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Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

Reliving the tragedy of Haiyan

Reliving the tragedy of Haiyan

Typhoon survivors light candles on a road in Tacloban during the first anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan's landfall in Leyte province (Photo by Vincent Go)

Published: November 14, 2014 05:00 AM GMT
The wounds remain fresh as the poor in Leyte province struggle to reclaim their lives

It was a painful story for 15-year-old Josephine and her father Jose to recount to me.

In a one-room plywood house built from the wreckage of Super Typhoon Haiyan, Josephine sat next to her father, who now looks older than his years, and her two siblings.

“We heard the warning on the radio,” Jose says, referring to the night last year when Haiyan struck the central Philippines.

“We left our house and went to the second floor of the village center with our neighbors. We thought we would be safe there, but the winds grew so strong that the roof could not withstand them.”

Jose says he and his wife, along with three of his six children and a few of his neighbors returned to the ground floor.

“Suddenly, at the very moment we got to the ground floor, the tidal wave struck. The wave was as high as the village hall. Everyone on the ground floor was trapped,” he said.

“I could not hold the children and my wife. One of my daughters tried to go back up to where Josephine was, but all three daughters and my wife drowned, and these three survived,” he said, pointing to the children huddled in the plywood hut.

Jose lapsed into silence — his face wrinkled with sadness that still weighs him down. He said later that talking about his loss brought some relief. 

A year after the devastation, the wealthy or well connected in Leyte province are back on their feet. Their opulent homes have been rebuilt. The hovels of the poor have also been resurrected, but they are still hovels.

Streets have been cleared and some order has returned, but the emotional wounds suffered by the poor remain — made worse by the fact that they are now poorer than they ever were.

I sit with community workers as they give seminars using images and music to instill hope among the survivors for a better life and to help them evade the schemes of human traffickers and child abusers.

Such predators roam the province, luring victims with the promise of jobs or masquerading as relief workers. They seek to win over teenagers and their parents by promising to secure well-paid employment in larger cities.

They are vultures preying on the poor and exploiting their pain and sadness as they struggle to put their lives back together within thin tarpaulin tents or hastily constructed bunkhouses. 

In the weeks after Haiyan struck, Unicef in partnership with the Philippine government began a program to help track family members of victims — particularly children — who had lost or been separated from their parents during the typhoon.

The risks facing young children and teenagers in disaster zones are well known to Unicef, which has documented the trafficking of young people for forced labor, sex work and organized begging in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

There are other risk factors for the survivors of Haiyan. The World Health Organization has reported that as many as 800,000 people still suffer from post-typhoon trauma, depression and despair.

Considering that nearly 12 million people were adversely affected by Haiyan, the most powerful typhoon to make landfall ever recorded, it’s no wonder that so many have not yet received the care that they so desperately need.

The Philippine government says it has spent 52 billion pesos, or just over one billion euro, on recovery and relief efforts. One must ask where all that money has been spent and who benefitted from it.

Given the notoriously high levels of corruption in the Philippines, it’s not hard to imagine that those most in need of relief never received it.

Thousands of people lost their lives in the typhoon, but the official death toll stopped at 6,000, despite estimates that the actual toll was much higher.

Some have called on Congress to investigate and have suggested that the actual toll could be closer to 18,000, given that many victims were hurriedly buried in unmarked mass graves.

What remains indisputable a year after catastrophe struck this area is that the suffering continues to reside close to the surface for those who lost loved ones.

In a church compound, I sat among community workers holding a group session to provide psycho-social counseling for adults and children. Just outside were the graves of hundreds of typhoon victims.

After the session, I stood among the tiny graves of children as workmen erected a monument to honor the dead.

I prayed for the dead and for the living who must endure the sorrow of their loss as I looked at the innumerable posters with photos and messages to the dead, repeated on grave after grave: “We will miss you.”

Fr Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary priest. He established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sexual abuse.

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