Philippines eyewitness: 'It was like Zombieland'
“When we went out, it was like a Zombieland,” Zoreen Agustin, a student at the University of the Philippines’ (UP) Tacloban campus told me on December 2.
“A lot of people were walking around, some with no shoes and their clothes all torn, a lot of people were covered in cuts.”
She was referring to what she saw after Tacloban, and much of the Eastern Visayas region, were demolished by Super Typhoon Yolanda (known as Typhoon Haiyan outside the Philippines) on November 8. The storm, one of the strongest on record to hit land, killed anywhere between 5000 and 10,000 people.
I was speaking with Zoreen and her brother, Efmer, after we disembarked from the ferry linking Matnog, on the southern tip of the island of Luzon, with Allen on the northern tip of the Eastern Visayan island of Samar.
We were travelling as part of a convoy of two large 10-wheel trucks and a van that made up “People’s Caravan 2”. It was actually the third convoy of vehicles sent to the cyclone-devastated region from Manila by the left-wing Partido Lakas ng Masa (Party of the Labouring Masses, PLM).
When the first Peoples Caravan arrived in the disaster area about a week after the cyclone, it was the first material assistance seen by those it reached.
Since then, others have followed. On the highway heading south from Manila, I saw several trucks and other vehicles carrying supplies.
However, like the PLM’s Peoples Caravans, both donations and distribution were the work of groups of individuals and grassroots civil society, religious and political groups. Government assistance has been absent.
“Some of these people were busy looting because that was the only means of surviving,” Zoreen continued. “I stayed in Tacloban for five days afterwards and in those five days we did not receive any help from the government.
“If that looting hadn’t happened there would have been more casualties in the area. So we were glad to have people steal food, it was the only means of survival.”
When Yolanda struck, Efmer, a masters student and tutor in literature at the UP’s Diliman campus in Manila, was in their hometown of Abuyog on Leyte, on the fringe of the affected area.
He explained how they came to join the Peoples Caravan: “People were clamouring for help but nothing was coming. After five days, the local government started providing us with rice.
“However, that was only one kilogram without canned food. Just rice, and a kilogram of rice is not even enough for three people in a household for a single meal.
“Ten days later we received a second ration, three kilos this time, however we found out later it was supposed to be five kilos. We were wondering why that happened. Also it was just a sack rice and nothing else.
“I went to Manila with my sister and we found that there was help coming from people around the Philippines and international community. The problem was this help was not reaching the victims …
“My sister sought out help from her friends, so instead of just bringing supplies for our family we decided bring help to the people who really needed it … So here we are on the Peoples’ Caravan.”
I parted company with the Agustins after lunch at a stunningly beautiful but impoverished hamlet in the municipality of San Jorge in the western part of Samar unaffected by Yolanda.
The two trucks went on to different parts of Leyte, while the van I was travelling in went to Eastern Samar. At the provincial capital, Borongan, we left relief supplies — clothing, some first aid material and a generator — to be distributed by the local PLM chapter. Then we went on to Salcedo on the south-eastern tip of Samar.
With a population of 221,000, Tacloban had been the largest city in the region and the focus of international media attention. It has also been the focus of official relief operations, although this has not helped its residents. Instead, relief supplies remain stockpiled at the airport.
Every person I spoke to in affected areas expressed anger toward the national government and what in the Philippines are called Local Government Units (LGUs) — the provincial, city and municipal governments.
They echoed what Efmer had told me: “Many people are willing to help us and are making donations but almost nothing is reaching us. The question is where are these things going?
“Local governments aren’t doing anything and are hoarding things and keeping them for themselves. We hear every once in a while some local officials defending themselves for their lack of action but we, as the victims, know what is happening.”
This governmental failure, which prompted the PLM to initiate the People’s Caravans, is a product of the corrupt and dysfunctional Filipino state. Power is held by competing political dynasties that use political office as a means of enrichment.
Even in the absence of a calamity such as Yolanda the effects are difficult to ignore. Long before we reached the affected areas, I was struck by the appalling quality of the roads.
Plenty of funds are disbursed for maintaining roads and other public works, but these are pocketed by LGU office holders. In a bid to show they do something, local officials organise useless but highly visible activities, such as digging holes in highways and filling them up again.
This has produced some unlikely alliances. One of first things to surprise me about the People’s Caravan seeing the trucks emblazoned with banners from the socialist PLM alongside those of Caritas, the relief agency of the Catholic Church.
On many issues in the Philippines, such as the long-running political saga around the Reproductive Health Bill, the Church and the left are bitterly opposed. However, most Filipinos are Catholic and take religion seriously.
In rural areas in particular, the Church is central to community life and, at the parish level at least, more in touch with grassroots Filipino society than the state.
The left and the Church have already been cooperating in campaigns against political dynasties and the “pork barrel”, as the institutionalised corruption is known.
For Peoples Caravan 2, Caritas provided the two large trucks and their contents, which were drawn entirely from donations made by ordinary Filipinos via their parish churches.
Distributing the goods is problematic. Unable to rely on the state, Caritas asked the PLM to take the goods to the Eastern Visayas.
