BAYUG ISLAND, Iligan City – They call it ground zero. The road into Bayug is unpaved, weaving past a clutch of houses, 10, maybe 15 of them. The wooden walls are fresh and unpainted. Most are unfinished. Piles of wet wood sit under lines of laundry. To the east is Madulog River, to the left is the sea.
Before Dec. 17, 2011, over a thousand people lived in Bayug, a slice of land on the outskirts of Iligan. This is where fathers from the city once brought children for Sunday swims, and fishermen’s homes sat elbow-to-elbow steps away from the seacoast.
Her name is Connie, eldest of four, daughter of a mechanic and a government health worker, who lived in Purok 2. Her father was away on the night of Dec. 17. It was Connie who shook her mother awake when she woke with her bed surrounded by water. They ran, mother and children, to a waiting shed on the street where dozens already stood in the rain. There was nowhere else to run. Children were carried on shoulders and backs, the water was punching chest high. Connie’s uncle was with them, watching his house beside the shed. It was the uncle who got dragged into the waves, who slammed against a stand of bamboo trees, who clutched at trunks while pulling child after child into his arms, pushing them up bamboo shafts, making them climb, up, up, higher and higher, 30, 40 feet, until his wife and children and nieces and nephews and siblings were all high above the water.
Connie was one of the last, her mother above her, her uncle below. Then her uncle’s home collapsed, knocked down by rushing water and thick rolling logs. The house fell against the shed, and the shed fell. It was too dark for Connie to see, but the voices were there, and the wind. Tabang was the word. Tabang, tabang, shrieking into the night. There were old voices, and voices of children. Tabang, they screamed, help. Then one voice would fade, then another and another. Then it was quiet. There was only her mother’s voice praying, and the hiss of the wind.
When the sun rose, those still clinging to trees watched the water flow past. This is what Connie remembers: bodies, everywhere, floating on water with logs and pieces of homes. One woman began weeping, Connie’s aunt, and then Connie saw an old man, brother to Connie’s grandfather, father to Connie’s weeping aunt. The dead man floated under the trees, his throat and belly slit open by the sheets of tin that used to roof homes.
Connie climbed down at noon on Dec. 18, 2011. There was mud, and refuse, and bodies, too many for her to count. They came from inside the city, drowned by the flash floods or pummeled by logs, carried past the broken bridge at Hinaplanon, over the roofs of broken homes, the headlong rush into the sea cut short by trees and tumbled logs.
In Purok 5, where a man named Gaspar still lives with his wife, 31 were killed on the night of Dec. 17. Many of them were his friends. The logs rolled by, he said. He watched them slam against homes, he waited for a log to rip into his. Gaspar Yumol is in his 60s, a man in shorts and pink rubber boots, and on that night he stood on his roof with his wife and grandson, he listened as his friends died around him. There was nothing he could do, and so he prayed.
There were soldiers the next day, rescue teams, volunteers. A backhoe dug into the mud. Body after body was recovered. Of the 31 lost in Purok 5, only three were found. Gaspar says it still feels like a dream. Many would not have died, he said, if the logs had never been cut.
They call it ground zero, Bayug Island, the slice of land on the outskirts of the city where the river finally left its dead. This is where the families of the lost went, the ones who know that what they seek are bodies, and not living brothers and daughters and sisters.
One week after the storm, a man arrived alone, a short stocky man in shorts and muddy slippers. He came all the way from Cagayan de Oro after visiting every funeral parlor in the city. His father was missing, and his son. He knew they were dead, and hoped to take their bodies home. Bayug was where he searched, attempting to roll away logs, calm after a week of opening body bags to stare at bloated faces. There were many bodies in Bayug, none of them were his.
There are stories people tell about Bayug. About roofs that fell out of nowhere, cutting off hands and feet. About a boy who saved himself by climbing inside a floating refrigerator. About a woman named Lea, who lost two of her nine children, who found her baby dead, in diapers and the jacket she dressed him in, his head gone.
There was a small girl who was found alive at sea on the day after the storm, who told her mama she saw sharks gorging on their next-door neighbors. There was a mother who believed she had lost all her children in the water, who collapsed weeping at dawn when her 10-year-old found his way home. There was Assunta, who held her two clinging children in the water for hours in the night. One was a 2-year-old, the other was born barely three weeks before. And because she was weakening and alone, and because she knew she would die and her two children with her, Assunta made a choice, one child over another. The toddler she kept, and the infant, the small one she gave birth to three short weeks earlier, that one she gave up, let go alive into the cold of the river to drown with the rest of the dead.
This is Bayug Island. To the east is Madulog River, to the left is the sea. Past the clutch of houses, past Gaspar’s home where he lives with wife and grandson and four small pigs named Sendong, past the bamboo stand where Connie clung with her family, the skeletons of cement homes sit quietly. Nobody walks here in the night. There are no shutters on windows, or paint on walls. The bodies are long gone. Many of those who survived have left, to live in cramped evacuation centers, to tents in fields, to government homes without electricity or water or hope. They will not come back, because although the bodies may be gone, the rain still falls in the night on roofs made of tin.