This is the second of a series of four articles from Michele Penna, who is reporting from typhoon-devastated Tacloban
Tacloban’s City Hall wears its best dress at night. When the moon rises among the palm trees and stars shine in the tropical sky, tents light up in the garden outside the main – wretched – building. They are the volunteers’ accommodation and their operational centers. A noisy generator provides electricity to a local TV station. A group of Turks eat behind their national flag. Journalists roam around looking for stories or try to write them in the mosquito-ridden main hall.
On the hill, the lion’s share of space and attention is taken by NGOs. Theirs are most of the tents, theirs are most of the personnel around, theirs are the noisy generators running at night – a great help to local mosquitoes which do their best to prevent everybody from having a good sleep. According to local authorities, there are about 65 such organizations in the city of Tacloban and over 200 on the island of Leyte.
Groups of all sorts have flocked to the devastated areas. Save the Children was one of the first to arrive – in fact, one of their units was here even before Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) came – and will likely be one of the last to leave, possibly in about three years time. They came with MERLIN, an organization based in the UK which provides medical assistance. “At the beginning the main difficulties were logistical, we had a lot of stuff but could not take it here,” says Krista Armstrong, Save the Children’s global media manager. Now they work with two distinct goals in mind: “in the short term, we are building shelters and distributing basic kits for personal hygiene, but in the long term we are eyeing a cash-for-work program to support the reconstruction”.
Cash-for-work, that’s the specialization of the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist NGO whose work has become evident only a couple of weeks after the typhoon. They pay 500 pesos a day (about 12 dollars) for 8 hours of work and their popularity has skyrocketed since they started operating. At sunset, when the light grows red and shadows stretch among the ruins, thousands of people get together in the garden next to the Nino Shrine and Heritage Museum, which used to be the villa of Imelda Marcos, the wife of the country’s former dictator. They sit on the ground under the coconut trees and listen to the voice of a speaker while waiting for money. Fire – a quick and practical way to dispose of garbage – burns on the other side of the building.
Other organizations are specialized in different fields, medical and food delivery being the main areas of work. The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is a Turkish NGO which provides food and first aid to people on the streets. The controversial institution – it has been banned in Israel and Germany for supposed links with terrorist organizations – has sent a conspicuous team in the Philippines. Every day, they set out to distribute relief goods in various barangays (Filipino neighborhoods). And yes, we can go with them.
The first one we visit is located between the main road and the ocean, sitting on the edge of the water. A terrible liability when you are facing a water surge: Yolanda punished its dwellers by thoroughly sweeping away their houses. Only a couple of gutted concrete buildings have somehow resisted, but they, too, are now inhabitable.
When the organization arrives it splits in two groups: on one side of the road doctors look at the wounded, while on the other volunteers hand out rice. They take it from large sacks and pour it in small plastic bags.
Just next to the place where the team operates body bags have been laid in front of a damaged building, and the sweet, rotten stench of cadavers fills the air. The line of cheerful people stretches back almost all the way to the bags, and the contrast between life and death is stark. They stay together, on the same street, in the same tropical heat.
Kimse Yok Mu, another Turkish NGO, operates further away from the city center. On the day I visit them they are heading for Canabay, a small village of a few thousand people on the island of Samar. When we arrive, a truck filled with relief goods is being unloaded right in the middle of the town, and when we leave another organization is carrying in packs of rice. A girl also says that the town was better off than the city, as spring water could be collected on the hills. But it is true that the village folks need help: many carry wounds which need treatment and food is – like everywhere else – scarce.
The main problem there is the economic situation. An elderly man, sitting on a desk, told us that “the village has two main activities, one is growing coconut and the other is tending the fields. Now both the coconut trees and the rice paddies have been damaged by Yolanda, and it will take years before palms will deliver their fruit.”
The NGO is powerless in that regard, but it still manages to provide hot meals and medical care to a large number of people. The staff contends that since the beginning of the crisis they have delivered thousands of food boxes and have set up a hospital next to City Hall, where five doctors and five nurses treat minor injuries and dispense medicines.
Doctor Aytekin Coskun, who has come all the way there from the Bosporus to volunteer as a surgeon, say they deal with hundreds of patients every day. None have died. Most report minor problems, from coughs to dog bites, but it is important to take action in order to prevent outbreaks of diseases.
Back in town, the staff of Doctors Without Borders has settled in a hospital and planted tents in its yard. Their powerful means are evident when you look at their infrastructure: tents are divided according to their functions and there is even a corner for long-term patients. “We have a special area for people with life-threatening problems,” says Doctor Pierre Henri Daculsí, whom I meet inside one the tents. He says they can even take care of big operations, or at least stabilize the patient while waiting for proper care.
The presence of NGOs and foreign militaries is so strong that people accept that outside help is a key element in the future of the local community. Upon seeing foreigners, some even feel the need to stand up and thank them for helping out – an attitude which sometimes feels rather awkward, especially when local people show such courage in accepting the tragedy which has befallen them and work all day to fix things: they, if there are any, are the heroes of this story.