Pinoy Weekly » Photo Essays Philippine news, analysis, and investigative stories Sun, 20 Jul 2014 09:27:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 PHOTO ESSAY | ‘We will defend our land and culture, even with our primitive weapons’ Thu, 29 May 2014 10:48:37 +0000 Photojournalist Boy Bagwis, on May 13 to 15, joined the national fact-finding and humanitarian mission to investigate the displacement of more than a thousand Manobos in Talaingod, Davao del Norte due to heavy military presence and intimidation. The Talaingod Manobos, according to anthropologists, are one of the least accessible (to lowlanders) indigenous groups in Mindanao, and have been among the most vigilant and organized in preserving their indigenous culture and defending their ancestral domain from foreign intrusion and exploitation. During the mid-90s, Talaingod Manobos successfully drove away one of the biggest logging companies in Mindanao that threatened Talaingod and Pantaron Range, one of the few remaining virgin rainforests in the country. This indigenous community, with some help from indigenous rights advocates and people’s organizations, has developed its own local economy, maintaining communal farms and mechanized milling, among others. The mission was conducted a week after more than a thousand Manobos returned to Talaingod after the military agreed to withdraw from their communities.

An an elder Manobo, Ubunay Botod Manlaon, shows off her tribal tattoos that symbolized her esteemed status in their tribe. On March 7 this year, aUbunay was forced to act as the soldiers' guide in the jungle for a week. She was manhandled and subjected to sexual assault, before being able to escape. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

An an elder Manobo, Ubunay Botod Manlaon, shows off her tribal tattoos that symbolized her esteemed status in their tribe. On March 7 this year, aUbunay was forced to act as the soldiers’ guide in the jungle for a week. She was manhandled and subjected to sexual assault, before being able to escape. Ubunay’s abduction compelled many Manobos to evacuate from their communities. Boy Bagwis

A Manobo evacuee returns to her home and harvests root crops in Sitio Lasakan, Talaingod, after a month of seeking sanctuary in Davao City. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

A Manobo evacuee returns to her home and harvests root crops in Sitio Lasakan, Talaingod, after a month of seeking sanctuary in Davao City. Boy Bagwis

Thousands of Manobo Lumads fled from heavily militarization in 11 villages in Talaingod, Davao del Norte after a series of aerial bombings and harassment by soldiers. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

Thousands of Manobo Lumads fled from heavy militarization in 11 villages in Talaingod, Davao del Norte after a series of aerial bombings and harassment by soldiers. Boy Bagwis

A Manobo mother stands in front of her infant daughter's casket while her husband sits in grief. The infant reportedly died of measles. Having just arrived in their community from evacution, many had no food and medicine, resulting in the deaths of several children. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

A Manobo mother stands in front of her infant daughter’s casket while her husband sits in grief. The infant reportedly died of measles. Having just arrived in their community from evacution, many had no food and medicine, resulting in the deaths of several children. Boy Bagwis

Manobo children compose the majority of the population of tribal communities in Talaingod. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

Manobo children compose the majority of the population of tribal communities in Talaingod. Boy Bagwis

A Manobo family in Sitio Bayabs, Talaingod says that they lost belongings after military elements occupied their house. In front of them is a pot, where they say soldiers even defecated. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

A Manobo family in Sitio Bayabas, Talaingod says that they lost belongings after military elements occupied their house. In front of them is a pot, where they say soldiers even defecated. Boy Bagwis

"The military accuses us of being New People's Army supporters. But the truth is we are only fighting for our rights." <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

“The military accuses us of being New People’s Army supporters. But the truth is we are only fighting for our rights.” Boy Bagwis

Some of the Talaingod indigenous women with their tribal garb. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

Some of the Talaingod indigenous women with their tribal garb. Boy Bagwis

Manobo women were part of the pangayaw, or tribal war, declared against the logging company Alcantara and Sons during the 90s. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

Manobo women were part of the pangayaw, or tribal war, declared against the logging company Alcantara and Sons during the 90s. Boy Bagwis

Manobo tribal leaders led by Datu Guibang Apoga declare that they want peace. But if corporations and the government take away their land, the tribal leaders said they will fight with their native weapons. From left: Datu Tungig, Guibang, Doluman and Sunpa. Datu Guibang Apoga was the foremost Talaingod Manobo leader who led the pangayaw during the 90s. The military declared him an outlaw. But Apoga said he was merely protecting their ancestral domain. <strong>Boy Bagwis</strong>

Manobo tribal leaders led by Datu Guibang Apoga declare that they want peace. But if corporations and the government take away their land, the tribal leaders say they will fight with their native weapons. From left: Datu Tungig, Guibang, Doluman and Sunpa. Datu Guibang Apoga was the foremost Talaingod Manobo leader who led the pangayaw during the 90s. The military declared him an outlaw. But Apoga says he was merely protecting their ancestral domain. Boy Bagwis


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Dispatches from Leyte: From Ruin to Resilience Fri, 14 Feb 2014 02:54:02 +0000 Survivors trying to rebuild homes in Leyte, three months after the storm. CJ Chanco

Survivors trying to rebuild homes in Palo, Leyte, three months after the storm. CJ Chanco

Everything seems frozen in place. Every tree, branch, every root sticking out from the ground, stretches out toward an unseen horizon as though reaching for a sun that will never come, or shine as bright as it once did.  The trees are twisted out of true, like the bodies in the bags that used to occupy nearly every intersection of Tacloban City, the ones the disaster’s first responders would have seen as they passed along the way here (and would have seen, in their half-decomposed state, weeks after the storm).

