In Tacloban city, the silence that amplified the echoes of nocturnal intimacy only a few days ago has given way to a permanent racket. The electric grid is not likely to be back to normal anytime soon and hundreds of generators have sprung up – the deafening noise of their engines with them.
During the day, traffic jams congest the avenues, which are slowly being taken back by the ubiquitous car. Driving through these hazardous streets feels like playing a video game.
During our first days here, the scarcity of functioning vehicles turned Tacloban into a pedestrian city in which one could almost have imagined taking a pleasant stroll, had it not been for the body bags lined up in the streets. On our first morning there, I walked with Audrey, the coordinator, to gauge the immediate damage. Barely two kilometres later, the sun, the humidity and morbid smells had both of us on the verge of fainting. I then stopped the first available rickshaw to take us through the debris, driven by the calves of an octogenarian. I had to stop him before he added to the heavy body count.
However, we decided to give preference to local transport to move around town, sometimes even hitch-hiking our way out of the city to explore the devastated surroundings. This carelessness did intrigue those who kept landing in the Philippines as if it were a war zone. For example, an American evangelist group had armed military Filipino forces deliver them about ten vans from Manila… In fact, most NGOs here burden themselves with “security guidelines”. Often copied and pasted from one country to another and applicable to all subject to sanctions, these sets of rules infantilise expatriate volunteers who don’t even dare to go to the toilets without the approval of three managers. Worse, aid workers seem to fear the ones they’ve initially come to assist.
The wind has definitely reminded us of its power, but it doesn’t turn peaceful citizens into bloodthirsty criminals over the course of one stormy night, no more than earthquakes or floods do.
Similarly, medical rescue teams have sometimes performed life-saving surgery in an unsanitary environment, also known as war surgery. MSF is now passing on the message that such risks are no longer justified given the presence of a fully equipped referral hospital in Tacloban region.
Some other organisations call on the massive deployment of an army of analysts and psychiatrists in order to care for the thousands of survivors, obviously traumatised by the catastrophe. MSF has also sent it’s expert to assess the needs around Tacloban. This was done quite quickly, and apart from a few pathologic cases which existed prior to the typhoon, nothing really justifies the intervention of foreign specialists.
“In mental health, the clinical definition of trauma remains quite remote from its excessive use in common language,” says Mathjis, our Dutch psychologist.
“Feeling down, as well as having nightmares and suffering from insomnia are part of a normal and healthy recovery process. Mourning was never a disease.
“If support is needed, local practitioners, families and religious communities are more advisable and appropriate than a freshly landed western psychologist.
“Due to cultural and linguistic barriers, this person will in all likelihood be the last a psychologically ill patient will consult anyway. We can help resuming mental heath services but replacing them would be counterproductive”.
The truth is international news channels depicted an apocalyptic picture of the situation on the ground. The ancient Maoist group of the NPA (New People’s Army) had suddenly become dangerous terrorists comparable to Al-Qaeda. And to describe crazed survivors trying to glean something to eat in devastated shops, “survival” would certainly have been a more appropriate choice of word than “looting’.
Security reflects an individual perception, no matter whether it is real or without basis. I have always found it very difficult to be responsible for other people’s safety when everyone is going to feel threatened according to their own subjectivity and varied sets of criteria.
However I can share with you my own very personal security guideline of survival in Tacloban, which kept me alive for 18 days.
1/ Have your mobile phone charged, and water with you at any time, and during the night carry a flashlight too
2/ Use mosquito repellent spray and sunscreen
3/ Be polite, smile and please do not do anything stupid, like jaywalking.
The most certain way to get attacked sometimes is to over protect oneself. Somalia has repeatedly proven that armed protection is an illusion for humanitarian workers.
Moral of the story: if you want to be shot at, carry a gun.