MANILA, OCTOBER 5, 2009 (STAR)
By Tony Meloto
The morning after typhoon “Ondoy” (Ketsana internationally)
was like waking up from one’s worst nightmare. But harrowing
as it was, it was a defining moment. The worst of times brings out
the best in the Filipino.
With my son Jay and friend Benjie, I went at daybreak to survey the
extent of the devastation. Our first stop was Sitio Ruby, beside La
Mesa dam in Quezon City. Village leaders met us with tales of horror
and heroism, as floodwaters rose to the rooftops of their multi-colored
homes and the ensuing superhuman efforts to save self, loved ones
and neighbors. Women and children were evacuated first to concrete
structures with second and third floors and areas on high ground starting
at noon Saturday, September 26, when it was evident that the rains
would not stop. After securing their family, the men living beside
the creek started fishing out children swept by the strong current.
The hapless victims were mostly informal settlers from neighboring
Bagong Barrio, whose shanties were no match to the sudden deluge.
Most were saved, a few were lost, with no clear body count yet as
they were swept downstream.
Sitio Ruby is a former slum of 5,000 residents that has been transformed
into a Gawad Kalinga village. They reported no casualties. According
to village leaders Tata and Joseph, it was because the neighborhood
was alert and there was a lot of grace because they learned to pray
as a community. In the midst of an incomprehensible calamity, incomparable
in memory, they were simply grateful to be alive and to be of help
to others in greater need.
That first stop started an incredible journey for me, meeting countless
heroes and hearing amazing stories of our people’s indomitable
spirit and capacity to care, in the sea of human suffering.
My first heroes of the day: the residents of Sitio Ruby – just
coming out of danger, without food and water, but quick to organize
themselves to deal with the aftermath of a devastation. They helped
us set-up the relief center at the chapel for the neighboring communities,
while their own homes were still in complete disarray. They knew help
would come, as they had been beneficiaries in the past of generosity
beyond their expectation, but the priority this time were the less
fortunate outside their village. Receivers of hope were now ready
to share it with others.
My next heroes are the GK Caretakers of the place, led by Gerry and
Willy, members of Couples for Christ who live in exclusive subdivisions
but consider the poor as family. They left the safety of their homes
to be in solidarity with those who lost theirs. They were there at
the crack of dawn to show the villagers that they were not alone.
They knew the importance of presence in the lives of the abandoned,
before relief goods or medical missions. The rich who care for the
poor deserve their wealth on earth and their deposits in heaven.
From Sitio Ruby, we went to Brookside, sandwiched between Filinvest
2 and the Payatas dumpsite in Barangay Bagong Silangan, the hardest
hit area in Quezon City in terms of fatalities. There I encountered
more Filipinos to be proud of.
Hurriedly passing a red utility van where bodies were loaded, I trudged
the muddy road on foot, resisting the urge to look – not in
fear, as I helped retrieve dead bodies before from past calamities
– but to refrain from being distracted in reaching our village
of 300 families at the end of the road. They sent pleas for help all
Saturday night, until their phone batteries ran out.
The way was littered with debris and naked children scurrying about,
mixing with pigs securely tied on posts to prevent escape. Kids and
pigs – precious to those with little else – brought to
the safety of higher grounds in the mad scramble for dear life. Most
of them came from the bottom of the gully, risking life as informal
settlers along the creek that emptied itself in the Marikina River
whenever it rained heavily or when the Angat dam overflowed. In their
usual rhythm of life, creek dwellers would start scampering up the
steep slopes whenever there was heavy downpour and immediately return
to their hovels once it stopped. This time however they were not so
lucky. The clouds dumped more rain in Metro Manila than Katrina that
devastated New Orleans. This Barangay of forgotten Filipinos, known
as squatters, lost the race for survival: 32 dead, 108 missing. It
could have been more catastrophic if the storm hit at night.
I stopped myself from going down to the basketball court where more
unclaimed bodies were laid out, including those of two nameless heroes
who died while rescuing others.
They, and many others who lost their lives to save others, are the
finest Filipinos during these trying times.
No songs will be written about them; their exploits will soon be
forgotten, except perhaps by those who regained their life in exchange
for theirs. But I will keep talking about them… and many others
like them. Their brand of heroism defines us as a people. It is sacrifice
that will make us strong as a nation, giving beyond self for others
to live. Even the poorest Filipino is capable of such radical giving.
More tales of greatness greeted me when I finally reached Brookside.
I was met by the half-naked Bernard with fresh lacerations on his
chest, battle wounds from this recent bout with nature for survival.
