The survivors’ voices or the prettified “truth”

Community Opinion & Analysis Nov 22, 2013 at 5:32 pm
What Matters By Mila Astorga-Garcia

What Matters
By Mila Astorga-Garcia

When an ABS-CBN’s TV crew finally made its way to Tanauan Leyte, our family’s hometown, it found a place so badly damaged and its townspeople in great despair.

The TV footage showed wrecked houses, people crying for water, food and medicine, corpses lying in the plaza, an estimated over 1000 for the whole town. The barangay captain and townspeople wanted to bury them, but they needed a hoe and tools to do it. A town mate could be seen crying in anguish about the family she lost — nine in all. When asked once again what people needed most, the barangay captain said “bulig” (help) and medicine, breaking down at this point. It was heartbreaking for me, for this man was my first cousin whom I could not contact for days, for I wanted to know if they and the entire family survived, including his mom, my mother’s sister.

This scene of Tanauan was captured by ABS-CBN’s TV camera, four days after Haiyan ravaged the town and surrounding areas. Meanwhile, government official pronouncements said that relief was already happening and that the situation was already under control — indeed a big disconnect between the dire reality on the ground, and the very encouraging announcement from up there.

Survivors said it was not actually government relief but an American medical mission that next made its way to the town, treating injured Tanauenos of serious body wounds, dehydration, and broken bones. Surviving townspeople were saying days after the visit, that they still needed water and food, especially for the children and elderly. When food relief finally came, food and water were not enough to last a day for each person.

My sources? The most reliable sources on the ground…the survivors of the town, some of them my own relatives who suffered so much and still continue to struggle for basic needs, cousins-in-law and their families who lost loved ones: there is my distant grand niece, a 4th year university student, who died when she banged her head badly on the ceiling during the storm surge; and a distant cousin who died with her husband and 20 year-old son, trapped inside their house filled with water; the brother of a cousin-in-law, a barangay official who also lost his family. Nephews and nieces told of how they were almost swept by the strong current but somehow managed to clamber to their rooftop, holding on to anything they could cling to, as the roaring winds and lashing waters almost drowned them; cousins living in our family home who had to place a toddler and a little boy inside the highest shelf of a cabinet, fearing they may drop them while holding on to buffer strong gusts of wind and the lashing waves reaching the second floor of our house; a nephew trying desperately to save my 96 year old aunt by carrying her, rushing from the first floor to the second floor of our ancestral home, and in the process banging her foot onto something hard and injuring it. These stories of the survivors are the ones I believe in. And I believe it when they say government relief was too slow and too nil, when it finally came, they just had to help and encourage each other to continue to survive through thirst, hunger and pain with their injuries.

So you “do gooders” who want people like me to say nothing about this reality, about how these survivors were still badly needing water, food and medicine days after Haiyan when government was saying relief was already reaching them, and that we should just smile and talk instead about the good and the beautiful (I must say you remind me of somebody during martial law), you can try all you can to stop us from sharing these survivors’ stories in social media and other venues of information; you can promote the version being bandied around in Philippine high circles, and which you believe in, hook line and sinker, as the truth, but I must say, maybe it’s your “truth,” as well, but certainly, it is not mine. It is not my truth and I don’t apologize for saying so. One does not have to be a journalist to know who would be your most reliable source in these circumstances. For me, it is the survivors, especially the trustworthy people I know, the people on the ground. Yes, we all want to help; in fact from Day 1, we have been helping the people most directly affected by the storm, in the most effective way we know — from being involved during the search and find phase, through continuous communications we had with relatives and friends; to the emergency relief for survival phase, raising funds so relatives in Manila could directly purchase supplies that they would transport and deliver to them directly to Tanauan; funds to transport the injured from Tanauan to safer places where they could get proper medical attention, and continuing coordination with surviving relatives on how best we could work with them to enable them to rebuild their lives and those of their own families. We’ve talked to these feisty survivors. The last thing they want to happen is to be dependent on others in their effort to rebuild their lives. They don’t want pity, but they need compassion for their plight. They are forward looking as they they use whatever assistance that come their way to empower themselves in overcoming their present situation, where they have all of a sudden become homeless, jobless, with meager resources to stand on their own for now.

Thus no “do gooder” can can ever succeed in preventing us from telling these survivors’ stories through social media and other venues, for these are the truth as far as they have experienced it. “Do gooders” may chastise people for sharing ground truth information, but I will believe these stories, and share them widely.

Yes, we will continue sharing information that matters, the stories from the most reliable sources. By the way, survivors also tell uplifting stories of how they helped each other when food and water were scarce, sharing whatever they had, first with the children, the elderly and the sick; how they treated each other’s injuries; how they helped bury the dead. When these people tell us they counted more than a thousand dead bodies, we never doubted them. After all, the dead are not just body counts to them, or numbers they can easily add or subtract; they are relatives, schoolmates, neighbours, and townmates .

So let journalists who have been on the ground and the survivors themselves describe situation as they really saw and experienced it, and let’s share that to others. For in the final analysis, what matters is the truth. And we know where it can only come from – the survivors, not the “do gooders” who want to “prettify” the situation, the same way their high and mighty friends are doing.