Village after village, hour after hour, people gather for ritual of distribution
Food is but one basic need of Filipinos whose homes have been destroyed
Red Cross local representative Mark Bollido explains the food distribution system to local recipients in Batang. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Grace Ausa and her two month old baby, at the Red Cross food distribution in Garawon. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
The road north out of Guiuan town and peninsula is particularly attractive after a town called MacArthur* where it starts hugging the coast. Gradually, one gets more and more frequent glimpses of Matarinao Bay – sandy beaches, some palms (though many were uprooted by the typhoon), and that lovely Pacific turquoise water with pale coral reef clearly visible a little off shore.
“You can only see the sea because there are no houses there anymore,” says Mark Bollido, the Red Cross representative in this part of eastern Samar, who is leading a food convoy.
The road that runs parallel to the coast is set about 100m back from the shore. In between the sea and the road, that 100m strip was, in most places, jam-packed with homes – little wooden houses on stilts raising them perhaps two feet off the ground – until Friday, November 8th. The houses themselves were extremely modest, in most instances no larger than 12ft by 14ft. Little boxes really, but then, in a warm climate and living on what is in effect the beach, who needs much of an indoors? But when Yolanda (the local name for Typhoon Haiyan) came, she swept them all away.
The people who used to live in these homes and others on the land side of the road where many structures were also demolished are the ones waiting in village after village for the Red Cross. Yesterday was delivery day. Both the World Food Programme and the Red Cross are working their way along the coast of Samar, trying to ensure that all communities have a consistent supply of food that meets their basic needs for survival, and is retained honestly when delivered and distributed fairly among the community.
Reports have begun to reach the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) that anti-government militants and/or straight forward criminal elements – strangers to villagers, it is said – have emerged asking questions about food stores. The first village (barangay) visited yesterday by the Red Cross food convoy was Garawon, where 130 households are registered.
Most of them were represented at the basketball court that is also the village’s cultural centre when the food truck arrived. Food bags for every household (the proceeds of an earlier delivery) were already in the centre of the court in neat rows as, from behind a desk, community leaders called out family numbers, a family member came forward, signed for their food, was given a bag and then left.
The load of food being taken from the Red Cross truck and stacked on the court is intended to be sufficient for three days. Grace Ausa (30) has a fisherman husband and two children, aged two months and two years. A mango tree fell on their home and severely damaged it, she tells me. “The rain is pouring down in the house. The kitchen is too dirty,” she says, adding that God is good to her.
The barangay captain (essentially the community chair) is Corazon Desucat. Bollido goes through the list of food being handed over and what is intended for each household. The food the Red Cross gives is 26 bags of rice each weighing 25k; 33 cases of 12 tins each of 425g of sardines in tomato sauce; four boxes of 24 bags each of 100g gram packets of coffee; a litre bottle of palm oil and a bottle of soy sauce.
I ask Desucat what are the problems facing the community. She lists them off one by one: food, clothing (everyone lost all but the clothes they were wearing when the storm came), water and shelter. A little way behind the basketball court, a sandy area of trees still standing gradually becomes the foreshore of the beach, A few sea stack islands remain perched on the reef; the scene is calm and beautiful.
“We cannot fish,” says Joel Catayung, a man fiddling around in the wreck of what used to be his house. “All boats destroyed,” he adds, implying also that somehow the sea itself is also sick. He sleeps in the local school, along with most of the rest of the village.
At Batang, a community of 182 households, the scenes of devastation are more severe. There isn’t a single original structure between the road and the sea, site of about 60 homes before the storm, say locals. On the land side of the road, what used to be the rather grandly titled Town Hall, a small, square, two-storey structure, is now a squashed single-storey structure, leaning to one side. Everything around it, bar the single house opposite, a concrete structure, and the school a little way up the hill, has been smashed to pieces.
A pink wooden house on stilts nearby is leaning over to such a degree it’s a wonder it remains upright. It is uninhabitable. The Red Cross convoy inches its way up the now barely defined track off the road. A man in the way seems unaware he’s blocking us. “They’re still in a state of shock,” says Bollido.
The same process is repeated. The food is counted out into a pile, the barangay captain given responsibility for accepting and parcelling it out fairly. The process is repeated again at the third barangay, San Miguel.
In each of the villages, what was noticeable was the way in which the Red Cross was bringing aid to people, largely through Filipinos working with the organisation (which remains headed locally by Frenchman Sebastian Sujobert from his office in Tacloban). They were helping them – forcing them, in reality – to take charge of the food for themselves by accounting for it and its equitable distribution.
And so the people are fed. But they have no homes and, so far, they do not have the wherewithal to rebuild them in any quantity or to clear the land and replant cash crops. Until they have tools (chainsaws, for instance, to clear the land of fallen trees) and fuel to power them, they will remain dependant, no matter how much NGOs seek to avoid nurturing such dependency.
*Just one of several towns and areas here named after the US general Douglas MacArthur, who retreated from here in the early years of the second World War under attack from the Japanese. He assured locals, “I shall return”, which he did, landing near Tacloban in October 1944.
He announced as he stepped ashore “I have returned”, thus cementing a lasting affection for the US among most in the Philippines.
For the first time since that war, Japanese soldiers are back, this time working alongside Americans delivering aid.