Rows of coconut trees stand eerily in place, their graceful swaying brought to an abrupt halt by gale-force winds that have forced their fronds to face permanently East – or is it West? It’s impossible to say. The wind had come from every possible direction, shifting as it did with the walls of saltwater that came with broken logs and torn roofs of corrugated iron that brought low the homes of some five million families, and tore Eastern Visayas away, for seven days that felt like eternity, from the reckoning of the world and the local energy grid: leaving two provinces in total darkness, as the days turned into weeks that turned into months.

Tacloban itself is a frozen photograph, a silent sentinel on the edge of Nightmare. Or a portent of things to come.  The city has changed beyond recognition, at least physically, yet something beneath its surface-façade seems unchanged, almost permanent. Its economic life, the social conditions of its people, the rigid divisions of class and geography that determine who lives and who dies – none of this has been altered in any profound sense.

Not even by the strongest typhoon to make land-fall in recorded history.

I’d come on this journey with Balsa, an alliance of people’s organisations, churches, and individual volunteers from across the country. This was its third or fourth major deployment in Eastern Visayas, a caravan bringing aid and relief to communities worst affected by supertyphoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) that tore Tacloban apart last November.

Balsa has been doing so for close to a decade now, responding to nearly every major natural disaster to hit the country with a unique combination of grassroots mobilisation and long-term, community-led rehabilitation efforts.  Despite its limited resources, Balsa has banked on the power of collective action to match or even exceed in scope the well-funded projects of some of the best aid agencies in the world. Encouraging the full participation of people directly affected by tragedy has ensured its efforts are deeply rooted with their needs on the ground.

In Leyte, Balsa came not with an elite corps of engineers or disaster experts bearing blueprints from on high, but with community organisers, religious missionaries, teachers,  volunteer scientists and medics – “people’s doctors” – even farmers from Luzon and Mindanao who’d saved seeds all year for just this purpose: to donate to fellow farmers in Visayas who’ve lost their crops. These were people with little to share individually but much to share at a collective level.

It was with them that I saw clearest the difference between passive charity and an active, community-driven response to tragedy;  the gap between what governments promise and what they deliver,  and the need for action from ‘below’ amid damning neglect from above.  It was a glimpse into human vulnerability that persists in the face of persistent poverty. It was also a portrait of human resilience and will to life that will come to define Tacloban (and the rest of the country) as the place where a people, leveled by countless storms, rose again.

Balsa People's Relief Caravan at the Port of Matnog, Sorsogon. CJ Chanco

Balsa People’s Relief Caravan at the Port of Matnog, Sorsogon. CJ Chanco

Day 1 – January 24 – Matnog

… Or rather, Day 2.  It’s taken us seven to eight hours by bus to reach Sorsogon from Manila. It would take us another eight hours or so, more than half a day, to get past the port of Matnog, the main entry point to Leyte.

So after hours on the road, my legs are killing me. My friends and I get off for breakfast and a brisk walk.  At the port, vendors sell us hot pandesal, fried buns, sauteed veggies and tiny red native bananas that we eat with relish, before settling for a meal of tomatoes and fish roasted over an open charcoal fire.

There’s little else to do but gorge ourselves, after all, and talk, as we wait for our turn at the barge.  The early morning sun beats down on lush rice fields by the coast. At a bamboo stall next to our bus, a woman shelling mussels eyes us with sympathy, as she spots the truck behind our bus bearing relief goods for Tacloban. It would be a long wait, she says. An endless line of buses and trucks, some stamped in bold-faced letters, “Relief”, crawls its way past us.

In Matnog, a separate route was opened up for relief caravans in an attempt to cut traffic, but this actually slowed things down. Many of the trucks weren’t carrying relief at all but commercial freight, scrambling for a quick opening to drop off goods to sell in Visayas.

After a few more hours, our boat, the Peñafrancia, finally arrives. Boys as young as four climb twelve feet above the deck, diving gracefully into the cerulean blue sea to catch coins tossed by tourists with uncanny accuracy.

We get on the barge and set sail for the Port of Allen. From there, we’d take another bus ride to Tacloban City, arriving there by midnight.

Crossing the narrow channel between Samar and Leyte, San Juanico Bridge is cloaked in darkness, with only the lights from our bus guiding our way.  Even in Tacloban city proper, rotating black-outs are a fact of life and dozens of public hospitals, schools and thousands of homes still depend on diesel generators for electricity at night, months after Yolanda.

Despite this, government reports insist electricity has been restored in at least 60% of affected areas.

