Courage and grace in Haiyan hell

By Paula Penfold, Eugene Bingham

In the days after the super typhoon killed thousands, 3rd Degree reporter Paula Penfold and producer Eugene Bingham travelled to the Philippines and found survivors bravely rebuilding their lives.

Children who say they fled when armed men were seen in their village eat bread while waiting in Tacloban city. Photo / AP
Children who say they fled when armed men were seen in their village eat bread while waiting in Tacloban city. Photo / AP

As we leave Cebu City in an intentionally unmarked World Vision aid convoy, two men on the side of the road figure out the purpose of the succession of trucks and vans, and offer a solemn, respectful salute.

It's the first sign of what will be our continued experience here - that in spite of reports of violence and unrest, we see nothing but peacefulness and gratitude.

Everywhere we film, locals thank us, repeatedly, for telling their story. At first it's almost embarrassing, but when we realise how deeply genuine their appreciation is, it becomes utterly humbling.

Read the latest on the recovery efforts here.

The aid workers feel the same way. Having distributed food to people who've been hungry for six days in Northern Cebu, they sit and chat: the Kiwi helpers and their grateful victims.

One woman becomes suddenly animated, her eyes widen and it's clear she's recalling the day the typhoon they call Yolanda struck.

There's a flurry of hand movements and her native dialect becomes even more rapid-fire. No translation is necessary.

In this country of pain, you often learn more by what you see than what you hear. A proud culture of resilience means complaints are rarely heard - even when the circumstances make them utterly understandable.

In North Leyte, cameraman Cameron Williams scales a hill to get a high shot conveying the vastness of the wasteland. The locals gather at the base to tell their stories of survival - and of the deaths of so many around them. We're 18km south of the horror of Tacloban that the world has come to know of so well.

The town of Daanbantayan, north Cebu, was devastated. Photo / AP
The town of Daanbantayan, north Cebu, was devastated. Photo / AP

They'd taken shelter from the unprecedented 300 km/h winds inside a concrete house at the foot of the hill. Fifty people crammed into what is by our standards a tiny home. They thought they'd be safe as the gales tore through.

Then the waves came: three surges in succession, as high as coconut trees.

So they fled, up that hill, to their safety. Those who stayed on the flat had barely a chance when the water consumed them.

The hill - once covered in lush and dense coconut rainforest like those not far to the south - is now stripped bare.

Halfway up the hill, an old man crouches in a small square of dirt he has cleared as his temporary home. He barely acknowledges us as we pass by and say hello, a wave of the hand is all we get. There is nothing in his eyes. We dare not think of what he has seen to make him like this; to escape up the hill and refuse to come down. He is like the living dead.

By contrast, back down below, life - or some semblance of it - goes on. As one woman describes how they've been surviving on rice they took from a local storage warehouse, her children play a game on the only flat surface, a concrete pad which is all that remains of someone's home.

Another boy, about 9, mounts a toddler-sized bike with flat tyres and pedals off smiling.

That's hope right there: that they can keep on playing just as children should, when all around them it's a hellhole.

Slightly further up the coast we're looking for family members of our driver. He wants to take them home to his village or send them to Manila. But they refuse to go. They have things to finish here.

<i>3rd Degree</i> reporter Paula Penfold found that life went on.
3rd Degree reporter Paula Penfold found that life went on.

The driver's uncle, Antonio, walks with a limp from a stroke years ago. And yet he stoically declares he wants to stay to help his neighbours build vegetable gardens. "I love to garden and I love God," he says. It's a mantra he repeats, almost as if he believes by saying it he will make the horror around him vanish.

In truth, it seems an impossible folly to believe anyone will be growing vegetables in this forsaken place for years, if ever. The inundation of the sea, for starters, has ruined the soil.

If only that was all the water did. Antonio utters the awful reality: "I asked God to save me and my family but my family was sacrificed."

His son, 34-year-old Arbelle, lost his wife, Dina, and 3-month-old daughter, Dinabelle. He's still searching for other members of his extended family. His eyes are glazed with the shock of someone in the midst of deep trauma when he explains that because of his job as a seaman he has to be away from home much of the time.

He'd returned only 10 days before the typhoon struck and met his daughter for the first time.

"I came home with savings for the baptism of my child - I don't know what to do now," he says.

The municipality is struggling to cope with the vast numbers of bodies, and for now they're piled unceremoniously together in a holding area. That's not good enough for Arbelle's cherished wife and daughter. "I've put them somewhere special until I can find a place to bury them."

He tells us there are still bodies among the debris that surrounds what's left of his concrete home. The smell had already given that away.

Survivors are led into a military aircraft for evacuation to Cebu.
Survivors are led into a military aircraft for evacuation to Cebu.

Arbelle wants to show us around the rubble, where his wife and child perished; almost as a release, he wants to tell us what happened on that awful day and spontaneously starts recounting the scene.

"I saw my neighbour in the water, flowing very quickly past here," he says, pointing at his front door. He made the decision to escape with his family to his parents' house, just 10m away.

"But after maybe five seconds, the water had gone from here on my leg to there - you see that beam on the top of the house?"

His voice trails off. There's no need to say what happened next.

Arbelle's sister AnnaLisa is searching for the body of her missing 20-year-old daughter, who, she says with pride, was about to graduate with her accountancy degree. But the cruelty of what's happened to them bites even deeper. AnnaLisa is married to a seaman she hasn't seen since October and won't see again until next year. He doesn't yet know his daughter is missing, inevitably dead.

Another brother is working in the filthy mud and the oppressive heat, sawing at a long piece of bamboo with a rusty blunt tool. "He's building a ladder," AnnaLisa says, and when we ask if it's for anything specific she motions towards the twisted, gaping roof of what remains of their house. "So we can start fixing it."

The 3-year-old playing at our feet is AnnaLisa's niece. She continues her game while staring perplexedly at us. "When she grows up she wants to be Miss World." The oblivion and the contrast to this disease-ridden muck is a strange brightness.

As we leave, the matriarch - a beautiful woman in her 60s - who's watching from her perch on top of an old rice bag, asks us to please come back and visit "when things are better".

It's impossible to imagine when that might be.

On screen

*Tonight, 3rd Degree visits the forgotten village of Cabacungan and reveals the unyielding power of the human spirit. TV3, 8.30pm
*0800 800776

- NZ Herald

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