Carol of the bells
There is a place whose name means City of the River of Gold, where the bodies floated soft and cold down the waterways. In Iligan City, the dead were found pinned under logs at the bottom of Iligan Bay. In Dumaguete, where poets write of silver water that sparkles in the summer, a raging brown flood punched its way down a city street, carrying a house that was ripped apart as flood met flood at the intersection.
The number of dead is past the thousand mark: 674 dead in Cagayan de Oro, 448 dead in Iligan CIty, 45 dead in Bukidnon. A total of 676 have been identified. The coffins have run out, the bodies are reeking, and in Cagayan de Oro, a college student named Christine Dalay found her 48-year-old mother’s body in a garbage dump. Thirty other unidentified bodies lay on heaps of refuse, swarming with flies. The funeral homes claim they have run out of formalin, and complain of the stench of the unclaimed dead. The mayor says there is nowhere else to leave them but the city dump. A city councilor tells reporters that the transfer was a “consensus decision with the consent of the relatives,” and retracts his statement when he is asked what relatives will offer consent if the bodies are unidentified.
Retired Major General Benito Ramos, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the gentleman of the military who has claimed since 2010 that the nation is ready for the next big storm, blames “complacency” among Iligan and Cagayan de Oro residents. GMA News reports that the NDRRMC only issued its first storm bulletin on Thursday, December 15, two days after the Joint Typhoon Warning Center of the US Navy had already begun tracking “a powerful storm” heading for Mindanao.
It is safer to listen to numbers, to celebrate Christmas and shake one’s head over some assumed complacency. In Iligan, decomposing bodies are wrapped in plastic and pushed into fresh crypts in public cemeteries. Coffins are built from wood salvaged from broken homes. A mass burial in Cagayan is delayed to await the identification of hundreds of bodies.
Listen to the numbers. A thousand, a thousand ten, a thousand twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen . . . Each number means a name, a face, a father, a Christmas wish. They were alive when the malls began putting up their sale signs. They were watching with the rest of us as a Chief Justice played a crowd carrying black balloons, they were watering fields and counting money as the storm was making its merry way. They were alive Thursday, and believed they would be alive today.
The Philippine Medical Association is sending their doctors. If “Sendong” stole Christmas, they say, they will try to bring it back.
In Manila, a young artist named Geloy Concepcion hocks his paintings on Facebook, and will fly in on Monday to give what he raised. A cyclist named Apryl Eppinger, who won Pagcor incentives for her Jakarta silver medals, offers her entire check as assistance for the victims. A group of janitors from the University of the Philippines School of Arts and Letters stuffs their Christmas savings into a small envelope and hands over P5,000 to a relief team heading for Iligan. They ask that the funds be used as direct aid and to please tell the children it’s a Christmas gift from “Da Boys.”
In the predominantly Muslim community of Mandulog, Iligan, a woman who lost her father and 4-month-old daughter keeps her 4-year-old girl close. A man named Rakim Palagiram keeps vigil outside what used to be his home, pretending, say his neighbors, that he is at the wake of his six children, wife, mother and grandmother. He is 26 years old. The bodies have not been recovered.
The coconut trees have collapsed, carcasses of dead carabaos lie by the river, and men use rocks to pound salvaged nails into mosques.
Imagine Sangka Maruhom, 63, of Purok 21, in Mandulog, Iligan. He is tall, and thin, wears glasses, and is dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and a pair of green shorts. He insists he is good-looking, so imagine that as well. On the night of December 16, Sangka had dinner with his wife and two children. There was no electricity, and no warning. When he lay down to sleep, he felt the whip of the wind and heard the rain pounding his roof. The air smelled of mud. It was nearly 11 p.m. He raised the alarm, began pounding on doors and waking his neighbors. They ran, all of them, carrying children, clutching at sweating hands. Across the field, through the bridge, down the street, to the next village. There were 16 of them who followed Sangka, who led them to a relative’s home where they locked themselves in, because they could go no further than the mountain behind them. This was where Sangka says he waited to die.
They saw the bridge collapse, saw the houses go. Twenty died from Mandulog. Only three bodies have been recovered.
Sangka does not believe in Christmas, but he celebrates it anyway, because his Christian friends do and he is happy that they are happy. Only nobody is celebrating much this year, not when over 300 are crammed inside the barangay hall.
There are Muslims from villages further away who have refused to go to the evacuation center. It is against maratabat, they say, against the Muslim principle of pride and dignity. They will not beg, they will not ask, they will not shove themselves into a room with a hundred other people. Only Sangka says dignity is foolishness this year. There is no dignity in hunger.
Sangka is there when the trucks of aid come in. He is there to say the children are glad and the medicines have come. He is still there to say, please, would someone lend a hammer? Before the storm he worked in irrigation, and had a small plot of land. He calls it a desert now. He wanted to begin building his house from the coconut trees that fell. The President said no, not yet, wait until we can distribute properly. So Sangka Maruhom waits, standing beside a dead carabao at a place where three rivers converge.
But there will be Christmas in Mandulog today. Sangka does not know it, but “Da Boys” made sure there will be.
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