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Aid for the living and the dead

/ 01:43 AM December 21, 2011

While the immediate needs of emergency rescue, recovery and relief have been and are being provided for the victims of the devastating floods in Northern Mindanao, attention has now shifted to the need to identify the bodies that have been recovered before they are buried.

Local authorities in Iligan have said they have now prepared a mass grave for the recovered bodies, while families in other areas like Cagayan de Oro are crying out for the right to claim their dead and bury them individually.

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An international NGO, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Center, agrees with these survivors. In a statement, it said that it “strongly supports the Philippines’ local and national health department to ensure that all the corpses are profiled, have traces of physical identification—wherever possible—for future identification, instead of burying them in mass graves.”

The group adds: “While there is an urgent need to provide for relief and aid assistance; however, there should also be resources, manpower and expertise made available to make the profiling of corpses possible. This would certainly have great importance in helping the families of the dead, those who lost their loved ones and for the government as well to improve its capacity in dealing with this type of disasters in future having enormous number of fatalities. For humanitarian consideration, to those who have died, who themselves have lost their lives, their identities, their stories and relations, must be afforded with compassion so as to ensure that no person disappears without a trace.”

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In response, and through our TOWNS e-group, Dr. Cora de Ungria, head of the UP DNA Analysis Laboratory of the Natural Sciences Research Institute, says that the Philippine Genome Center has already committed to pay for her fare and that of two other members of the laboratory to fly to Cagayan de Oro and conduct preliminary work before gathering the victims’ DNA for analysis.

In a message, De Ungria said she has been calling the National Bureau of Investigation and the National Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Committee (NDMRRC) “volunteering to go on the ground to assist in the identification effort.”

“We can also stay on site like all the other volunteers,” she said, adding that she has even received an offer of help from an American scientist who helped identify the remains of 9/11 victims.

“We cannot do the DNA identification there on site. This should be made clear,” adds De Ungria. “But it is crucial to collect samples and information from the bodies before burying them individually. The graves should be tagged so that we can locate the bodies once we finish the anthropological, dental and DNA analysis.”

The call to identify the recovered remains underscores the need to use scientific methods which are already available here to help survivors properly grieve for the loved ones they lost during Storm “Sendong.” If local officials in Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and other areas refused to heed the clear warnings from scientists and environmentalists about the risks posed by deforestation and risky topography, perhaps they will allow scientists this time to aid in the precise identification of bodies before burial.

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I hope it’s not too late, but let me share here messages I have received calling for help for Northern Mindanao.

The earliest message I received was from my friend Guido Delgado, who grew up in Cagayan de Oro and still has family there. Writing about the situation in the area, Delgado said that “some of these dead are my friends, or a daughter or son of my friends. Many of my friends and relatives have lost their homes… My 82-year-old mother was spared. She lives alone in her ancestral house, but that section of the city was spared. My 92-year-old aunt who also lives alone is also safe and sound. While I am relieved by this, I cannot imagine the pain and anguish of those who have been left behind by those who perished in the floods.”

Saying that while he is no expert in “these matters,” Delgado said he planned to go to Cagayan de Oro (he is probably already there) and will be bringing some cash he was able to raise from family and friends. Those who wish to help may do so through the Philippine Red Cross or through Xavier University. He was also able to get Lance Gokongwei of Cebu Pacific to agree to ship relief goods to the area. Those who want to donate in kind may call Joey Macagga of Cebu Pacific at 09228130009 or through Mckoi Pernia at 09285512007.

“Christmas is just around the corner but for many of us, its meaning may be lost in the midst of this tragedy. This will be an even greater tragedy. Let us help those who need our help, in whatever way we can. This is a perfect opportunity for us to celebrate Christmas in our hearts, and in the hearts of others,” Delgado pleads.

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From Unicef comes information that it is co-leading the water and sanitation response since “lack of safe water and sanitation are the main priorities for those responding to the emergency.”

The flooding, says the organization, has affected more than 63,000 families or 338,000 individuals, half of them children in over nearly 260 barangays. Unicef has dispatched supplies to the affected area, including water kits, water treatment, hygiene kits containing soap, toothbrushes, and personal hygiene items. The group is also preparing to send tents and tarpaulins for temporary shelter; Vitamin A for mothers and infants; breastfeeding education materials to reduce the risk of infant mortality; and recreation kits “so children can play and begin to have a sense of normalcy.” Those wishing to course their donations through Unicef may log in at www.unicef.ph and https://donate.unicef.ph.

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