Hope and despair one year after Philippine mudslide

Ricardo Sibunga works tirelessly under a steady downpour, his sweat and tears mixing as he and 20 men and women race against time to finish a small chapel on a muddy patch that was once a thriving farming village in the central Philippines.

They work with manual tools, hauling sand and bricks from a river bed 1km away, a token sacrifice for a monument to honour over 1 000 of their friends and relatives entombed by a mudslide that engulfed the village of Guinsaugon on Southern Leyte province on February 17 last year.

“God spoke on that day and we were all silenced,” Sibunga (36) told Agence France-Presse. “We lost everything to the mud — our families, everything. All we have now is hope that it never happens again.

“That day, I lost my wife, my nine-year-old daughter Geraldine, my eight-year-old son Geric and my infant son Lauki,” he said. “It is very painful to think that you can be robbed of everything in a blink of an eye.”

Sibunga says he remembers tending his small farm on the outskirts of Guinsaugon when a massive portion of the nearby Kan-abag mountain collapsed, sending a deadly torrent of mud, boulders and debris cascading down its slopes.

It is estimated that a total of 21-million cubic metres of debris rumbled down the mountain, covering an area of 323ha, including Guinsaugon, a progressive farming village that prided itself on its abundant harvests of rice and other crops.

The Philippine government, with the help of foreign governments and United States troops, mobilised a massive rescue effort in the wake of the tragedy unprecedented in the country’s history.

International aid arrived, and several countries, including Malaysia, Taiwan and Spain, dispatched experts to help in the dramatic unfolding of events, but the task proved to be too difficult and after a month the area was officially declared a no-man’s land.

Only 128 bodies were plucked from the mud, while about 500 people were rescued. No one knows exactly how many people died, and the provincial government officially places the toll at about 1 000 dead and missing.

The village census, however, placed the number of residents at over 3 000.

Tragic village becomes site for religious pilgrimage

Sibunga’s children were among the 200 pupils trapped inside the primary school, which was never found and believed lying under about 30m of debris.

Annie Cagis (32) was in Manila when the tragedy struck. Employed as a maid, she and her husband watched in horror as the news unfolded on television.

They rushed home only to confront their worst nightmare: their two children, aged nine and seven, were among those in the school. Eleven of her relatives were also missing, presumed dead.

“Sometimes I wish I had died with my children,” Cagis said. “There is not a day that I don’t cry and think of them.”

She says her distraught husband has returned to Manila to escape the pain. But she comes to this desolate landscape every day, to offer prayers and light candles for the children whose bodies were never recovered.

“It was more painful because they never got a proper burial. No last rites to send them away,” Cagis said, her voice choking.

Guinsaugon has become a religious pilgrimage of sorts for the local folk, with weekly masses held on a clearing across from Guinsaugon, near a river that seems to widen every day.

A giant wooden cross erected in the area months after the tragedy was washed away by recent floods and officials are now building a more permanent structure.

The government has restricted forays into ground zero but relatives and survivors have been given permission to construct a small chapel that would serve as the memorial where the names of all who perished would be listed.

Working on rotating shifts, the survivors say it is a form of therapy, a process of moving on and finally bringing closure to the sad incident.

“At least we will give them a final resting place. Their souls can converge here on this site, and they know they are remembered,” says Junuoto Siega (30), who lost his wife Teodora and daughter Leica.

‘It is important people know they have not been forgotten’

Siega says that for months he drowned his sorrows in nightly alcohol binges. He is sober now, he says, and focusing on helping to finish the chapel.

Perhaps, he adds, once it is completed he will move elsewhere and forget what happened.

Several kilometres away in the town of Saint Bernard, 330 new houses funded by the Japanese and Australian governments and the Red Cross have been built for survivors.

Over 200-million pesos ($4,14-million) in funding has poured into the area for schools and health care systems. Community leaders have organised disaster-awareness programmes, and children’s laughter fills the air.

But inside the small houses made of steel and cement-treated plywood, many of the survivors seem to drag themselves through each day as they drift in and out of a dazed depression.

“We’ve had really bad cases where people just give up. That is why it is important to let them know the government has not left them behind, that people still remember,” said provincial Governor Rosette Lerias.

There were 40 psychiatric cases reported in August last year, 18 of which were classified as “severe”. They are being handled by a 32-man stress-debriefing team on round-the-clock standby, Lerias said.

“It will take a long time for people to recover. So many of our plans for the province were waylaid because of the tragedy, and the ground keeps moving,” Lerias said.

“Geologists say it would take up to 10 years for the ground on Guinsaugon to settle.

“No amount of preparation could have prepared anyone for this kind of tragedy,” she said. “I get frustrated sometimes because it takes a tragedy to bring people together.

“Now it is time to move on, but not to forget. At one shining moment at least, everyone came together to help,” Lerias said. — AFP

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