An eight-year old storm survivor. CJ Chanco

An eight-year old storm survivor. CJ Chanco

Day 2 – People’s Surge

A boy, around 8, shifts his gaze from the aid trucks outside to the camera I have in my hands.  We’re by the window of the school gym at Eastern Visayas State University, where I strain to find a scene, any scene, to latch on as I adjust my lens to just the right shutter speed.  The early morning sky filters through the gym awning as we peer over the balcony at the courtyard.

I soon find my scene.

Below us, the first few hundred people gather for what would quickly grow into one of the largest demonstrations I’ve ever been a part of: a “People’s Surge”, including at least 12,000 marchers – young and old, farmers and fisher folk families from at least two dozen towns and rural barrios from across Samar and Leyte. They’d come for aid and relief, but above all for solidarity and a collective sharing of grievances, in protest against the government’s scant relief efforts post-Yolanda.

For two days in this school auditorium with a portion of the roof still missing, there had been singing and story-telling and shared meals of canned sardines and rice wrapped in palm leaves, puson-style.

This is what the boy’s family had come here for, assuming he still had one. The boy’s otherwise stoic face contrasts deeply with his eyes, which have perhaps seen too much, far more than his youth deserved.

He looks straight into the lens of my camera, and not without some guilt, I snap a shot. He doesn’t smile.  Pity or shame tugs at me: was I taking advantage of these people?  These “victims” of what is surely the worst natural calamity the country has faced in a century?  What if the boy had lost a sibling in the storm? A cousin? A parent? His whole family?

A volunteer sounds the call for breakfast and the boy rushes past me. I exit the classroom we were in, and make my way through the crowded corridors – dark, dank, and in some places filled up to the ceiling with balikbayan boxes, long since been emptied of used clothes, canned goods and medical supplies.

In the next building is the gym we’d slept in the night before, and here too hundreds of people lay crammed on the upper benches or shuffle to and fro the courtyard below.  Elderly couples sip coffee, their grandchildren play basketball; one mother nurses her daughter, only days-old. A nun thumbs the beads of her rosary.

All are waiting for their cue for the march to begin.

By the university entrance is a blue tent, put up there by the doctors I arrived here with, from Samahang Operasyong Sagip and Health Alliance for Democracy. For a couple of days now they’ve giving free check-ups and medicines to a long line of people that now stretches past the gate to the next block, probably more than half a kilometre away.

Many of the patients – one man crippled from the waist down, one woman blinded by cataracts– are joining the march.

Renato Reyes of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan sounds the call. The march begins.

My camera ranges overhead.

The sun approaches noon and beats down hard on groups of protesters that converge in an intersection just past the university gate. It’s stifling.

Dust from thousands of marching feet form a cloud that rises above us and descends on the city, adding to the surreal scene.   I knew there’d be a lot of people, but not this many.  How many were we? A thousand? 8,000? 12,000?

This was a surge. A surge of humanity on the edge of despair; a surge of relief in a desert flooded by a supertyphoon, a wave of well-meaning if short-lived aid, and months of government neglect. Each one in turn.

I stand on tip-toe. There seems no end to the march. I take my first few, tentative shots.

More than 12,000 storm survivors from different parts of Leyte and Samar march in protest of government's negligence around Tacloban City. CJ Chanco

More than 12,000 storm survivors from different parts of Leyte and Samar march in protest of government’s negligence around Tacloban City. CJ Chanco

Many think I’m from the media, and break into hasty, shy smiles. Others doubt my motives. Soldiers, government officials or policemen in civilian clothes have been known to take photos of the scattered protests which have been taking place here with increasing regularity.

The distrust was understandable: Eastern Visayas had long been the playground of Jovito Palparan, a general held responsible for commanding the torture and arrest of hundreds of activists, and for a suite of other human rights violations, in the early years of the former Arroyo administration.  It was during this period that sections of the military turned into a de facto mercenary defence force for hacienda owners, commercial plantations, and large-scale mines that were pit against communist rebels.

When hundreds of soldiers arrived in Leyte in the weeks following Yolanda – in fact, they arrived before government relief, to ensure security by cracking down on “looters” – they arrived, bringing back memories of fear, dispossession and landlessness that have made their mark on a region that is one of the poorest in the country.


In the crowd something catches my eye. Among the marchers is a woman, in front of me, ambling slowly under the noon-day sun. She’s clutching her son’s arm.  A small towel, stained with the sweat and grime of work on the fields, is the only protection the two have from the glare of the sun.

The woman, Teresa, is well into her eighties and has lost sight in both eyes. She was the same woman we’d given a medical check-up this morning.  Her middle-aged son is a fisherman, like many of the marchers. Mother and son inch forward.

Eventually I lose sight of them, with people cramming the road from end to end. We turn a corner and spot Gaisano grocery store, the main target of ‘looting’ binges in the days after the storm. Few of the looters, of course, were the ‘professional criminals’ commonly portrayed by the cops. The victims of the Manila-based media’s smear campaign were in reality families just scrambling to survive (among their ranks: the wife of the mayor, who managed to snag a pair of jeans from a looted department store).

We cross a few more blocs and reach a small clearing by the coast. A small stage in the middle of the road – built with a few crates and an old pick-up truck – rises above a few market stalls.

The first thing that catches my attention are the streamers, banners and placards. They’re everywhere.

