Getting out of the car in Marabut (a province in western region of Samar, Philippines) I spot two little girls through a makeshift bamboo fence. I wave and they wave back.
I have arrived in Tacloban City only a few days earlier and somehow made contact with ACT Alliance (an international NGO) who are working with the NCCP (National Council of Churches in the Philippines), packing and delivering relief goods to families devastated by Typhoons Yolanda and Ruby.
It is only a week since Ruby has ripped through this area and we are waiting for the truck carrying the relief goods we packed earlier in the day to arrive. I ask if I can take photos of the damage to ongoing projects as well as the the girls while we wait.
“That girl is traumatised”, says the lady who had let me use the CR (bathroom) in her house earlier. She points to the little girl I come to know as Rachael. It starts to rain.
Another lady comes and holds her umbrella over me: the mother of the girls. Her name is Chicai and we talk. Her native tongue is Wary-Wary but I only have a rudimentary understanding of another Filipino dialect, Hiligaynon. She can speak basic English. We talk for some time.
I ask Chicai about Typhoon Ruby. She is happy because her house is still standing: after Yolanda only the floor was left. She tells me she sheltered in a cave as she did not want to hear the noise of the wind. She laughs while telling me about taking as many belongings as she could carry from the house.
“It was quiet in the caves.”
I ask her how many people sheltered with you?
“Many.” she says.
I did not want to hear that wind …
It is now that she tells me that her son is dead. Her son has died one year earlier during Typhoon Yolanda. She is not soliciting sympathy or hinting for help. We are just two women standing in the rain talking.
The truck arrives and we begin the distribution, it is many hours before we are able to talk again.
We have time after the last of the food packs are handed out for eating. Chicai does not eat with us. I am the only westerner. She has cooked the food. She serves us water and clears up after the meal. She shyly declines a photograph and won’t let me help with the plates.
Typhoon Ruby has stolen the electricity and it is very dark. The village is mostly lit by candles; one or two houses have a generator.
We find a place to sit together. She continues.
In the year leading up to Typhoon Yolanda Chaichi had not seen her young son (two years old) for nearly ten months. It is very common for Filipinas to take an overseas job in countries like Singapore or Dubai as a domestic helper to support their families. The small boy had been left in the care of her mother and father-in-law.
She shows me one (1) picture of him on the tiny screen of her cell phone.
Just before Yolanda she had arrived home to Marabut and was able to spend ten beautiful days with him. She smiles widely, telling me he had grown up enough to be inquisitive and playful and full of energy. He smiled and played.
Chicai left her son with her mother-in-law and father-in-law and grandmother while she took her two young daughters to Tacloban City. This is a ride of several hours by jeepney. Typhoon Yolanda struck. Chicai and her eldest daughter Rachel (then five) were swept away in the five metre storm surge and flash flood.
In the flooding waters they dodged the debris of a densely populated, third world city; terrified by the noises of human panic as well as the roar of the wind and water.
“Hold tight to me” Chicai yelled to her daughter, “If I die, you die!”
Chicai tells me it was at that moment she heard a voice, very clearly say …
you won’t die if you follow the water …
So she did just that and allowed herself and her daughter to be pulled along by the flood waters wherever they led. The raging waters ripped her clothes from her body but somehow the only injury Chicai sustained was a small cut on her leg. She tells me how embarrassed she was when the flood waters eventually receded and she was left wearing little but her underwear.
She laughs and lifts the leg on her shorts to show me a perfect “Y”. Is it Yolanda? Looking at her scar is surreal, the mark is so perfect you would think it had been drawn by a human hand.
She starts suddenly to giggle and tells me of a neighbour who had clung to a palm tree during the storm surge. All her clothes had been torn from her body and when rescuers found her she was totally naked praying to God to “just send me some clothes please”.
On and on they are pushed by the torrent until strangely Chicai and Rachael are trapped in a whirlpool created by the boundaries of four buildings in a school. Rachael is traumatised.
Somehow they do not die.
The waters recede. The skies clear. The damage is incomprehensible. The loss of life enormous. Death is on every street. Looting, theft, violence and desperation fueled by hunger here. There is nothing to eat.
The roads are impassable. It is two whole months before a makeshift track is cleared so the girls can return Marabut.
Chaichi does not cry when she tells me about getting back. That when she did get back all that remained of her life was a floor. Her house, belongings, son, mother-in-law, father-in-law and grandmother were gone.
all that remained of her life was a floor
Every time it begins to rain at school now Rachael shuts down. Her mother tells me “she is gone”.
I do not ask anymore questions.
She tells me about her work with the National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP).
“It is just a low wage” she says, “but it is everything to me.”
Chicai loves God and gives thanks for her job.
Her daughter Rachael has just turned six but does not sleep, waking every night from a dream. Chicai has asked her daughter many times about her dream and it is always the same …
Lola (grandmother) is in heaven and she misses me and asks me to come to her.
This is the first time I see the tears of Chicai and we both cry as she tells me that Rachael has had this dream every night since Yolanda.
Please tell your Lola that we need you here. We love you so much. Please stay here with us. ~ Chicai
Chicai asks me how long I am staying in the Philippines and asks me to please come back to them. I promise I will be back next year.
Rachael continues to “show off”. She is a delight, smiling, dancing and hugging me; determined to have my attention.
The truck roars and I am told we are to leave. We say our goodbyes.
It is dark (there is no power here, the light taken by Typhoon Ruby).
I walk towards the truck and wait as it reverses. Then, without warning stalls into the mud. A group of men emerge from the darkness (there is no power here) and converge on all sides of the truck. They push.
No motor yet but the truck begins to move slowly, gains momentum when very suddenly headlights pour onto the ground and reveal a flash of little girl in a yellowy greenish t-shirt darting in front of the truck. She is running for me. I scream. My typically western fear.
Rachael falls into my arms and I laugh in relief, teasing her for frightening me. They all laugh at the near miss while I hold her. This normal, Filipinos laugh in the company of fear, but the little girl begins to cry hysterically. I put my hand on her heart and find it is beating wildly and erratically.
“She thinks you are angry with her,” says a voice in the darkness.
I pick her up and hold her high in the air until her body stops shaking and the truck won’t wait any longer.
I’m coming back here next year I tell myself.