6am. Guiuan, Philippines
I wake up having slept well, despite the rain drumming down on our tents during the night. After grabbing a quick coffee, and with unkempt hair, I head out to the hospital tents.
Treatment and consultations have already started and a Philippino nurse tells me that a baby was born in the night. The mother didn’t have time to get to the hospital before the baby came, but our staff went out to help her with the birth at her place before bringing her in to the hospital. Both of them are doing well…
I leave the hospital to head over to the MSF health centre that treats another few hundred or so patients. It always seems to be pouring with rain and at this hour of the day, the streets are deserted. I wonder where all the people who were walking in the street yesterday are. Half of them were forced to leave their homes, taking refuge in evacuation centres ( schools or buildings which have been covered plastic sheets.) Others have left the city , preferring to go to those areas least affected by the typhoon: Manila or Cebu.
At the clinic, it is already busy. Johaan and Lisa, together with other MSF doctors and Filipino nurses, treat up to 300 patients per day. When I go into the consulting room, Lisa is treating a man who lost two fingers. On the next table, a young child is wearing a bloodstained shirt: he was injured whilst playing with a knife in the kitchen. “There are many domestic accidents. As homes are ransacked, items that normally are not accessible are lurking on the floor. Danger is everywhere.” explains Johaan our surgeon.
Injured child © Caroline Van Nespen/MSF
Meanwhile, Luana , a mental health doctor is offering counselling. “It’s important that they understand the trauma they have experienced is not without consequences on their daily lives. Whether it be their loss of appetite, their recurrent headaches, their need for isolation – all of these are normal reactions. My role is to give them the tools to overcome this ordeal and gradually resume their normal lives. It is important that they know they are not alone.” In addition to group therapy sessions , Luana also offers individual counselling for those who want it.
It is already time for me to leave the clinic, in good spirits to meet the helicopter that’s supposed to take me back to Cebu. It’s transporting MSF staff and medical equipment. But the rain has been falling incessantly, and I doubt it can have landed yet… I have a bad feeling about this.
As I wait by the landing zone, actually a meadow close to the hospital, a man talks to me. This is Gerry, a lecturer at the University of Samar. He’s a father of three children aged 11, 9 and 5 years old, married to a teacher, and he invites me to visit his workplace, at least what’s left of it.
After having confirmed that the helicopter is not going to make it – it turned back after a forced, emergency landing – I accept Gerry’s proposal . He drives me through the city in pouring rain on the back of his moped. It feels like we’re moving through a a bombed out city. The University is no exception to the rule: the landscape is apocalyptic. There are still no roofs or walls, only benches, turned upside down, indicate that we are in a school . The only part of the building that is still more or less standing has been converted into an evacuation centre.
Dozens of families live here without access to clean water or sanitation. We cross the campus to a few hectares of open land. Several tents are already there and others are being put up as we watch. Gerry explains that fifty families are already living here, a few hundred others will soon join them.
I recognize the MSF tents that Jean, head of the MSF mission in Guiuan, showed me yesterday.
“These tents are between 19 and 27 square meters,” he explained to me. “When we began to distribute them in one neighbourhood of the city, they very quickly became full. Twenty or thirty people had were seeking shelter in them at night. These tents are the only shelter they have available. We will distribute more, and have sites that can accommodate hundreds of these tents, and then we’ll install latrines and provide drinking water.”
At a glance, I realize that this is a real refugee camp being set up right under my feet. This temporary solution allows these people to be dry, to have access to drinking water and thus reduces the risk of respiratory diseases, diarrhoea, etc.. Gerry’s voice brings me out of my thoughts – he invites me back to see what’s left of his home.
After 10 minutes on the moped we’re there. “That’s where home was before the typhoon came.” I’m looking, but I see no vestige of a building. Only the furniture, appliances and clothes remain, scattered on the floor and still bearing witness to the existence of a dwelling.
This is incredible! It looks like a crane grabbed the house and lifted it out to make it disappear ! Although he is still dignified and composed, tremors in Gerry’s voice show the emotion as he talks to me. His life is destroyed, he is left with nothing.
But his family was spared, “That’s the most important thing,” he says, with a smile. Walking to the place where he built a temporary shelter for his family, he showed me where they sheltered after Yolanda destroyed their home: a simple plastic sheet attached to the roots of a fallen tree and fixed to the ground. I have a hard time imagining how all five of them stayed here during that time. Looking at another plastic sheet, I am surprised to see an old man, sleeping.
A little later, Gerry proudly shows me the place he has hastily constructed: a raised hut on stilts, made of plastic sheeting and wooden boards where ten people live. After chatting about his family and neighbours, it’s time for me to go as night falls. He gives me his identity card as a souvenir. “I do not need it anymore,” he says. Looking at the photo on his ID, I realize how badly this man has been affected by these events – he seems to have aged 10 years in two weeks.
He tells me, and I can see for myself, that Filipinos are a resilient people, and they are used to natural disasters. But this time it’s different. It’s far worse than usual.