Ipadayonan Relief tubtob kina hanglan sa mga Biktima! Speed up relief efforts – aid to the victims!

Ipakigbisog an Pagkaon, Pabalay, Pakabuhi ngan Serbisyo Sosyal! Fight for the Right to Food, Housing, Jobs and Social Services!

40K Subsidiyo, ihatag ha kada Pamilya! Php 40K Subsidy for every family! (the estimated amount needed by a family hit by Yolanda to survive for two months)

NO-BUILD ZONE: Kontra-mamamayan, Land-grabbing! The government has prevented thousands of   displaced families from rebuilding on lands they were originally on, claiming they’re far too dangerous for residential occupation. The catch: despite the alleged risks, many of these neighbourhoods are on public land bought up by private real-estate developers a few years ago. The survivors will have to be relocated to temporary bunkhouses built out of flimsy plywood and corrugated iron, long since criticised by Architect Felinio Palafox and the United Nations for failing to meet international standards for basic safety.


Residents along the shoreline are opposed to dislocation by the government's 'No-Build Zone' policy.  CJ Chanco

Residents along the shoreline are opposed to dislocation by the government’s ‘No-Build Zone’ policy. CJ Chanco

Then I hear the voices. Each one – from farmers, community organisers, a student who lost her father in the storm – builds up to a poignant crescendo. Each one speaks of promised aid from the government that simply would not arrive in time, if it would arrive at all.

Each one speaks of death, destruction and loss, but also of hope, resilience and rebuilding, stressing clearly the difference between victim and survivor.

Days 3-4 – Beyond Tacloban

We spend another night at the University of the Philippines-Tacloban, before making our way through the coastal suburbs of Tacloban to the municipality of Alangalang, further inland.

Our rented jeepney drives us through endless fields of rice: many only now throwing up the first tentative shoots of new life after months of. Nearly all the coconut trees that pass us by face East, as though bowing, prostrate, before a distant Mecca.

After a brief stop-over at Palo, our caravan reaches Sitio Bigaa, a small cluster of homes on the outskirts of Barangay Langit, Alang-alang.  We manage to hand over relief goods – clothes, food, medicines, cooking utensils, construction materials – to some two hundred families from Bigaa and neighbouring barangays, but on the way out, our aid truck gets stuck in a mud pit.

Jerry, a local kagawad overseeing local relief operations, rushes to my side. We watch helplessly as more than a dozen villagers push the truck, unloading and reloading goods to lighten the load. The engine shifts to high gear to no avail. It takes us another two hours of heaving and hauling to shake it free.

Jerry considers himself lucky. He and most of his relatives escaped the storm relatively unscathed, apart from a few scratches here and there – and a home completely destroyed. While his family huddled in their tiny bathroom, a single, strong gust of wind tore off their roof and sent it flying to the next barangay. They waited for days before the first signs of contact arrived from Tacloban city. They ate wet palay, inedible under most circumstances, picking through the remains of their crops to survive.

Then the days stretched into weeks, and relief goods came pouring in from people in Manila and around the world eager to reach out… but today  aid  has slowed down to a trickle, even in the city proper.

In Sitio Bigaa, Alangalang, Leyte, the destruction of coconut trees spell hunger for farmers. CJ Chanco

In Sitio Bigaa, Alangalang, Leyte, the destruction of coconut trees spell hunger for farmers. CJ Chanco

A group of survivors awaiting relief goods by people's organisations led by Balsa. CJ Chanco

A group of survivors awaiting relief goods by people’s organisations led by Balsa. CJ Chanco

In Bigaa, the World Food Programme still distributes about a sack of rice per family each week (around two kilos or more for every child) – and a handful of charities still visit them on occasion – but aid from the government itself has been sorely lacking.  A few weeks ago, representatives from the Department of Social Welfare and Development arrived here, asking hundreds of families to move to temporary bunkhouses that are as distant from their livelihoods as they are unsafe.

The plywood shacks on offer have sagging floors and flood after barely half an hour of rain. And rain has been pouring down constantly since Yolanda, like aftershocks from a big quake.

Jerry and his family, among hundreds of others, rejected the offer. People would rather build their own homes near lands they have cultivated for decades.  Give them the resources needed to rebuild, he says, and communities will recover. What people need here more than ever is long-term support, and above all cash, jobs and tools for reconstruction.


Bigaa suffered fewer casualties, he tells me, than those in communities along the coast.  Yolanda’s impact on local agriculture, however, has been devastating, wiping out vast tracts of coconut groves and rice fields literally overnight. This has been especially difficult for the majority of small farmers who don’t own the lands they till. Already in debt before the storm, many have taken on even more loans to rebuild their homes and replant their fields.

In Carigara, the next town we visit, Edwardo Bastol and Melecio Llagas, tell me a similar story.

Melecio is Edwardo’s uncle, pushing into his late fifties. Both of their homes were levelled by Yolanda, which saw a whole river redirected from East to West, flooding hundreds of acres of crops.

When I visit them in their half-built home near Carigara elementary school (its roof still plastered with donated UN tarpaulins), Melecio is balancing himself on a single wooden plank, hammering away and eager to share their tale.

