Friday 6th December
It is 4.30am, the rain has gone and it is already hot. At 5am I can just see a small boat one hundred yards off the beach, which turns out to be ours. We wade out to it for the short journey to the island of Hilantagaan.
This is clearly a poor community, devastated even further by the Typhoon. A main source of income and food is fishing. Of the 300 boats of the islanders, 48 were damaged and 4 destroyed. Of 847 houses on the island only seven are undamaged, with houses tilted on their sides, houses flattened completely and most roofs gone.
But what pride they have. It seems that the whole village is up and busy with a team of ladies, young and old, sweeping the road and the sandy beach. As far as possible, everything is meticulously clean and tidy and again the smiles and welcome are evident – all the more startling in the face of such ruin.
We met the Barangay, a young man voted into office just one month ago. His full-time job is to be the organiser, decision-maker and all-round boss of the community. This system works throughout the Philippines. In the cities a Barangay may just cover a few streets, but it means that there is some immediate, local structure and point of reference. Not an easy job since most Barangay Chiefs receive only an honorarium. This young man gave up a job in Cebu as a security guard and now he faces making the decisions for the survival of his community.
We go to the local primary school, with no roofs and three classrooms completely destroyed. There are classes today under tarpaulin sheets for 825 shy, laughing Filipino children. Not too many discipline problems there! After all the poultry yesterday, I notice many cockerels in the village. Some are roaming free, some are tethered and some locked in very confining spaces. Are they for meat or trading ? No, for cockfighting. They are increasingly confined and limited so as to raise their frustration and make them more aggressive. It seems to me such a strange “sport” for such a gentle people. Yet it draws big crowds and betting is rife.
We leavethe island about 10am and begin the long journey home to London.
As we get ready to leave, I reflect on everything I have seen and the people I have met. There are four aspects I feel will stay with me most.
In the first place, I think that the sheer courage and resilience of the people made the trip quite unique. How could they remain so calm and grateful in the light of all that they had suffered and with all that now has to be done in recovery?
I have never been to a disaster area before, but this reaction struck me as quite wonderful. It made for a sense that the recovery will be full of hope and determination and will gather momentum. But I am left asking what quality allows them, as whole communities, to think in this way? How can they be like this – not just individuals but everyone we met without exception.
I come to the conclusion that it is a deep-rooted, and enviable, religious faith which invites a trust and a hope for the future. It was remarkable that such an emphasis was put on restoring the churches. I came to realise, in the various discussions, that the churches were not only vital meeting places but represented a focal point for people’s lives, both spiritually and socially. They represented well-being.
Secondly, there was the sense of collaboration among the various Caritas agencies that seemed to be a key value in the success of the relief work. The day-long meeting that I attended for the representatives of the nine affected dioceses, civic authorities and Caritas agencies demonstrated a sense of a united effort to meet the needs of the crisis, highlighting any duplication of effort and also making sure that no community is being left out in the relief work.
It represents a very effective response of the Church throughout the world and puts into effect the generous response of Catholic communities across the world, and their giving in time of a crisis. Throughout the five days we met with so many people from any number of Caritas agencies all working together. It spoke very clearly to me of a sense of the Gospel in action, something which Pope Francis continually urges.
The third aspect that will stay with me concerns the children. I was afraid that I would hear much about traumatised children and something of the lasting effects of their experience. I was very encouraged, therefore, to visit the school on Friday morning to find five hundred children laughing and playing and settled with determination into their studies, despite their school buildings being in ruins. What a friendly welcome they gave me. Their smiling shyness was so reassuring. Yes, I am sure that there will be some who will have nightmares because of what they witnessed but there does not seem to have been any collective and lasting trauma.
Finally, I found it curious that even at a little distance from such devastation, things just seemed to carry on as normal. Cebu City was busy about its own daily business, with shops, restaurants and hotels all full and the roads packed with traffic. Just up the road, almost I suppose within commuter distance, life had been drastically changed with loss of livelihoods and homes and, for some seven thousand people, the loss of life. There would be no question in my mind that the people who were not directly affected did not care, quite the opposite. But life has a way of going on. What is so important is that we should be made well aware of what is happening when such awful events occur and recognise that we have a role, and a responsibility, in helping the recovery.
As I come to a close with this diary of my trip to the Philippines, I am only too aware that there are more than four million Syrians facing dreadful hardship, as refugees, and that progress in alleviating their suffering is hampered because of the continuing violence and lack of security.
There are all too many other places in our world where there is so much to be done so that people may live in peace, with dignity, free from poverty. Are we doing anything like enough to help? Sadly not, despite some heroic efforts. That remains the challenge. It’s Francis’ challenge to us.
About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.