Friday, 24 February 2012

Road to recovery: children go back to school

Ten year old Joy hugs her grandfather at the evacuation centre.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Ten-year-old Crizelle Joy lives with her grandfather, sister, two aunts and uncles, and nephew in a small one-room hut at an evacuation centre in Barangay (village) Mandulog in Iligan, the Philippines. The village is right next to the river and was one of the worst affected by the flash floods that followed Tropical Storm Washi in December.

“We were asleep in our house when the flood came,” Joy remembers. “The Barangay Captain woke us up. He was going from house to house in a bamboo boat. We had to leave immediately. My grandfather brought blankets for me and my sister but we left everything else behind. I was very scared. It was dark and the water was rising, and I could hear people crying out for help.”

At first, the family went to stay at a neighbour’s house higher up the hill. Two days later they moved to the evacuation centre in the barangay covered court. When we visited, there were hundreds of families crowded into the small space but the atmosphere was friendly. Joy played games in the courtyard with the other children, then went to help her grandfather with the washing.

“We’re not used to living like this,” observes Joy’s grandfather, 47-year-old Ismael, who was in visibly poor health, with a chesty cough and a bad back. “It’s uncomfortable and we don’t always have enough food to eat. Joy’s uncles work by the river, panning for gold, but I’m jobless. We can’t move back to our old house because the area has been declared unsafe.”

There is an obvious gap in the family: Joy’s parents are both absent. Her mother works as a dancer in Manila and her father as a fireman in Cagayan de Oro. Joy treats her grandfather like a father and is very affectionate with him, giving him lots of hugs which make him smile. “Before the floods came we were 100 per cent happy,” Ismael says. “Now we are 50 per cent happy.”

Driving time
The partially ruined bridge on the coast road into Iligan.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
It was my second day in Mindanao, the Philippines, after visiting Caguyan de Oro (see part two of this blog). My job was to report on the situation of children following Tropical Storm Sendong, the worst to hit the region in modern history. This time, I was travelling with my colleagues Phil and Nonoy and a cheerful Filipino videographer, Tim, who took an impressively relaxed approach to discomfort. He arrived on a 4am flight from Manila and voluntarily sat in the boot of the van with his camera equipment for the two hour drive to Iligan. Where any sane person would be planning a lie in the next day, Tim was planning to get up before dawn to film an establishing shot of sunrise over the city.

We drove along the coast road from CdO and into Iligan past huge factories and over a partially ruined bridge. The side of the bridge was all twisted concrete and broken steel cables. It had only survived the ferocity of the floods because of another bridge upstream, which was broken in two but acted as a partial dam for logs and boulders coming downstream.

Arriving in town, we headed upstream to Barangay Mandulog, our final destination. I noticed two unusual things about the vehicles in Iligan. First the jeepneys, which in Manila are decorated to death with religious slogans, graffiti-style artwork and extra, false headlights. Here they were simple vehicles painted a uniform yellow with just a sober route description on the side. Second, and more surprising, were the calesas. These horse drawn carriages were the main mode of public transport in the Philippines from Spanish times until the end of World War II, when US jeeps took their place. There are still a few calesas in Manila but now they’re a tourist attraction, used to ferry tour groups between the fort and cathedral. In Iligan, for the first time, I saw them being used by locals.

The road to Mandulog soon deteriorated into a rough earth track. Most of the village houses had been destroyed but a few were already being rebuilt, with fresh bamboo strips and wooden planks patching up the holes and missing walls. Some small stalls were back in business and rubble had been piled up along the roadside like giant molehills of earth, logs and stones. Looking down to the riverside, I could see that the bank had been swept completely clear by the floodwaters for about 20 metres on each side. Trees, houses and farmland were all gone, as if they had never existed.

School’s out

Children stand by the only remaining wall of their old school building.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
As we arrived in Barangay Mandulog, the first thing we saw was the old school, Mandulog Elementary. It was built on the riverbank and had been completely destroyed by the flash flood. All that was left were two basketball hoops and the corner of one wall, standing as a tragic reminder of the disaster. Slabs of masonry lay by the roadside, still bearing the remains of children’s paintings and math equations. Rocks, mud and branches were scattered everywhere.

