The incredibly—or miraculously—providential thing, the dazed survivors would say, was that it was a holiday. There were no classes, there were no open offices, there was no hustle and bustle that went with the normal workday. Or else a lot more people would have died. A lot more people would have had stone and concrete tumble over them. A lot more people would have been buried under the rubble. A lot more people would have been trampled on the violently shaking streets.
Though it’s no small irony for Cebu and Bohol, home of some of the country’s oldest churches, a few of them deemed national treasures, home of some of the most devoted Christians in the world, that the miraculously providential thing was a Muslim thing. Specifically the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha. Take from it what you will, though I wouldn’t put it past the fanatics to argue which Providence is greater, Jehovah or Allah.
My own immediate reaction, upon seeing the jumble of chunks of stone, splintered wood, and twisted galvanized sheets strewn about, was not to thank Providence, in whatever guise he appears, or our lucky stars that it wasn’t a workday. It was that it wasn’t a Sunday, which is when Masses are held pretty much the whole day and which still draw a crowd in those parts. Though the pious will probably insist too that those things would never happen on a Sunday, they fly away from churches on that day like manananggal on Easter Sunday.
But you have to wonder at the horror of it if it had been thus. I recall the scene in Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” when the cathedral roof cracked from an engineering fault—they hadn’t mastered the art of perfecting buttresses in the early Middle Ages—and caved in on the faithful attending Mass below. Pinning many of them in the rubble, though killing more in the ensuing stampede. That was what I saw in the what-might-have-been. Cold comfort of course in light of what did happen, but a comfort nonetheless.
My second reaction was to thank Providence in whatever guise he/she/it appears or our lucky stars that the earthquake did not whip up the ocean into a tsunami. In both the same-intensity earthquakes that hit Aceh and Fukushima, the real devastation came not from the earthquake itself but from the wall of water that crashed down on the shore. That was what killed a horde of people, thousands of them in Aceh, not the earthquake itself, sweeping them, along with their cars, their houses, and even their land to the sea. Again that’s cold comfort in light of what happened in Cebu and Bohol, but thank God for not-very-small blessings, or respites.
The news reports say the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Cebu and Bohol was the equivalent of 32 Hiroshima bombs. I don’t know why they keep saying that; they did so as well with the other earthquakes. Grim as these earthquakes are, the comparison trivializes Hiroshima, which is an abomination unto itself. That is quite apart from the fact that an earthquake, unlike Hiroshima, or indeed a tsunami like the one that fell on Aceh and Fukushima, does not peel off human skin instantly, does not kill 150,000 people in one blow, does not murder in slow motion untold numbers over a generation from radiation diseases.
But there is a sense in which the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Cebu and Bohol strikes a chord with Hiroshima, if in a lot less grandiosely hideous way. Quite apart from the 100 or so lives it snuffed out in the Visayas—a life is a life, whether it is 1 or 150,000, there’s 4-year-old Shaisha Mia Patiluna who was trampled to death when the people who had lined up for government cash assistance panicked to drive home the point—it also ripped apart the heart of a land, the heart of a people.
A particularly bitter loss is the centuries-old churches that crumbled in part under its furious shaking. Faith of course is more than brick and mortar, it is more than wood and granite, it is also muscle and sinew, it is also head and heart. Or in the particular case of Catholics, it is also bread and wine and all that they represent. But for a people that find comfort in icons, for a culture that finds resonance in symbols, those churches are more than the building materials that built them, they are also the flesh and blood that constitute them.
Even if you are not such a believer, even if you are not so faithful, there’s history there that’s taken a beating. Those churches are our physical links to the past, they are our thread to the past. For a nation that is at pains to remember its past, that is an incalculable loss. Of course those churches can be rebuilt again, if only in part, if only painstakingly, if only at such a great cost. But Maris Diokno, the head of the National Historical Commission, is right: “The psychological and emotional damage is very substantial. That will be the more difficult thing to repair.”
I grieve especially for the Loboc Church which holds cherished memories for me. That was where I first heard the Loboc Choir, after drifting through the enchanting and probably enchanted river that flows beside it, our very own world-class choir that rivals Vienna. I’ve always associated that church with heaven after hearing those heavenly voices. But to now hear the hellish cries of distress emanating from there, it’s enough to break your heart.
I won’t go into the even more hellish thought of what’s happening to our world, or planet, today, disasters of this frequency and ferocity happening one after other. If you’re still skeptical about the climate being very, very messed up, nothing will ever convince you. I just want to sit with the ravaged and bereaved and say my heart goes out to them, I am one with them in their grief.
I am one with them in their lament.
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