x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Philippines typhoon survivors still waiting for news of missing

With nearly 1,800 people officially listed as missing, thousands of typhoon survivors are enduring an agonising wait of hope and denial for news of loved ones.

Typhoon survivor Francis Batula, 35, removes the mud from his Jesus and Mary portrait inside his destroyed houses in Palo, Tacloban. His aunt’s body was found but not those of her husband and daughter, and he refuses to acknowledge that his uncle and cousin are likely dead.  Noel Celis / AFP
Typhoon survivor Francis Batula, 35, removes the mud from his Jesus and Mary portrait inside his destroyed houses in Palo, Tacloban. His aunt’s body was found but not those of her husband and daughter, and he refuses to acknowledge that his uncle and cousin are likely dead. Noel Celis / AFP

TACLOBAN, Philippines // In the grieving, grey wastelands that were once bustling towns on tropical Philippine islands, thousands of typhoon survivors are enduring an agonising wait of hope and denial for news of loved ones.

Nearly 1,800 people are officially listed as missing after Super Typhoon Haiyan swept across the central Philippines just over a month ago, and not knowing what happened to them is for some relatives nearly as painful as confirmation that they died.

Francis Batula, 35, buried his aunt and four other relatives in shallow graves outside their badly damaged home in the coastal city of Tacloban, where giant storm surges wiped out thousands of homes as well as schools, churches and other places serving as evacuation centres.

His aunt was in her house facing the Pacific Ocean, along with her husband and daughter. The aunt’s body was found but not those of the other two, and Batula refuses to acknowledge that his uncle and cousin are likely dead.

“We are still hoping that they are safe, but that they can’t contact us. Maybe there’s no (phone) signal where they are now,” Mr Batula said after walking past the graves of his five other relatives.

Mr Batula said he and other relatives have paid fruitless visits to neighbouring communities to ask if people had seen his uncle and cousin, and expressed anger at authorities for not doing enough to search for the missing.

“All they are doing is asking for the names of the missing people. They say they will report it. But when you ask them what they will do to help you find them, there is no concrete answer... they say it’s not a priority right now,” he said.

The government insists it is doing all it can to find the missing but the magnitude of the response needed is overwhelming.

The number of people confirmed killed is 5,936, and just the task of dealing with the dead has been too much to handle properly, with countless bodies having been dumped into mass graves without being properly identified.

Amid the chaos, there are haunting messages for the lost.

Churchgoers browse lists of missing people and look at posters appealing for help that are pinned up to the entrances of cathedrals.

At the Santo Nino church in Tacloban, a photocopied photo of a three-year-old boy hangs on a notice board.

Alongside, a handwritten message says the boy was wearing an orange life vest and diapers, but no shirt, when he went missing on November 8. The phone numbers of five people are listed for anyone with information to call.

Still, the fate of many people swept out to sea or buried anonymously in mass graves will likely never be known.

National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokesman Reynaldo Balido acknowledged that in the history of tracking the frequent typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters that plague the Philippines, the figures often permanently end up as “dead and missing.”

* Agence France-Presse