With other members of the Kapitbahayan, they saved over a hundred
women and children in a dramatic seven hour rescue operation, traversing
through rooftops of GK row-houses which withstood strong current and
served as bridge to safety; batya with babies and makeshift rafts
fashioned out of banana trunks and rope were used to reach the perimeter
wall of the neighboring affluent village where they were welcomed
with open arms and provided food, water and dry clothes by concerned
residents. It took a calamity to cross the wall of mistrust that separated
the haves and the have-nots for years.
It took a tragedy for the rich to turn despair to hope and become
Inside Brookside, a soup kitchen was in progress, organized by former
Rotary president Jess with wife Helen, now Caretakers of the village.
Like Sitio Ruby, there was no casualty in the place, and, despite
extensive loss of possessions, we figured it would not take long for
the community to rebound. We estimated an immediate need for 1,300
food packs and bottled water, 300 for the village, 1,000 for the surrounding
areas. Under the direction of Sister Angie of the Franciscan Sisters
of Charity and community volunteer Rabbi, an efficient distribution
system manned by village officers was instantly put in place. We left
Brookside with the promise to come back before nightfall to bring
the much needed supplies.
I went to Cervini in Ateneo with my wife and children and one-year
old granddaughter Tala in tow, which turned into a beehive of activities
as volunteers and donations poured in as soon as university president
Fr. Ben sounded the call. Relief operations had to be moved to the
covered courts to accommodate the swelling crowd.
Tragedy brought out the innate idealism of youth. After all nations
in the past were built by their young patriots who fought their wars.
I saw that afternoon in this exclusive school many young heroes -from
sheltered homes, with parents who possess wealth and power- coming
out of their closet. I saw in their faces the great country that we
are not yet… but soon will be… if we keep this up. Greatness
will come to us once we get out of our artificial bubble of affluence
to be in the real world of the abandoned and the neglected.
We went back to Bagong Silangan in a convoy of four vans loaded with
supplies, passing by for my British son-in-law Dylan, who bought bottled
water and canned goods at newly opened Shopwise. The line to the cash
register took him two hours, as shelves were being emptied by eager
shoppers, not in a frenzy of panic buying to hoard for self, but to
help others. This was another amazing phenomenon.
The mood of the moment was inclusive… as it should always be.
The pain of every Filipino is our pain.
We stayed at Brookside until nightfall. The need was immense but
the spirit was hopeful. They knew that they now have a lifeline with
brethrens and friends who have a covenant with God not to abandon
them. Sleep came late, but it was peaceful.
I was up early the following day to join QC Mayor Sonny at the flag
raising ceremony at the city hall, where I signed an agreement with
generous land donor Sandra to relocate scavengers living dangerously
in the dumpsite of Payatas. The effort of local government to do land-banking
, 62,000 home lots to-date, to reduce squatting and transform slums
into viable communities with us, will lessen their burden with the
poor when calamity strikes. I see effective leadership in this city
where I live, not only in the wide streets and improved facilities
due to better fiscal policies and reduced corruption, but in their
new thrust to do ground-up community development work, starting in
the 84 GK villages and rapidly increasing. I hope this initiative
will continue after next year’s election.
There is great power in public-private partnership. The private sector
is a sleeping giant of patriots and heroes waiting to be awakened
by great causes and great leaders.
I saw many of them at the RFM gym where Operation Walang Iwanan was
in progress, an initiative of GK head Luis with the Concepcion brothers,
Joey and John. They were there to meet the immeasurable need for immediate
relief head on, believing in the Filipinos immense capacity to care.
They were right. Thousands of volunteers came – rich and poor
alike, from nearby plush villages and GK communities. They came -
and opened the floodgates of generosity unseen by many before. In
six days of festive nobility, over 6,000 volunteers processed and
delivered 182,000 food packs, with thousands more on the ground. Donors
who came, including top CEOs, marveled at the fast and efficient system
when there is synergy and convergence. AFP Chief Bong, a friend of
GK since its early days, provided us with seven military trucks and
escorts to reach the most number of victims in the most difficult
to reach areas of Marikina, Cainta, Taguig, Pasig and Pateros. GK
communities in those places, in coordination with the LGU, became
effective and peaceful sites for distribution.
It is heartening for us to experience the extensive goodwill that
we have planted on the ground and patiently nurtured over the years.
We have the massive platform now to expand our reach at the relief
stage and later on, in the more challenging work of rehabilitation
With the help of the global community that is starting to pour in,
we will continue our work of transformation until the Filipino ceases
to be a perennial victim in his own country.
That will happen soon if every Filipino decides to be a hero…
now. Bawat Pilipino Bayani… Ngayon.