Philippines: a field of ruins

Caroline joins the team responding to the dire medical needs caused by Typhoon Haiyan...

My ferry heading to Ormoc was supposed to leave at 4.20pm. At 6pm there was still no movement….

”The boats are always late here “, Honey, 25, remarks with irony, when I ask if we’ll soon be leaving.

The departure lounge continues to fill up. The air is humid and close.

Nevertheless I feel privileged to be listening to Honey’s story.

“ I live in Ormac. My parents live an hour to the north in Carigara. On the 8th November, when the typhoon swept across Ormac, I was petrified. I hid under a table and I daren’t look out of the window. I had no news from my parents during the days that immediately followed the typhoon.

“All communications were cut off and the roads were blocked by fallen trees and other debris. I managed to get to Carigara for the first time two days ago. Their house was in a bad way but they were alright.

“They told me how they had seen the typhoon arrive in the distance and tear up houses and fling them up into the sky as it made its way. “It was terrifying” they said.

“The reason I’m here in Cebu is that my parents have asked me to get medicine for asthma and food. It’s difficult to get anything to eat on the island of Leyte, either in Ormac or Carigara. People wait for hours to get some wet rice at exorbitant prices. Others don’t go home, they sleep here in the streets to be sure to get some food.”

MSF Philippines

Packages ©Caroline Van Nespen

To see the excitement and the number of boxes, bags and other luggage that pass through this port, I understand that Honey is not the only one. Thus, populations of Leyte - at least those who can - make regular return trips to bring food to their families. The young woman tells me that this may well continue: "People of Leyte and Samar live almost exclusively on coconut. Not only do they eat them and use them as a building material, but it is also their main source of income, although some people also sell palm oil."

Flying over Samar Island two days earlier, by helicopter, I was struck by the bleakness of the landscape with hundreds or thousands of hectares of palm trees lying on the ground. I had not then realised the devastating impact of such a disaster. It must indeed affect the production of coconuts for the next ten years.

MSF Philippines

Battered cocount palms ©Caroline Van Nespen

At 8 pm, my traveling companions begin to stir. This is it we’re setting sail! Three hours of sailing later, I finally arrived in Ormoc. Leaving the port, I noticed fifty people lying on the ground. Of the huge structure of the port, only the walls survived typhoon Yolanda, as it is called here. I learned later that these people were lining up to get a ticket for the ferry to leave Ormoc to get to the city I had just left - Cebu. More and more people in the most affected areas are leaving their village to join Cebu or Manila, the Philippine capital.

This is not the case for Honey’s parents who refuse to leave their city, although it is little more than a field of ruins.

"Their life is there, they do not want to leave the city where they have always lived - where would they go if they fled, they would lose the last thing they have left - their memories."

"Caroline? I am here to pick you up" Says the Filipino driver hired by MSF. He must have recognized my white T-shirt with the red " Doctors Without Borders " logo.

The young man accompanys me as far as the MSF “base” in Ormoc, where I am warmly welcomed by Tankred Stoebe, a German doctor who spontaneously offers me a beer. I am surprised to arrive at a hotel that seems to have weathered the typhoon.

"Wait till you see the top floor, you will see that the building has not been spared!"

We then discuss the situation on the island: "In Leyte, most of humanitarian aid focused on Tacloban, a city of about 300,000 people severely affected by the typhoon Because there is a functional airport, it quickly became the home base of humanitarian NGOs, to the point where today the city is completely congested.

MSF provides primary health care south of Tacloban, and is about to install an inflatable hospital there. We focus our activities in the most remote areas of the island, such as Ormoc, Carigara and Santa Fe. In order to reach out to these neglected regions, we set up mobile clinics, from little. The roads have only just become clear and it is now possible to get about by car. Tomorrow we go to Santa Fe for the first time – a two to three hour drive.

A generator has been set up so that occupants of the hotel have electricity at night from 7pm to 11pm. It is past midnight, so we can not work now. In six hours time I’m going to get up, but this nights sleep will be longer than the other nights recently.

Top image shows the seafront in Tacloban, 2014.