Construction materials promised them had not arrived in time. In fact they received nothing in any kind of aid, apart from food. Barangay officials assured them there was no need. They had already begun to rebuild their home, after all.

There’s the catch. Edwardo has indeed managed to carve out a small but sturdy cement shack for his wife, two children, and his uncle who has since moved in with him – but only after taking out a hefty loan from his employer, a local vulcanizing shop owner.

Without it, it would have been impossible to rebuild. Thousands like Edwardo have dug themselves deeper in debt as a result.

Food, seeds, electricity, fuel, clothes, school supplies for their children, yero – corrugated iron roofs – are expensive. Post-disaster inflation, brought on partly by the difficulty of shipping goods to Leyte and the lack of proper public subsidies, has sent prices soaring.

Makeshift houses in Tacloban City. CJ Chanco

Makeshift houses in Tacloban City. CJ Chanco

I arrive at a small grove a few blocks away, hidden by coco palms.  I look around me, and note in passing the austere, almost deceitful, beauty of the place, perhaps concealing more than it reveals.  A mountain on the other side, after all, used to be covered entirely with coconut trees and green shrubs, locals tell us. Now green is the exception, appearing only in isolated patches between emptied-out fields slicked in mud after the storm.

I stumble on a ruined shack.  Tattered curtains are draped on a few walls still standing. Bits and pieces of chicken wire lay scattered about. At first I mistake it for a chicken coop, then realise it’s someone’s home – or used to be. Torn clothes, some still damp, lay, as if to dry, on a bamboo pole.

Sunlight pours in from the emptied-out frame of the roof, like a wooden skeleton.

The place looks abandoned, so I turn to leave, before a woman approaches me from a corner, shyly, cradling a boy in her arms.

Estelita Garantinao is in her sixties and lives alone, with her husband and three-year-old grandson. Like most other families, the child’s parents have moved to Manila, hoping to send money back home.

Her husband is paralysed from the waist down. He would have died in the storm had she not pushed him away in time as the wind heaved a tree from its roots – a kind of pillar in the middle of their nipa hut that had been its foundation – and hurled it down in front of them.

It was a caimito tree that had weathered countless storms for over twenty years – until Yolanda.

It crushed everything from their bedroom to their tiny kitchen.

Estelita has no money to spare to rebuild or even clean up. She washes clothes for her neighbours, and earns just enough for her family to eat. She’s too weak now to rebuild from scratch, all by herself.

So three months after the storm, their tiny home is in shambles. They live in a temporary shack, even smaller than the first, built by her brother next to the ruins.

Estelita stops talking. I realise she opened up to me before she even got my name, before I even got to say a few words in reply. I tell her I’m from the relief caravan and she thanks us for our help. At this I feel more shame than pride. Had I really helped? Had I done any more than report on their grief?  What did we from Manila really know about their plight?

And did I interview the others, she asks? The boy who lost his whole family in the storm; the pregnant young mother, her husband a jeepney barker in Manila?

There were stories. Hundreds of them. But there was simply no time to hear them all.  We would leave for Palo the next morning.

A woman among the ruins in Palo, Leyte. CJ Chanco

A woman among the ruins in Palo, Leyte. CJ Chanco

Day 5 – Palo and Back to Manila

It was like a scene from Titanic. Walls of water rush in as floors give way to a seething ocean. People clamber onto their roofs, and grab anything they can find as the tide surges forth, enveloping everything in its path.   Class D passengers, women and children included, drown in the cabins below, while the aristocrats of the upper decks escape unscathed. The homes of the poor are wiped out. The mansions are left standing, empty for now, their distant occupants safe in Manila.

This is how survivors remember Yolanda at its height, those harrowing moments during the storm. What unfolded in its aftermath is described in terms no less disturbing:

Relief goods bought and paid for, or stolen outright by local officials who have divided the spoils between themselves and their voters.  A ravaged local economy, leaving one of the poorest and most unequal parts of the country with a population even more vulnerable, post-Yolanda.   Rehabilitation efforts being given over to Big Business, courtesy of Panfilo Lacson, the region’s “rehab czar”, who has officially declared his support for a private-sector led initiative.

Already, real estate, construction and commercial investors that run the gamut from Consunji to Ayala to Pangilinan have sunk their teeth into juicy contracts included in the government’s rebuilding and rehousing programmes.  Homes for the survivors of Yolanda will be built by the builders of Manila condominiums. Thousands will never be able to afford them. Tens of thousands more will remain homeless, landless, and jobless in a region that will surely take more than a decade to recover even half of what it has lost, in money and in human life.

But some scenes of recovery are visible.

Communities are picking themselves up from the ruins, mostly thanks to people’s own efforts in the absence of government support. Palo regional hospital is being rebuilt, courtesy of the South Korean military. Crime rates are fairly low, despite sensationalised reports of “mass looting” in the days after Yolanda.  Donations are trickling in, thanks to scattered charity drives that can only do so much without a more comprehensive, pro-active role in the rehab efforts by the state.

And the corpses are gone.

