By Cherian Matthews, Regional Director of Oxfam in Asia
I have just returned from the typhoon-ravaged areas of Daanbantayan and Bantayan Island in Cebu province of the Philippines. When I went there, I had moving images of the destruction on my mind – the helpless faces of women, children and families that were being flashed on T.V channels. But I have come back inspired and moved by the resilience of affected communities, local government agencies and volunteers. In the areas I visited, people are bouncing back from the tragedy inflicted by Typhoon Hayian.
Straight from the Cebu airport, I set out with my colleagues to Daanbantayan area where an OXFAM relief distribution was about to take place. As we drove past the country side, I could see the magnitude of destruction – uprooted trees, destroyed houses, tumbled electrical polls, roofless churches – everything seemed to have been wiped out by the forceful winds. Undeterred by all of this, government electricity department officials were working hard to repair the damage; groups of people were clearing the road, chopping broken tree branches and burning the trash of accumulated debris. People were rebuilding their houses, I saw a few farmers back ploughing their fields, small markets and businesses were abuzz with activity. Men, women and children were returning home from distribution centres with relief items in hand. Their faces reflected a sense of determination to fight back and rebuild their lives as quickly as possible.
The images of ‘helplessness’ which I had seen on the TV were soon replaced by images of ‘hope and dignity’. It is true that it will take months for the affected communities to fully recover from this disaster. But it’s a promising beginning.
When i reached the distribution location in PayPay Barangay, one of the municipal school compounds, I saw women and men lined up patiently to receive the relief item kits. Local officials and volunteers were helping OXFAM staff to distribute the items. I met with an energetic young man called Ian in his mid 20’s hailing out to the crowd, giving instructions in a light-hearted manner. “My own family and relatives have been affected by the disaster. But I want to help my community here. I am supporting the OXFAM team in this area. In between I find time to go back to my family and help them out,” he said with enthusiasm and pride.
The principal of the school told me that the school has been home to many families since the Typhoon hit. Most of them have now returned to their places. Though, some families are still left behind. “I am determined to open the school next week. It will help the children to get over the tragedy to some extent. At least a sense of normalcy will return,” said the Principal. He and the colleagues along with local officials are making sure that relief operation goes without any disruption.
In order to reach Bantayan Island, one has to take a ferry for over an hour. As we were waiting for the ferry at the jetty, one woman in her late 60’s ushered us to her tea stall. “When Typhoon lashed out, i took shelter in this tea stall. My home has been completely destroyed and I still live in this shop,” she said, showing her makeshift living place in her small tea stall. “First two days there was no electricity or water. I was hungry and thirsty. Now business is looking up since the ferry has restarted.” In spite of the fact that she has lost her shelter, belongings and has been displaced, I was touched by her warmth and sense of hope.
In Bantayan Island, I met with, Mr. Jose B. Esgana, the Mayor of the Santa Fe municipality. He took us to his office and explained the scale of destruction in his municipal area. “I assumed office only in July 2013 and have been looking at various development needs of my area. But this disaster has completely overwhelmed me. I need a lot of support to help my community,” he pleaded. His wife and daughter were in the office to lend their support to cope with the coordination of relief activities. “As we move towards the recovery phase, we need more assistance in cash, not so much in goods. This will help the communities to have their own way in rebuilding their livelihoods and shelter. This will also help our local economy,” he added. The Mayor has offered space for OXFAM to set up a coordination centre in his office as OXFAM is looking at long term recovery programmes on the island to support the affected communities.
Then, I moved to another Municipality, Madridejos, where OXFAM has started its hygiene kit distribution. On the way, again I witnessed the scale of devastation. Interestingly, I also noticed rows of household poultry farms. I was told that Bantayan Island, particularly Madridejos municipality is famous for its poultry production. The chicken cages got destroyed in the Typhoon. The communities have started to fix the roof tops of the cages. At the distribution centre, I sat with volunteers and Oxfam staff to lend them a hand in distribution. Community members came forward and accepted the relief vouchers with a smile. As I sat there, different emotions were surging in my mind. One woman grabbed my hand and thanked me profusely. I was left speechless. I thought OXFAM is just one of the many channels to deliver aid mobilised through generous donors. It is this woman’s right to receive assistance. Not knowing what to say, I smiled back and said “Salamat po”, meaning thank you in tagalog.
In the evening, I sat with OXFAM colleagues and volunteers responsible for Bantayan Island relief operations spreading over three municipalities. We assessed the day’s work and planned for the next day. Each one shared their stories of success and challenges. They were exhausted but at the same time I could see the sparkle in their eyes in setting up the targets for the next day, the number of affected families or individuals they would reach with assistance. As I write this post, OXFAM has already reached over 25,000 individuals in Typhoon Haiyan affected areas.
The next day morning, I left Bantayan Island. As I sat in the ferry and looked at the island that I was leaving behind, I could clearly see the people of Bantayan Island rising again.
Originally published by Oxfam in the Philippines
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