Apart from two truck drivers, the Agustin siblings and myself, the dozen or so people who travelled with the convoy were all PLM activists. The PLM also provided the van and its contents.
Contents included solar lighting and mobile phone recharging units destined for the devastated municipality of Salcedo. It was here I witnessed another aspect of Filipino politics.
Below the LGUs is another tier of government, the Barangays. In urban areas, these are neighbourhood councils and in rural areas villages or collections of hamlets called sitios. These are often (but not always) far more democratic and connected to the community.
In Salcedo, through a local women’s group, the PLM made contact with the leaders of one Barangay. When we arrived, we found they had invited the leaders of four neighbouring Barangays to share in the solar units. Such behaviour would be unimaginable in the LGUs.
Furthermore, the neighbouring Barangay leaders arrived on foot or by motorbike. For LGU officials flashy cars and SUVs are the spoils of office.
It is hard to find words to describe what I witnessed when we reached the affected areas, particularly after having been entranced by the lush tropical beauty of Luzon.
Coconut palms were stripped of their fronds. In some cases they were snapped and left lurching at incongruous angles. In other instances it seemed that they had been scooped up by a giant hand and thrown down like a pile of matchsticks.
Survivors told me that this was — or should have been — impossible.
Indeed to Filipinos, the coconut palm’s ability to bend with the wind but not break, even in the strongest storm, is a symbol of strength and flexibility. This was often cited as evidence for what every survivor I spoke to told me: Yolanda was far stronger than the strongest storm.
This is the reality of climate change. I saw towns and villages literally wiped off the map. A flat concrete slab was all that remained of a modern gas station.
Many people were looking blank and traumatised, but others were already rebuilding their homes. For the LGUs, it was business as usual: I saw mechanical diggers reserved for “pork barrel” token road improvements while only metres away survivors were rebuilding their village by hand.
Reminding me of Zoreen’s reference to zombies, I saw where the dead had risen: in the town of Hernani, the storm surge had swept through the cemetery, depositing gravestones and the contents of graves on the other side of the road. Someone had placed some of the unearthed skulls on a piece of concrete.
After Salcedo, we travelled through Tacloban to the adjacent municipality of Tanauan.
After dark, we entered what had until recently been an urbanised area. It was impossible not to be reminded again of a zombie apocalypse: a foul-smelling smoke hung over the dark ruins as survivors huddled around bonfires.
The parish church of St Vincent Ferrer, where we spent the night, was a sanctuary from the chaos all around. The young parish priest, Father Ronel Taboso, was always quietly spoken but his anger at the government was undisguised. He told us how the army threw supplies from helicopters, forcing desperate survivors to scramble for them.
One of the other things that surprised me was the army. I had expected to see soldiers patrolling the streets against looters. But in Tacloban, they did nothing to stop the stripping bare of the large Robinsons Shopping Mall by survivors — already in its final stages when they arrived.
At an institutional level, the army acted like any other institution of the Filipino state: uselessly. At the rank-and-file level, the soldiers looked as traumatised and bewildered as everyone else.
Outside the church in the morning, a young man cradling a fighting cock told us stories of the 15 foot high wave that was so fast a fire truck was unable to outrun it. The firefighters all drowned.
He was one of many survivors being fed by the church. When we asked if he had received anything from the government he shook his head with an ironic smile. It was a stupid question.
How reconstruction will proceed is unknown. The region is one of the most neglected in the Philippines and one of the least penetrated by neoliberal capitalism.
Agriculture is mostly smallholdings. The local elite’s wealth is mainly derived through pocketing regional development funds.
Whether the catastrophe will be used by global capitalism as an opportunity to “modernise” the local economy and create more efficient forms of exploitation (as in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, for example) remains to be seen.
The bitter enmity between the local and national dominant political clans will be one factor determining the outcome. The infamous former first lady Imelda Marcos hailed from the local Romauldez dynasty. President Benigno Aquino III’s father, on the other hand, was assassinated by the Marcos regime while his mother became president after its overthrow.
Hope and solidarity
I witnessed horror, but also cause for hope. Despite lurid press reports, survivors were not fighting each other. Rather, they were working collectively to help each other survive and start to rebuild.
This, and the work being done by the parish churches, as well as the people-to-people relief work such as the PLM’s People's Caravans are all manifestations of what Filipinos call Bayanihan — solidarity and mutual aid.
In contrast, the incompetence and corruption of the Filipino state, the global system that thwarts the development of the Philippines and forces Filipinos to increasingly need to work overseas to survive, and the prioritisation by rich country governments of fossil fuel corporations’ profits over action to halt climate change are all manifestations of capitalism.
The PLM describes its ideology as Bayanihang Sosyalismo. Its members see the deeply rooted tradition of Bayanihan, and the democratic content of the Barangays, as the basis on which to struggle against the corrupt state and take the Philippines on a path independent of global neoliberal capitalism.
They view this as a similar goal to the one pursued by some Latin American nations, such as Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba.
But this is not just a question for Filipinos. Climate change is a planet-wide phenomenon and what is happening in the Philippines is just the beginning.
Zombie apocalypses make for fun movies. The reality I witnessed briefly, and being lived constantly the people I met, was a living nightmare. We have a choice. We should choose wisely.