Many, of course, are still missing; others were buried after more than a month in an advanced state of decay.  As of late January, new bodies are being discovered, at a rate of one per day, calling into question the government’s modest estimates of more than 6,700 dead.


Smiling children in Palo, Leyte. CJ Chanco

Smiling children in Palo, Leyte. CJ Chanco

In Palo, roofless buildings are perhaps the second most common sight one sees across the town. The first most common?  Smiling children.

From day one, children would huddle around me and my camera –  something I would get used to after a week in Leyte. Indeed, raising the camera to my face to take a shot seemed a cue for someone to smile. And smile people did, with broad grins that stretched up to the wrinkles of their eyes.

What made them smile wasn’t innocence. They had all seen too much for that.

It would be another 24-hour journey before I could finally reach home. In Eastern Visayas, some 15 million people have a much longer journey ahead of them.

It’s difficult for the casual observer to connect any of the horrors its people have faced with the beaming faces you meet in this society of contradictions.  It’s easy to be misled.  Sometimes suffering can be too deeply etched on a person’s face that the sheer weight of their troubles erases all external signs of sorrow or despair, because succumbing to despair is useless when your life is at stake, and you have a family of five to care for.

Whether or not this is a sign of genuine happiness or isolated glimpses of joy – temporary breaks in an otherwise painful existence – is another matter.  What comes out as resilience can be hidden sorrow or   anger, long repressed.  To the greatest tragedies, there are only ever two ways humanity can respond.

Resignation – or rage.


CJ Chanco is a freelance writer, photographer, and research officer at the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. In late January, he joined volunteer doctors from Balsa and Samahang Operasyong Sagip as they made their way across Tacloban city and neighbouring barrios in a five-day relief caravan.

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#ForwardMarch: Pasulong na martsa ng kilusang kontra-pork barrel Sat, 14 Sep 2013 19:20:25 +0000

Mas maliit man kaysa sa naunang pagtitipon noong Agosto 26, malakas pa ring inirehistro ng humigit-kumulang 15,000 katao sa Luneta ang paglaban sa pork barrel. 

Hindi ipinagbawal, bagkus ay hinimok pa, ng mga organisador ng #ForwardMarch ang pagdadala ng mga plakard, bannersstreamers, watawat, effigy at kung anu-ano pang porma ng biswal na protesta.

May mataimtim na pananalangin, pero mayroon ding maingay na pagtugtog ng mga banda at musikero, ang narinig mula sa entablado. Dahil dito, isang makulay, malikhain at matunog na protesta ang inirehistro ng mga mamamayan noong Setyembre 13.

Nilahukan, siyempre, ang protesta ng organisadong hanay ng mga mamamayan. Bahagi ang militanteng mga grupo, mga alyado nila, at progresibong mga indibidwal at netizens sa Abolish the Pork Barrel Movement (#AbolishPork) na nag-organisa sa protestang iyon.

Pero bukod dito, lumahok din ang iba’t ibang eskuwelahan, mula sa pampublikong mga pamantasan hanggang sa eksklusibo at Katolikong eskuwelahan.

Samantalang nagtipon sa Liwasang Bonifacio ang mga organisasyon sa ilalim ng Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), naglunsad naman ng banal na misa ang mga pari at relihiyoso sa simbahan ng San Agustin sa Intramuros, bago nagmartsa patungong Luneta.

Patungo sa parke, tinagpo nila ang mga kapwa-relihiyoso mula sa mga Kristiyanong Protestante, kasama ang whistleblowers sa pangunguna ni Jun Lozada. Nakasama pa ng mga relihiyosong Protestante si dating Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

IKILIK ANG LARAWAN PARA MAKITA NANG MALAKI. #ForwardMarch sa Luneta Park, 13 Setyembre 2013. (Mga larawang pinagdikit, ni Pher Pasion)

IKILIK ANG LARAWAN PARA MAKITA NANG MALAKI. #ForwardMarch sa Luneta Park, 13 Setyembre 2013. (Mga larawang pinagdikit, ni Pher Pasion)

Sa Luneta, muling naglunsad ng ecumenical service ang mga relihiyosong Katoliko, Protestante, at Muslim. Tinapos ito ng talumpati ni Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, na matapang na nananawagan ng pananalangin at pagkilos.

“Magdasal tayo,” sabi ni Cruz. “Pero kumilos din tayo. Maganda ang dasal pero hindi sapat ang dasal.”

Sinabi niya na makapangyarihan ang dalawang ito — panalangin at pagkilos — para tutulan ang “kababuyang” nagaganap sa bansa ngayon.

Inunahan na rin niya ang inaasahang pagmamaliit ng Malakanyang at midya sa pagkilos ng mga mamamayan noong araw na iyon.

“Kung may magsasabi na ang taong wala rito (sa Luneta) ay sang-ayon sa pork barrel system mo (Pangulong Aquino), nagkakamali ka,” ani Cruz.

Maaari umanong “wala lang pamasahe, o walang laman ang tiyan” ng mga mamamayang hindi nakalahok sa protesta.

“Pero imposible na payag sila sa mga nangyayari sa bayan natin ngayon,” pagtatapos ng Arsobispo.

