Seventeen year old Kim sits with a group of young children in a child-friendly space at an evacuation centre in Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines, one of the towns worst hit by Tropical Storm Sendong last December. The centre is in a barangay (village) covered court. It’s crowded and humid, with the smell of sweat. Over 130 families live on top of each other with little comfort or privacy – sleeping, cooking and washing in the open.
But this morning an area has been cleared for children, marked out by a UNICEF tarpaulin mat. Here, Kim and other young volunteers are teaching math. “What does five plus two equal?” Kim asks in English, holding up a piece of paper with numbers drawn on it inside different shapes. “Seven!” the children shout happily in unison, before colouring in the right number with a yellow crayon.
Kim has a natural, easy interaction with the children. They clearly have a lot of affection for him too. Six-year-old Robin* climbs onto Kim’s lap and gives him a spontaneous hug, grinning broadly. “I come here to help out every day for two hours before school,” Kim says. “I wanted to help the children forget their upsetting experiences through play and learning. I enjoy it so much. I love being with children like Robin, seeing their smiles and their enjoyment of the activities.”
It’s been six weeks since the disaster and Kim has seen the difference in the children. “In the days after the storm they would just hang out in the streets, doing nothing,” he says. “Now they play games, they listen to us and they cooperate with each other.”
Eye of the storm
|Drawing by eight-year-old Christine. © UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown|
It was the first morning of my two day whistle-stop tour of the areas affected by Sendong, the worst storm to hit northern Mindanao since 1916. The equivalent of one month’s rain fell in just one day, causing massive flash floods that destroyed homes, lives and property. I was in the Philippines in 2009 after Tropical Storm Ondoy devastated the capital Manila, and the damage I saw this time was at least as bad.
I caught a 6am flight from Manila, landing in Cagayan de Oro (known in the office as CdO) at 7:30. I was met at the airport by Munib, one of the UNICEF drivers who had been transferred to the temporary office in CdO. As well as being a disaster area, Mindanao is a conflict zone, with a Muslim separatist insurgency in the south of the island where Munib is from. There had been kidnappings of tourists in the south but CdO was on the north coast and safe enough. Nonetheless, UNICEF was taking no chances and I travelled everywhere in a chunky UN van, maintaining constant radio contact with the office.
It was my first experience of working in a conflict zone and I stuck by the almost military style of the operation. “This is Charlie Mobile 311. Departing the location. Destination Oscar Base,” Munib said, speaking into his radio. “Roger that. Oscar Base standing by,” came the immediate reply.
Our first stop was the office of Community and Family Services International (CFSI), a Philippines-based NGO that is supported by UNICEF to provide services for children in the evacuation centres. Here I met Binladin, a short and smiley Filipino from Manila, who was my guide for the morning. He introduced himself with a warm handshake. “You can call me Bin,” he said.
In the office, Bin showed me some of the children’s artwork, including a crayon drawing of a family home by eight-year-old Christine, done during psychosocial activities at the child friendly space. “Christine lost her home and her sister in the floods,” Bin said. “This drawing shows her dream that her family can build a new home and live there safely.”
I Bin asked how volunteers like Kim were selected. “The youth focal points were nominated by their local communities,” he explained. “We trained them how to work with children, assist with educational activities, and look out for children at risk of abuse. Some of the young people have also developed their own activities. They need to have good moral values and a willingness to learn.”
Binladin seemed very open and friendly, so I also asked him the obvious question about his name. “My father is an overseas worker and he used to work for the Bin Laden company in the Middle East,” he replied. “When I was born, he told my mum ‘you have to name him after the firm’.”
“Was the company related to Osama Bin Laden?“ I asked. He laughed. “Yes it was his brother’s firm. But that was before Osama became famous.”
Memories of the flood
|Kim with his grandmother, Erlinda, outside their flood-damaged family home.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
After visiting the evacuation centre, we went with Kim to visit his family home, where we were met by his grandmother Erlinda. When we arrived, she was busy compiling lists of local people affected by the floods for the Red Cross. An active and young-looking sixty two year old, she was clearly a strong willed woman with a sense of responsibility for her community, which she had passed on to her grandson.
Like most people in the area, Kim’s family was directly affected by the floods. Their house was a two storey building half way down a small street leading to the river. “The storm came at night while we were sleeping,” Kim remembered. “The first floor was completely flooded in minutes and our furniture was washed out and destroyed.”
Flash floods are uncommon in this area and local people were unprepared for the storm’s ferocity. “We were very surprised and shaken,” Kim continued. “There has never been a flood like this before, even in my lola’s (grandmother’s) lifetime. We were afraid we would all drown. We couldn’t even open the front door because of the water pressure outside. I remember my mother panicking and shouting. I was very scared. I thought, ‘what can I do to help?’ It was very traumatic for me.”
Kim’s grandmother took charge of the situation. “I realised that there were lots of families down by the river who would need help,” she told me. “I went out and brought about 100 people back here. At first we took them upstairs but then the water got even higher and we had to leave the house. We all linked arms as we left so that no one would get swept away.”
|Flood damaged homes by the riverside in Cagayan de Oro.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Erlinda showed us the damage to her house and took us down to the river to see the devastation there. An area about a hundred meters back from the river was swept clean, with just bare earth and a few surviving trees. A handful of families were camped out in makeshift shelters, with washing strung out between the trees. They were burning trash, filling the air with smoke and the acrid smell of burning plastic. Across the road were ruined shanty houses and the street was strewn with broken furniture.
“The water level came up to about 11 feet at the highest point,” Erlinda said, pointing to a water line on the side of a wooden house. “It’s gone back down now but the river is wider than it used to be, because the bank collapsed.”
Although Kim and Erlinda’s immediate family all survived, their extended family was not so lucky. “My 92-year-old aunt and her daughter both died that night,” Erlinda said, her air of strength departing for a moment as her grief surfaced. “They were trapped in their house when the waters rose. They managed to break a hole in a screen and get the granddaughter Dixie out, but they were trapped inside and drowned. Dixie survived by clinging to a log. The next day rescuers found her asleep, with her arms still wrapped around the log.”
I was deeply impressed by both Kim and Erlinda. Despite their personal hardship and heartache, they both threw themselves into helping others. It was a testament to the resilience of Filipinos and their sense of community. We said goodbye and Munib and I drove off to the UNICEF temporary office, for my afternoon appointment.
|Isabel* plays at the UNICEF-supported child friendly space.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
*Some names have been changed to protect children’s identity.