Sunday, 8 November 2009

Philippines diary: In the path of the storm

Arries Tejo, 15, at an evacuation centre in Cubao
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
At the end of last week’s diary, I was heading home on Friday night with the tops of the tower blocks disappearing beneath a shroud of rain and cloud, the wind starting to whip up and a distinct sense of trepidation as Typhoon Santi stormed directly towards Manila.

I’d witnessed a hurricane before, in Cuba in 2005. That time, I remember spending half the night in a hotel bar in Havana, drinking rum and playing cards while the wind beat on the boarded up doors and windows. It was like something out of John Huston’s 1948 film noir classic, Key Largo. The next day, the street outside was flooded waist deep and you could see waves crashing over the sea wall and against the lighthouse in Havana bay.

This time, the storm was due to pass directly overhead in the early hours of the morning. As a precaution, I moved my bed from under the window to behind a wardrobe in the lounge area. I slept through most of the night but woke up at 6am, with the wind rattling the windows and the electricity out. I took a quick look out of the window to see trees bent almost double but still rooted to the ground. There was, thankfully, no sign of further flooding.


By 10am the storm was over and I was checking in with UN Security. I also spoke to Martijn, my colleague from the education department, who told me that the head of UNICEF Philippines, Vanessa Tobin, had already been on BBC News. Once the power was back on, I was able to do a bit of research and put together a news story for the website.

According to early reports, slum houses had been destroyed by strong winds Taytay, Rizal province, leaving around 5,000 people homeless. There were also reports on local radio that one man had died while crossing a river in Rizal, and another had drowned when his home was washed away in Manila.

“The reports from Manila are not as bad as had been expected,” Vanessa said. “But we are getting reports from the South, particularly around Bicol which was hit in 2006 by mudslides, that there has been heavy rain and significant damage there.”

After the flood

A young girl displays her colouring at the evacuation centre
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Next week, I’ll be visiting the province of Camarines Norte, partly to assess the damage caused by Santi, but in Manila the focus remains on the victims of Tropical Storm Ondoy.

On Wednesday, I visited an evacuation centre in a former basketball court in Cubao, Quezon City. The centre is currently home to around 40 families, down from 100 in the immediate aftermath of the floods. When we arrived, it was still hot, humid and crowded. The families live literally on top of their belongings with their clothes hanging to dry from the basketball hoops above. They are either waiting for new homes or for the Government to provide transport back to their home towns in the provinces.

For the last five weeks, Arries Tejo, 15, has been living with his mother, three brothers and two sisters in Barangay Bagumbayan evacuation centre. “After the storm came, we were trapped in our house by the flood water,” he said. “We had to wait until the next day for the water to go down enough for us to leave. Then we carried out our belongings and walked to the evacuation centre.”

In many ways, Arries had a lucky escape. “Our house was next to the concrete wall of a factory,” he explained. “After we left, the wall collapsed and destroyed all the houses on our road. Now we have to wait here for a new house.”

UNICEF is working with local charities to provide child-friendly spaces, education and psychosocial support to children like Arries in the evacuation centres. In Barangay Bagumbayan, we have partnered with Lingap Pangkabataan (Caring for Children), a faith-based organisation that was already working in the area with street children, indigenous communities and the victims of child trafficking.

Staff at Lingap saw firsthand the impact of the disaster on children in the area. “After the flood the children were traumatised,” Project Officer Rexan Dayad said. “Some of them are orphans; others have been left behind by their families. Many of the children have no access to healthcare and cannot go back to school because they have lost their school supplies and uniforms. There are children that sleep on the streets, even during the afternoon, because there are no activities for them. We are advocating for their rehabilitation.”

At the evacuation centre, Lingap outreach workers ran several sessions simultaneously. One group of girls got crayons and colouring books, while boys listened to a story, then learnt and sang songs. Older children took part in a more advanced music group with xylophones. A fourth group made birds out of coloured clay. “These activities allow children to rediscover their world in a protected and supervised environment,” Project Coordinator Cathyrine Eder commented.

There is still a lot of work to be done, particularly with children and families who were unable to get to the evacuation centres. “In those areas we haven’t yet reached, there are children who are afraid their community will be flooded again when it rains hard,” Cathyrine added. “Every time it rains they start putting their things on plastic bags. There are also children who wake up in the middle of the night because they’re having nightmares.”

Pied Piper of Manila

Carlos stands in the courtyard of Casa Manila, a reconstructed
Spanish colonial house. © UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
The next weekend, I got a chance to do a bit of sightseeing. I met up with Martijn and Silje, my colleagues from Holland and Norway respectively, to go on a walking tour of Intramuros, the old Spanish fort at the centre of Manila. Our guide was Carlos Celdran, the self-styled ‘Pied Piper of Manila’, famous for his irreverent and theatrical take on Filipino history. Lonely Planet describes him as “the best thing to happen to Manila tourism in decades”.

Carlos arrives outside Manila Cathedral at 9am in shorts, an immaculate white shirt and top hat, with a stereo playing patriotic music. He’s small man with a larger than life character. Martijn says there’s a Dutch word that translates as ‘pleasantly insane’ which sums him up, however I'm sure it’s at least partly an act. The tour is as much stand up comedy as anything else, with Carlos changing characters for different periods, swapping his top hat for a military cap and glasses or Uncle Sam hat, as befits the narrative.

Carlos takes frequent pops at Catholicism, a potentially controversial approach in such a devout country. He tells us that in Tagalog, the word for ‘heaven’ comes from the Malay for ‘sky’, while the word for Hell is the Spanish ‘Inferno’. “This tells us that there was always Heaven in the Philippines, but Hell arrived with the Spanish.” he jokes.

Nothing is sacred. US General McArthur, who ‘liberated’ Manila from the Japanese at the end of the civil war by carpet bombing the city, contributing to the deaths of 150,000 civilians, comes in for a particularly savage mauling.

Even the Philippines’ national hero, Jose Rizal, whose 20 foot statue dominates the lobby of my office, his giant quill poised in mid air, gets a gentle ribbing. Carlos says Rizal was chosen as national hero by the Americans because he was a writer, not a revolutionary, and above all safely dead – having been executed by the Spanish in 1896 for writing two subversive novels Touch Me Not and The Reign of Greed. This is true but only in the same sense that Karl Marx was a writer not a revolutionary. After all, Rizal’s ideas and subsequent execution were the trigger for the first nationalist uprising against the Spanish.

Rizal remained an intellectual to the very end. “I am most anxious for liberties for our country,” he wrote on the eve of his execution. “But I place as a prior condition the education of the people so that our country may have an individuality of its own and make it worthy of liberties.” Inspired by our history tour, I later bought a copy of ‘The Noli’, as Rizal’s first novel is popularly known by Filipinos, to read on the road next week.

During the tour, Carlos sums up Filipino culture with the metaphor of the ubiquitous jeepney. These are clapped-out American jeeps, covered with Catholic slogans and Chinese good luck symbols. Like the Filipinos themselves, they’ve taken something from every culture they’ve come into contact with but combined it to make something uniquely their own.

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