Dumulo ang programa sa mga talumpati at pagtatanghal, at konsiyerto — tinaguriang “Rock and Rage” — ng mga musikerong malakas na nagpahayag ng pagtutol sa sistema ng pork barrel, sa korupsiyon sa pamahalaan, at sa pagsasamantala ng iilan sa nakararaming mamamayan.

Nangako silang magpapatuloy ang mga protesta. May nakatakda na, sa Setyembre 21, pero bago at matapos ang petsang ito, inaasahang magpapatuloy ang pagpapahayag ng pagtutol sa lahat ng porma ng pork barrelhanggang mabasura ito, o mabasura ang mga nagtataguyod nito.


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Bj Patiño | Vanished Lives, Remembered Moments Thu, 29 Aug 2013 23:22:29 +0000 ]]> 0 Macky Macaspac | Fading Memories Thu, 29 Aug 2013 23:10:41 +0000
This is the story of Sugar, who has fading memories of his father, Gabriel, and grandfather, Rogelio. Both Gabriel and Rogelio Calubad were abducted by military elements on June 2006.


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Marc Talampas | A Son’s Struggle Thu, 29 Aug 2013 22:43:41 +0000

June 26, 2006 turned out to be an eventful day for Gloria Soco.

While on her way to see her ailing father, the van that she was in was forced to a stop by five other vehicles carrying armed men somewhere in Camarines Norte. She and her four companions were then handcuffed, blindfolded and made to ride in separate vehicles.

“My mother is an ordinary citizen. She does not belong to any mass organization nor has she violated any law or caused trouble to anybody to deserve such a cruel fate,” says Eugenio Soco, the son, who has now taken it upon himself to continue the search for his mother.

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Mon Mamaril | Bakas Thu, 29 Aug 2013 22:39:04 +0000

Isinilang at lumaki sa Kalye Ilang-Ilang sa Pandacan, Maynila si Lydia Laborera de Castro — sa isang payak na bahay na magiging tahanan sa kanyang pamilya at kanlungan ng mga aktibista ng kanilang panahon. Dito nagsasagawa noon ng mga pagpupulong ang kanyang asawang si Saulo de Castro noong unang bahagi ng dekada ‘80, para sa Kilusang May Uno.

Kalagitnaan ng dekadang iyon, naging aktibo na rin sa kilusan si Lydia. Habang tumatagal, naramdaman nilang nagiging kumplikado ang kanilang pamumuhay. Panahon ng maraming disoryentasyon. Kaya noong 1988, lumipat ang kanilang pamilya sa Bicol, sa tahanang napag-ipunan ng isa sa kanilang mga anak na nagtrabaho sa ibang bansa.

Dahil kinakailangan pa ring kumita, si Saulo’y naglalako ng sigarilyo sa umaga, at balut naman sa gabi. Si Lydia naman, naiiwan lamang sa bahay. Noong umaga ng ika-6 ng Oktubre 1988, inihatid  ni Saulo ang isa sa mga anak sa paaralan. Matapos mag-uwi ng ulam, tumungo siya sa isang kapatid sa kalapit na baryong Iyam. Hindi na siya nakauwi mula noon. May mga nagsabing dinukot siya ng apat na armadong lalaki lulan ng isang owner-type jeep.

Nagmistulang bangungot ang mga sumunod na linggopara kay Lydia; tila nakakarinig siya ng mga yabag at putok ng baril sa kalagitnaan ng gabi. Naramdaman niyang hindi na sila ligtas. Dala ng pagod dulot ng paghahanap at pag-iisip, pinili niyang bumalik sa Pandacan.

Lumipas ang mga taon at ang epekto ng pagkawala ni Saulo’y ramdam pa rin hindi lamang ni Lydia kundi ng buong pamilya De Castro. Hanggang ngayon, tila bumibisita pa rin ang espiritu ng ama sa isa sa mga anak at madalas niya itong sinasapian. Si Lydia naman, dumudukot na lamang ng lakas sa kanyang pananampalataya sa Diyos at mga kaibigan. Binuo niya ang Dekada ’80, isang maliit samahan ng mga dating aktibista at mga kaanak ng desaparecidos.

Ngayong higit animnapu’t apat na taon na si Lydia, sinasabi niyang tanggap na niya ang nangyari sa kaniyang asawa. Aniya’y wala siyang hinihinging anumang tulong. Bagkus, ang kailangan ng mga tulad niyang naiwan ay mga tanging makikinig at malawak na pag-intindi sa kanilang mga pinagdaanan.

Sa ngayo’y halos wala na ring bakas si Saulo sa kanilang tahanan. Ang bawat pagtungo nila noon sa iba’t ibang presinto upang maghanap ay bumabawas sa iilang lawarang mayroon siya. Ang mga ito’y isa-isang nawala, hanggang sa  mistulang pangalan at alaala na lamang niya ang naiwan.

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Diana Verzosa Moraleda | Moving On Thu, 29 Aug 2013 19:30:28 +0000


On May 28, 1987, community organizer Reynaldo Garcia (24) started the day early for some errands. He left his home at 6:00 a.m. and never returned.

Reynaldo’s wife Emily, who was then eight months pregnant, did not hear from him the whole day. By late afternoon, she went searching and learned that someone had been abducted that morning at a bakery not far from their home. Witnesses’ descriptions and a slipper left behind reveal that the victim was Reynaldo. No evidence pointed to the perpetrators. No faces were seen. No plate numbers recorded.

Death allows mourning and a prospect of healing and closure. Disappearances only spawn doubts and indecision. Often, families of victims of stealth removals are paralyzed into inaction, hoping that if they do not create noise, their husbands, wives, fathers or children might be freed. Not Emily. She immediately vowed to do all she could to find her husband. She owed it to him, she said.

For ten years, Emily worked for Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, FIND and Karapatan, an alliance of human rights organizations and advocates. As a coordinator for various activities, she was introduced to other families of the disappeared and found encouragement and strength.

By the fifth year of her search, Emily finally accepted that she may never find Reynaldo. Yet she stayed in the movement vowing to raise awareness so that no one else will be abducted or executed again.

After twenty years, Emily has only started to move on. She now runs a t-shirt printing business. Most of her free time is spent taking care of her one-year-old grandchild.

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Andre Cruz | Free Jonas Burgos Thu, 29 Aug 2013 19:02:25 +0000

Jonas Burgos is an agriculturist and activist who was abducted by military agents on April 25, 2007. For more information on the case of the disappearance of Jonas, visit the campaign blog.

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Ron de Vera | Fatherless Figure Thu, 29 Aug 2013 18:43:45 +0000 tumblr_lgx35h0gqL1qzrozdThere comes a time in every person’s life when the only way to move forward is by looking back. In my 30th year of existence, and my father’s 20th year of absence, this is exactly what I did. This photo essay is the witness to my journey.


I was turning 10 when my father disappeared. I wasn’t young enough to pretend I had no idea what was going on. But I wasn’t old enough to completely understand everything either. I found comfort in hiding behind fabricated stories to explain why I was fatherless and eventually got confused about which stories were mine and which ones were reality’s. The most natural thing to do was to conveniently forget. But after 20 years of forgetting, the mind questions and the heart cries out.


I followed my heart and found myself celebrating my 30th birthday in Bicol. This is where my parents were assigned when I was born. I didn’t expect to find any relatives or family friends but I had never been back here since I was born. I was hoping that by returning to my birthplace, I would be able to connect with my past where my father has indefinitely chosen to stay.


My mother was the one who told me I was born next to a lake. She told me a lot of stories about my father too. But whenever I stop and think about my father, my whole world slows down and I feel like I’m stuck on shore; never certain if I should completely stop and clam up or head for the ocean and face the turmoil.


“A hazy postcard,” is how I would describe whatever memory I have of my father. I have no recollection of him spending time to bond with me, or of him telling me stories about my mother. Sometimes I suspect that these memories actually exist but repressing them is my mind’s way of protecting me from the pain of remembering.


I found the lake and saw a lot of happy faces. Surprisingly, mine was one of them. Perhaps the happiness comes from knowing that I’m a better, more compassionate person because of what happened to my father. I rest in knowing that his disappearance has given me something to fight for, but not necessarily something to be happy about.


My father’s memories have become more elusive than shadows at high noon. And this, to me, was a frightening thought. When our loved ones die, their remains serve as a reminder of our bond. But when someone is taken away from us, including their body, all we have left are the memories. As I played with the children I had just met, I vowed to myself that I would do everything in my power to keep our memories intact.


“Head for the ocean and face the turmoil” was obviously what I tried to do by traveling to Bicol. But there was no turmoil. And I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But there certainly was a resolve, and that is to chase the memories and to keep them alive.


My mother and I let the sun set on my father’s memory 10 years ago when we held a tribute for him. I never quite understood the event but if I am to revive the memories, I had better understood this whole thing. Starting, of course, with the issues behind the disappearance.


Ever since my grandparents died, I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting their grave. They would have been a good source of information, not about the disappearance per se, but the memories they had of my parents and more specifically, my father. My grandmother was not a big fan of my parents’ relationship. But her perspective would have put more dimension to whatever I got from my mother.


Holding a candle with no tomb to put it next to is one of the most painful things to endure. I sometimes settle for placing the candle on my grandparents’ grave. This always makes me feel I am doing injustice to my father. Sometimes I secretly wish that he is safe with my grandparents on other side. But I quickly realize I don’t believe in that concept.


To this day, the last paragraph of an article I wrote in college still strikes a chord within me:

“Just for tonight, I stop my search for my father. As I light this candle, I think of all the other disappeared and the families they left. My candle is just one of the many candles in the neighborhood lit for lonely wandering souls. But this one is special. This one’s for my father.”


Even though looking back was painful, it was meaningful. And now, as I turn and look forward. Every sunrise I spend without the father I barely knew is not another day to mourn but another chance to fight. He is not around to sit beside me and appreciate the view but he is certainly in my heart. He is not beside me but when I look over my shoulder, I see hundreds of other families of the disappeared and I rest in knowing that other minds are also questioning, and other hearts are also crying out.


rondevera | 20FEB2011


Video version of the photo essay:


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