Devastation and hope in quake-hit Philippines

A joint inter-agency team lead by UN OCHA visits the earthquake affected areas in the central Philippines island of Bohol. --  PHOTO: OCHA/ PRERNA SURI
A joint inter-agency team lead by UN OCHA visits the earthquake affected areas in the central Philippines island of Bohol. --  PHOTO: OCHA/ PRERNA SURI
Survivors of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the central Philippines on Oct 15 are forced to use a small canoe to cross a river. The earthquake knocked out bridges and roads across the island of Bohol, and displaced more than 350,000 people. -- PHOTO: OCHA/ PRERNA SURI
Residents of Sagbayan Municipality charging their mobile phones with a generator. The powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Oct 15 knowcked down power lines. -- PHOTO: OCHA/ PRERNA SURI
Linda, who is in her mid 50s, sleeps under a plastic sheet in Sagbayan. The Oct 15 earthquake has displaced over 350,000 people, focring many to live outdoors. -- PHOTO: OCHA/ PRERNA SURI
Rodell Barace, 30, standing in front of his collapsed home in Anteqera. On October 15, he lost four of his family members, including his only son, six-year-old Shame Gyle, to one of the worst earthquakes the Philippines has witnessed in years. -- PHOTO: OCHA/ PRERNA SURI

By Prerna Suri, For The Straits Times

BOHOL (Central Philippines) - Rodell Barace, 30, can't remember the last time he properly slept.

October 15 was the day he lost four of his family members, including his only son, six-year-old Shame Gyle, to one of the worst earthquakes the Philippines has witnessed in years.

"It started off as a perfect day," he recalls. "My father was repairing a chair in our front yard and my mother was washing clothes in the house. My wife and I had gone out for some errands. Suddenly the ground beneath us started shaking. I ran back and saw my son disappear."

Rodell's parents, sister, brother and son were buried alive, trapped inside their collapsed home for over six hours. Only his brother survived.

"It was unbearable to hear them screaming, crying out for help," says Rodell.

Rodell's grandfather, 75, forces a smile as he approaches us but the sadness in his eyes betrays what he has experienced.

"It's as if we never lived here," he tells us, pointing to the rubble that was once the family's former home.

"We dug with our hands with whatever strength we had left. But it wasn't enough," he said, collapsing in tears.

Shame Gyle would have turned seven this month.

The road to Antequera

The Baraces live in Antequera, a popular tourist destination in the central Philippine island of Bohol, which boasts magnificent landscapes like the 'Chocolate Hills'. But the area also lies on an active fault line, bearing the brunt of the recent 7.2-magnitude earthquake.

To understand the extent of the devastation, one only needs to come here.

The once booming town is now literally reduced to rubble. Roads are cracked open violently with shards of humanity strewn around. Entire homes are abandoned, with an almost eerie undertone. Those who managed to salvage their homes live in the shadow of their former residences, fearing to go back.

The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), has recorded over 2,000 aftershocks since the earthquake on Oct 15, underscoring the fear with which people live here. Adding to this, several landslides triggered by the ensuing aftershocks have left some roads blocked, delaying relief efforts, in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

To reach the Baraces' village, we travel by a 'bum boat' (a wooden boat common in Southeast Asia) as the town bridge had partially sunk, flattened by the violent intensity of the quake. We pass several homes as we cross the river. Once tall and proud, they now lie forlorn, heaving under the weight of this tragedy.

As we reach ashore, we are asked to cross a small wooden bridge in a single file, as the sheer weight of a few bodies could mean a sharp drop below.

Further down the road, we jump on motorbikes, driving along dirt tracks. We pass fallen trees, violently uprooted by landslides, an unkind domino game unfolding before our eyes.

Families sitting outside their ruined homes look dazed as we pass by, trying to comprehend what happened.

Getting off our motorbikes, we hike a few metres to reach the Baraces' village. With no power supply, there's also no clean drinking water as most families rely on ground pumps run on electricity. Food is also in desperate shortage. A family of seven tell us, they've been surviving on literally a cup of rice, a tin of sardines and a pack of noodles each day.

The extensive damage to roads and bridges meant that Antequera was one of the hardest towns to deliver aid in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

Our team was travelling to Bohol as a part of an inter-agency humanitarian assessment team, led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Sitting outside his office, Mayor Jose Mario J. Pahang, tells us the earthquake took everyone by surprise.

"None of us have experienced anything like this before in Antequera. Thankfully, it was a public holiday when the earthquake struck. Schools and offices were closed, which helped reduce the number of causalities," he says.

Tens of thousands displaced

In the neighbouring municipality of Sagbayan, the situation is worse. If Antequera was a ghost town, Sagbayan is pandemonium.

Hundreds of displaced people are camping in the town's main square. The young, the old and the sick, uncertain of what the future holds for them.

We visit the only municipal health clinic in this town of 44,000 people and see its walls collapsed like a flimsy pack of cards. Medicines and life-saving equipment are in short supply and people make do with a makeshift health clinic set up in the open.

Betty Fernando's eight-month old son is suffering from rashes caused by the unrelenting heat.

"It breaks my heart to see my son in so much pain. But we can't do anything. I'm just thankful we have this facility, at least," she says.

In a nearby corner, we meet Linda who is in her mid 50s. For 27 years, Linda worked in Hong Kong as a domestic worker. Throughout her days, separated from her family and children, the only thought that kept her going was that one day, with the money she earned, she could buy her own dream home.

That dream came true one year ago when Linda put together her savings and bought a three-bedroom house in Sagbayan. The Oct 15 earthquake not only shattered her home but also her dream. Since then, she has been living on the streets under a plastic sheet, uncertain about her future.

"I worked so hard. Little by little, I scraped and saved for the past 27 years to have that house," she points at a destroyed structure.

"Now, I'm too old to even work. My husband has left me, my children live away and I have no one to support me. What am I supposed to do?" she asked us helplessly.

The earthquake has displaced over 380,000 people and it will take months before most of them can rebuild their lives.

Toshihiro Tanaka, Country Director for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines says that five to six families are sleeping under one plastic sheet.

"While the first response of the local government is commendable, we need to prioritise structural assessments now. People also need water, sanitation, food, adequate protection and money," he says.

Humanitarian response

In response to the devastation and displacement, teams from OCHA, UNDP, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Oxfam, and ICRC have set up office in Bohol and they plan to be here for at least six months to oversee aid efforts.

"Humanitarian agencies have sent emergency tents, drinking water, portable toilets, food, hygiene kits and counsellors to Bohol. OCHA is coordinating international partners in support of government efforts to ensure aid is delivered to those who need it the most," said David Carden, the head of OCHA in the Philippines.

The government has welcomed this international assistance and several plans are now underway to ensure aid is distributed in a sufficient and fair manner.

Amidst the ruins, there are also some glimmers of hope. Rosario Cruz has just given birth to a baby girl in the back of an ambulance, helped by midwives who worked with no OB hygiene kits or specialised medical equipment. But she's grateful.

"I'm thankful to these brave nurses who have helped me despite what they have been through," she tells us.

Similar stories echo around Bohol province. Stories of traumatised people who may have saved their homes but are too terrified by the aftershocks to live in them. Stories of neighbours helping each other despite having very little themseves. And stories of resilience, that make one hope humanity still lives among all of us, despite what's thrown our way.

More than 350,000 people have lost or fled their homes following the devastating earthquake that struck the central Philippines island of Bohol on Oct 15.
The writer was part of a team that visited towns near the quake's epicentre. She works with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Asia Pacific office in Bangkok.

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