12 November 2014 - Hundreds of twinkling candles adorned fishing boats off the shore of Tacloban on Saturday evening (8 November) during a vigil to remember the 6,000 people killed by Typhoon Haiyan a year ago.
The city, which became the focus of global media attention when one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded hit the Philippines forcing more than four million people from their homes, stood silent as its residents and aid workers, who are still there, remembered the horror that struck the country.
I was here a year ago, a week after the typhoon struck, travelling with Christian Aid emergency response teams and our local partner organisations, to reach people in dire need.
At the time, the scene was like an apocalypse – it still haunts me now. Buildings were obliterated, coconut trees were snapped in half like mere twigs and electricity poles were bent double. Even if I closed my eyes and could not see the devastation, the stench of death lingered in the air, it was like nothing I had ever experienced.
People were terrified and communities were plunged into darkness and cut off from the rest of the world as communications channels were destroyed.
This last week I’ve travelled back to the region to revisit communities and to see how people are rebuilding their lives. Thankfully, the scenes that awaited me were a relief to witness. The landscape is alive again, with lush, green plants hanging over the dirt roads as I travel throughout Eastern Samar – which neighbours Tacloban - and Iloilo island to the east.
Last year I met Ronnie Flores, 24 and his niece Angelica, now five, in their Eastern Samar-based village. The little girl was silent, traumatised, her face etched with sadness. Ronnie had managed to save her from the huge waves, which reached heights of up to 20 feet, that engulfed their small coastal village. Sadly, Angelica’s mother – Ronnie’s sister – and father did not survive. Her mother’s body was never found.
In the aftermath they received essential food supplies, including rice and canned meat, as well as drinking water, soap and a jerry can, from Christian Aid’s local partner organisations. He also recently received seeds and gardening tools to help him start a small vegetable garden to provide much-needed nutritious food for him and his niece.
Their home was destroyed but Ronnie was given a new plot from a local landowner, further inland and away from the coast, where he has built a shelter out of corrugated iron and cheap coconut lumber.
But their situation, like so many others, is still tough. Ronnie, who used to sell bread from a motorbike throughout the area, is unable to work as the bakery that supplied his income was destroyed and hasn’t been rebuilt. Other job options, such as fishing and coconut farming, are also no longer an option. Fishing is seasonal, with production good between May and August and almost 90 per cent of the coconut trees in the region were destroyed and it will be up to ten years before the new ones that have been planted will bear fruit.
Ronnie’s main priority now is Angelica, who still has nightmares about the typhoon. They’ve received some money from the local government to pay for Angelica’s education in the local school, and Ronnie’s received a little cash, given to those who are particularly poor and vulnerable.
Ronnie told me last week: “Angelica is now smiling again. It took her a while, but we have stuck together.
“But she’s still suffering. She asks me when my parents are coming back to her and I have to explain that they were taken by Haiyan. If I’m not at home when she gets back from school, she cries and cries. I have to go and fetch her every day.
“Seeing Angelica smile makes the pain go away, it really helps to have her around.”
In Iloilo, the story is much the same. The landscape has improved, but in an area heavily reliant on fishing, it’s especially difficult.
I spent time with the people residing in the islands of Isla Gigante Norte and Isla Gigante Sur, off the northern coast of the province, where communities are particularly poor. They have to travel by boat to collect food and other necessities from the mainland, a round trip that takes over two hours. Following Haiyan they have had to rely on food rations for months, including supplies from HMS Illustrious which are dropped off by helicopter.
Now, they face an ongoing battle. They told me that following the typhoon their daily catch has reduced by two thirds as a consequence of the fishes’ habitats being destroyed, and although it’s enough to feed their families, they can’t earn a lot at the market anymore. Many of the fishermen here have received new boats from Christian Aid and its partners, who are now looking into ways to encourage fish to breed and repopulate the seas.
As our work continues in Samar, Leyte, Iloilo and Palawan, partner organisations are now looking to the longer term in order to create job opportunities for the local population so they can get back on their feet and grow back stronger.
Notes to editors:
1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.
2. Christian Aid’s core belief is that the world can and must be changed so that poverty is ended: this is what we stand for. Everything we do is about ending poverty and injustice: swiftly, effectively, sustainably. Our strategy document Partnership for Change explains how we set about this task.
3. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of more than 130 churches and church-related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development. Further details at http://actalliance.org
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5. For more information about the work of Christian Aid visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk