is no need to say how. It’s time to be creative.

Last Christmas, I know many families who have drastically simplified their Noche Buena in order to share with those families who were affected by Washi. At home, we offered prayers before enjoying our Noche Buena. I knew many who have also sacrificed Christmas parties. Few fireworks were bursting up in the sky. Indeed, it was not an ordinary Christmas compared to before, but I guess it’s more meaningful that way because we experienced the true meaning of the season - a time to share and to show love to those who are in crisis. And as New Year comes fast, I pray God will wash away the tearing grief and the despair.

There’s more work to be done. We should carry on as we continue to bring the message of hope.