TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — John Lajara peers under a slab of crumbled concrete, lifts a sodden white teddy bear then drops it back into the filth. He reaches again into the rubble and pulls out a boot, a treasured find in this typhoon-flattened village. But he’s searching for something far more precious — the body of his beloved brother, Winston.
For all who lost loved ones in last week’s storm, the overwhelming grief is centered around unanswerable questions — what do you do when there is no body to bury? How do you move on with your life when you have no explanation for their death?
The search for the missing — 1,179 by official count — has become a hellish routine for those desperate to find any trace of their loved ones. In Lajara’s village, which lies along a seawall and was completely flattened by the storm surge, residents estimate that about 50 of the 400 people who lived there were killed. About half of the dead are still missing: mothers, fathers, children, friends.
“Somehow, part of me is gone,” Lajara said as another fruitless expedition in the rubble ended Saturday.
Lajara has performed this agonizing ritual every day since he and his brother were swept from their seaside house by Typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 8. And every day ends in frustration, with no answers on Winston’s fate.
According to the latest figures by the Philippines’ main disaster agency, 3,633 people died and 12,487 were injured. Most of the bodies remain tangled amongst piles of debris, or lining the road in body bags that seep fetid liquid.
But after the initial days of chaos when no aid reached the 600,000 people rendered homeless, an international aid effort was gathering steam.
“We’re starting to see the turning of the corner,” said John Ging, a top U.N. humanitarian official in New York. He said 107,500 people have received food assistance so far and 11 foreign and 22 domestic medical teams are in operation, including an Israeli one.
“The field hospital capacity that the Israelis can mobilize is top class, and we have seen it very, very effectively in many other crises as well,” he said.
U.S. Navy helicopters flew sorties from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington off the coast, dropping water and food to isolated communities. The U.S. military said it will send about 1,000 more troops along with additional ships and aircraft to join the aid effort.
So far, the U.S. military has moved 174,000 kilograms (190 tons) of supplies and flown nearly 200 sorties. With the focus now on providing relief, the search for missing people is lower in the government’s priority.
The head of the country’s disaster management agency, Eduardo del Rosario, told The Associated Press that the coast guard, the navy and civilian volunteers are scouring the sea for the dead and the missing.
But the most urgent need at this time is “still to ensure that nobody starves, to ensure food and water are delivered to them.”
Lajara’s neighbor, Neil Engracial, cannot find his mother or nephew, but he has found plenty of other bodies. He points to a bloated corpse lying face down in muddy debris. “Dante Cababa — he’s my best friend,” Engracial says. He points to another corpse rotting in the sun. “My cousin, Charana.” She was a student, just 22.
Lajara remembers the moment his brother vanished. They were standing side by side with relatives and friends right before the surge hit. They stared at the rising sea, then turned to survey the neighborhood behind them, trying to figure out where or if they could run. Then the monstrous wave rushed in.
Lajara, Winston and the others dived into the swirling water, and were immediately swept away from each other. After Lajara’s face hit the water, he never saw Winston again.
In a bid to piece together his brother’s fate, Lajara has trudged through the corpse-strewn piles of rubble and mud, searching simultaneously for two things: wood to rebuild his home, and Winston. So far he has found plenty of wood.
On Saturday, he set out again. The rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum echoed across the landscape, as a young boy banged on the instrument from the roof of a gutted building. It’s a grim accompaniment to what has become Lajara’s daily march into the corpse-strewn wasteland that was his home, where the sickly sweet stench of death mixes with the salty sea air.
Reminders of the people who once lived here are wedged everywhere amongst the warped piles of wood, glass and mud: A smiling, bowtie-clad stuffed bumblebee. A woman’s white platform shoe. A wood-framed photograph of a young boy.
Suddenly, a neighbor, Pokong Magdue, approached.
“Have you seen Winston?”
Magdue replies: “We saw him in the library.”
Lajara shakes his head. It can’t be Winston. He’s already scoured every inch of the library.
Sometimes someone rushes up to him, insisting Winston’s body has been found. Then Lajara must make the agonizing walk to the corpse in question, steel himself, and roll it over to examine the face.
After that, he must deal with the conflicting emotions that follow: relief that the body is not his brother’s. Hope that Winston might still be alive. And grief that he still has no body to bury. Because at least then, he says, he could stop searching.
Winston was his only brother. He had a wife and two teenage children. He was a joker who made everyone laugh. He drove a van for a living and was generous to everyone. He was a loving father.
“It’s hard to lose somebody like him,” Lajara says.
Now, the only tangible piece of his brother that remains is his driver’s license: Winston Dave Argate, born Dec. 13, 1971. 177 centimeters tall, 56 kilograms. The upper left-hand corner of the license is gone, and the picture is faded, but Lajara treats it like a winning lottery ticket, leaving it with a friend for safekeeping when he is out hunting for wood and Winston.
He gazes at the card in his hand. “When I want to see him, I just stare at his picture.”