Justice, not just relief
Those who survived possibly the most powerful typhoon ever to hit land should never have had to wait for days under the rubble for rescue, to “steal” from the dead to stay alive, to sleep beside the bodies of their dead children, or to be crushed to death in a stampede for food. Sacks and sacks of rice should never have lain uncooked for even just a day in warehouses while thousands starved.
Tens of thousands of troops and volunteers should never have remained idle and government aircraft, helicopters, ships, and other resources should never have remained unused for days—all while roads waited to be cleared of debris, water waited to be distributed to the thirsty, and the dead waited to be buried with dignity.
But all this happened (is still happening at this writing), and not for the first time in our recent history, because our President and the national government proved unable, or unwilling, to do what only they can do in times of national emergencies: to use and deploy the authority and resources of the state—an authority that no one else can use, with resources extracted from all of us—to come to our succor.
Something went horribly wrong and it could not be attributed to nature alone. For as destructive as “Yolanda” may have been, there is simply no excuse for the government’s response. No excuse for effectively having no contingency plan after the typhoon left. No excuse for taking more than a day to begin deploying personnel and delivering aid to affected communities. No excuse for taking more than a week to fully deploy the military for relief. And no excuse for failing or refusing to do all that is necessary to ease the suffering of those who have gone through hell.
Something went horribly wrong and it won’t do to simply shut up, forget and move on. For as horrifying as the devastation and destruction wrought by the typhoon may have been, more shocking is the apparent incompetence of our country’s top officials—an incompetence that seems to speak of a deeper malaise, of an underlying heartlessness and lack of sympathy. The disaster here has not only been that unleashed by the forces of nature; the bigger, and by no means “natural,” disaster here has been that perpetrated by our own government.
And those who are responsible—those who failed or refused to perform the role that they were put in power to perform, those who failed or refused to come to help our people despite having all the resources and authority of the state to do—should be held to account for their actions and omissions.
So even as we step up efforts to provide relief to our fellow survivors, the quest for accountability must begin. To begin with, a national truth commission, similar to the Agrava or Davide Commissions previously tasked to look into matters of national concern, or to the South African Truth Commission formed to investigate a system of injustice, must be established. It should be headed by and composed of people of untarnished integrity, with the power and resources to conduct a full and impartial investigation into why our government’s response has been so slow and inadequate, including the ability to summon officials as well as conduct interviews with hundreds of those affected.
And it should be tasked to come up with recommendations not only on how to more effectively respond to future disasters, but also on how to hold those who failed us accountable.
A national truth commission can be the start, but much more needs to be done. Not only to ensure that we fully learn from this experience and become better prepared for future typhoons. Not only to ensure that such an unnatural disaster never happens again.
But also because those of us—all of us—who suffered more than we had to suffer, who survived the typhoons only to fight for our sanity, our dignity, or our lives, demand and deserve more than just canned goods, used clothes, or warm hugs: We also demand and deserve justice.
That is how we honor the dead, and that is how we will rise again.
Herbert Villalon Docena is a Waray who hails from Eastern Samar and a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley.
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