Philippines landscape is smashed, torn and flung about like a rag doll

Homeless villagers queuing for rice are gentle, stoical and good-humoured


The typhoon that devastated a swathe of the central Philippines clipped the northern tip of Cebu Island, though most of the coverage of the consequences of the storm has centred on a neighbouring island and on the city of Tacloban.  

The main route to the north end of Cebu is a single-lane carriageway chock-a-block with vehicles. These include ambulances hurtling back to Cebu City with what one assumes are typhoon-injured; large, lumbering, fume-belching trucks; numerous cars; and even more motorbikes.

The road hugs the island’s east coast through settlement after settlement where life is carrying on with total normality despite the recent carnage.

After about 65km and just before the town of Sogod, the road divides. On the route that veers inland, the effects of the typhoon gradually reveal themselves.  

Initially it is only the occasional tree branch that is broken, and as villages along the way are fairly scruffy in any case, storm damage is not always easy to detect.

‘Help us’
Until, that is, the road starts to rise to a linear village named Ilihan. The first of the children with their signs are seen about 5km out. “Help us,” say the crudely-made notices, handwritten on pieces of plywood or cardboard. “We need food, water. Help us.”

The effect is startling. The first few strays holding signs soon grow to a swarm. Groups of children, 10 to 20 in number, mill at the side of the road every few hundred yards and then surge forward as vehicles approach, as if to make them slow down and even stop.

Hands reach out, imploring. Sometimes they are the hands of questioning adults who have joined the children and who always look drivers in the eye.

Passing without stopping is uncomfortable, but most drivers – including this one – judge that vehicles would be overwhelmed if we did stop and besides, none of us alone could solve the plight of the destitute.

The road rises, twisting through the mountains, and everywhere one looks, the destruction becomes more and more severe.

Banana plants
The countryside has been smashed, torn apart and flung about like a rag doll. Almost every banana plant has been broken in half, their thick, malleable but tough trunks snapped as though they were matchsticks.

The number of tall palm trees broken or uprooted increases with altitude to perhaps 15 per cent of all that had been growing. Windfall coconuts are everywhere, and other trees also show evidence of violent trauma – limbs torn off and dashed against trees and homes.

The two other main crops, sugar cane and corn, have also suffered severe damage. But it is homes that display the truly destructive power of the storm. Many have simply disintegrated as though a giant fist had pulverised them.

Even newer homes – built by owners with a little more money and sporting metal joints and brand new corrugated sheet-metal roofs – were not immune.

Often the covering has been ripped open as though it were nothing more than a pull-ring tin of tomatoes.

The storm hammered into the east facing slope of the mountain and also smashed into its ridge. The homes were shanty dwellings – made of a mix of recycled wood, old corrugated sheeting and other pieces of metal welded haphazardly to hold it all together – and were simply burst asunder.

Drifts of rubbish
Wood from the houses has been ripped apart and lies in smithereens, cast over the landscape. All the other stuff associated with people who are poor – rubbish, vehicle parts, cans, pieces of sheet metal and plastic, things the more well-off just throw away but the poor are obliged to try to reuse – is also scattered everywhere, sometimes forming rubbish drifts against walls.  

Home after home has been torn apart and the families that lived in them cast adrift, relying on the kindness of – mainly, but not exclusively – aid-agency strangers and foreign governments.

Many people throughout the Philippines, and the country’s own government, have donated clothes and money and are fully involved in the relief effort.  

The road through the village crests at a filling station, the centre of life in Ilihan. The first thing of notice is the white-shirt-wearing security guard, a ubiquitous figure in the Philippines. However this one, who introduces himself as Rado, is carrying a pump- action shotgun.  

I ask him does he really need it. He shrugs a little sheepishly. Yes, he needs it as he fears the sort of communal anger that spilled into looting last weekend in Tacloban.

But the people of Ilihan, or at least the 300 or so I met yesterday (out of the village’s 5,000-plus), were models of good-humoured stoicism.

Beside the filling station is a municipal office, which announces itself to be Ilihan Barangay Hall. Between it and the station is a concrete basketball court, the metal roof of which has been partly ripped off.  

On what looks like a concrete stage at one end of the court, there are about 50 white sacks of rice, a present from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Among those waiting, there is no pushing, no shoving and no grabbing as the throng of mainly women and children, but some men also, form three queues and are allocated portions of rice for their families. Their names are ticked off a list as they hand in what appears to be a community-made coupon.

One of the women I chat to tells me her home was destroyed. She thanks me for the rice. This just makes me feel awful, which is not, of course, her fault.

I ask her what she needs and she answers by stating the blindingly obvious – a home.

“Please help me,” she says, but in the most gentle way you could imagine.

Inside the municipal office, a forlorn and mostly empty place save for a large sheet of torn roof-metal, there sits a man with a weathered face and furrowed brow.

He is Zigfred Duterig, the local mayor, and, like almost everyone I meet, he has no problem with a visiting journalist poking about and asking questions at a time of such difficulty.

“What do we need?” he asks back at me. “Food, water, shelter, rice, sardines, nordos.” I gather nordos is a form of pasta.

I ask whether the villagers get food daily. “With God’s mercy, if there are donations coming in, we can give them something.”  

I leave, and just before I drive into Bogo City a little further north, I see a sign on the roadside. It is one of the few objects left standing among the snapped telegraph poles, buckled road signs and a large sheet of metal, part of a roof, wrapped neatly but with obvious force around the arm of a tree.

The sign? Above an arrow pointing up a dust track, it reads: Jesus Christ Lord of All Church.