But on 3 January, a new school opened, bringing some sense of normality back to the children’s lives. The local government donated some land further up the valley and UNICEF provided tent classrooms, teaching materials, portable toilets, cooking equipment and back-to-school kits for the students. Soon after we arrived, the children lined up for their lunch. Each one got a hot bowl of beans and sauce with rice. Other children ran around the grassy field which had become their new playground, many wearing UNICEF backpacks.

In one of the new tent classrooms, Joy sang a Tagalog love song, ‘Because You Love Me’, for her class. Like many Filipinas, she had a beautiful voice. “Joy is a good student,” her teacher Zoraida said, smiling proudly. “She listens well and understands easily. It’s hard for her because the new school is a long way from the evacuation centre. She sometimes comes in late, but I understand her situation so I tell her it’s OK.”

Joy sings ‘Because You Love Me’ in her tent classroom.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
There was a small office on the site where we met the school principal, Zenaida Simon. “We are very grateful to UNICEF for their support,” she said, shaking our hands warmly. “It is good for the children to be back at school. They are still afraid of the storm, and seeing the devastation by the river reminds them of that fear. Here, they can start to get back to normal. All of us, students and teachers, are still adjusting to the new situation.”

Almost everyone in the area was affected by the floods, and Zenaida was no exception. “Our house is on two floors and the ground floor was flooded up to neck level,” she recalled. “My youngest son is just six years old. He was crying and said ‘Mummy, this is the end of the world. Where can we go?’ It made me cry too, he was so sad.”

Afterwards Tim sent me some of the video he'd shot at the school, including footage of a teacher and children singing. "I was shooting the kids playing inside the tent," Tim told me. "After a while I heard a voice saying 'I'm the teacher'. I looked back and asked a guy if it was him. He proudly replied 'Yes! I am the teacher and I want to be filmed too'. I asked if he taught the kids to sing a song or any activities I could film. He said 'Yes I teach the kids to sing a song. Okay kids, let's sing 'I Have Two Hands'."


Tim's footage of children singing 'I Have Two Hands' in a tent classroom.

Family ties

After visiting the school, I went with Joy to meet her family at the evacuation centre, while Tim filmed interviews and footage of other students. The evacuation centre was small and crowded but well organized, with a small hut built for each family by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. There wasn’t much for the children to do but they made their own fun, climbing up poles or playing games.

Joy gathered a group of girlfriends. They held hand in a circle then started clapping in unison, singing ‘buntiyay, buntiyay, buntiyay’. One girl moved into the middle of the circle and turned around with her eyes closed. When she stopped, the girl she was pointing at took her place. My efforts at photography became another game for a group of small children, who chased me around trying to get in my photos and then see themselves in the screen on the back of my camera.

It’s easy to emphasise the negative stories in these situations, but I’m always struck by how happy children can be despite living in evacuation centres or on the streets. They can be extraordinarily resilient and bounce back from disaster, finding ways to have fun. If they get the right support, they can make a full recovery.

It was an overcast day and before we left, there was a sudden drumming on the wide metal roof over the covered court, followed by a violent downpour. Water started pouring down the sides and more people arrived to take shelter in the crowded courtyard. It must have been very frightening for the younger children, many of whom were still traumatised from the floods and afraid they would come back.

Phil and Tim were staying on for another day of filming, but I had a flight to catch, so we swapped cars and I joined a water and sanitation team heading back to CdO. We drove back along the coast road, which was lined with palm trees. The sea glimmered in the late afternoon sun, silhouetting children playing in the surf in wet t-shirts. Northern Mindanao is a beautiful area with great potential for tourism, if it can shake off the negative associations of the conflict in the south. The government and main rebel group are currently in peace talks, so hopefully the children we met can look forward to a brighter future.

Children at the new school site in Barangay Mandulog.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown

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