Tacloban, Mon Amour

Tacloban coast (Source: bbc.co.uk)

With guns drawn, five men in plain clothes jumped out from the unmarked jeep and surrounded my companion and me as we walked down a street in Tacloban. Two burly men grabbed me by the arms and hustled me inside the jeep.

We sped off, the men not saying anything. They took me to a military camp up a hill. They let my companion go, but they dumped me in a holding cell, a stockade they call it, and left me there.

No words were spoken. I curled myself into a ball in a corner to keep warm. There was no bed, no chair, no toilet. Nothing. Just cold cement walls around me.

The next day, they still left me there — as if they'd forgotten about me. But still no food, no water. No words.

Then, that night, they came. The interrogation—and the torture — began.

That was in 1973. Nov. 23. The date forever etched in my memory.

For the past 40 years, I've deliberately tried to erase that from my mind. Although years later, I returned to Tacloban several times, including as a sports reporter for the Manila Bulletin, I kept that chapter in my life hidden.

That night, they came. The interrogation—and the torture—began. I’ve deliberately tried to erase that from my mind. Until I saw the devastation wrought by super Typhoon Yolanda.

Until I saw the devastation wrought by super Typhoon Yolanda — and I couldn't recognize any street of the city of my youth.

Then, the memories came rushing in.

Tacloban in the early '70s was a genteel city with wide, safe, interesting streets ideal for walking—strolling, we call the activity — an inexpensive exercise we did after homework was done and before going to bed. I rented a room in the Quarry district, a sliver of Tacloban near the Leyte Institute of Technology.

We'd walk all the way to MacArthur Park, not far from the Port Area, where we feasted on native-chicken barbecue, and sat on the cement benches, or the grass, and sang folk songs.

The Port Area, or the pier, as we called it, was a special place. For us students from Samar Island, it was where we took the overnight ferry to Guiuan and Balangiga in Eastern Samar and Catbalogan in Samar. At night, it was a place of frantic activity, punctuated by shouts of "barbecue," "itlog puso" (coconut leaf-wrapped cooked rice) from merchants hawking their merchandise.

It was not until 1973 that the San Juanico Bridge, connecting Samar and Leyte, was completed, and so the pier was the gateway to and from both islands.

Tacloban Airport (Source: abc.net.au)

At the height of Typhoon Yolanda that part of the city went under the surging waters from the sea. The devastation was scary — and heartbreaking.

The Waray-Waray traditions of deep religiosity and love of a good time were always evident in Tacloban. One of the biggest celebrations is the feast of the Santo Niño, or the Child Jesus, on July 1. The Santo Niño church and Museum, one of the most visited spots in Tacloban, was badly damaged by Typhoon Yolanda.

Their deep faith is expected to help Waray-Warays rise up from their current dismal situation.

In the 1970s the First Quarter Storm and the tumult of student protests that hit Manila and other cities reached Tacloban. We got caught up in the maelstrom.

But compared with the riots and violent demonstrations in Manila, our mass actions in Tacloban were tame. I was a member of the student government and the student newspaper at Leyte Colleges, where I ended up enrolling after I was kicked out of the Divine Word University, the biggest school in Tacloban, which has since closed.

I was also a member of the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan, which, along with the Kabataang Makabayan, was tagged by the military as a "radical” student organization.

But aside from holding placards and doing marches during the October 20 observance of MacArthur's Leyte landing and demonstrating in front of an electric company for raising its rates, our protests in Tacloban hardly merited any news.

That changed though with the declaration of Martial Law on September 21, 1972. Many of the student leaders, like myself, decided not to return to school, and after trying to elude the military, many joined comrades in the hills.

I did not. Instead, I went home to Eastern Samar. I didn't know that the situation turned bad in Leyte when soldiers raided one of the camps, and one soldier was killed. So when I went back to Tacloban, I was arrested, the military thinking that I was one of the leaders.

They wanted to know the whereabouts of the people involved in the killing of the soldier. They tortured me to extract the information. I gave them nothing because I simply didn't know. After about three days, they gave up.

Tacloban via aerial photography (Source: abc.net.au)

They kept me at the military camp — Camp Bumpus — now the Leyte Park Hotel. I was under detention there until mid-1974, when I was transferred to Cebu, along with several other students. We were kept in an Army camp in Lahug and later at a Philippine Constabulary facility.

I was released from detention in 1975.

Obviously, my memories of Tacloban are deeply personal. There were certainly some good times, but the painful, literally and figuratively, were also there.

Tacloban was a city on the go when Yolanda hit. According to Wikipedia, in an extensive survey conducted by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center and released in July 2010, Tacloban City was ranked among the top ten most competitive cities in the Philippines.

Tacloban ranked fifth overall and second in the emerging cities category.

Located about 580 kilometers from Manila, it was the first city in Region VIII to become a "Highly Urbanized City" and is the largest city in terms of population in Eastern Visayas.

It is also the regional center of the Eastern Visayas, being the main gateway by air to the region. Tacloban was briefly the capital of the Philippines, from October 20, 1944 to February 27, 1945.

More importantly, it also knows how to come back from disasters. In 1897 the city suffered nearly 15,000 dead from another destructive typhoon, and again in 1912. Both times, the city recovered and rebuilt.

As the sign in Waray-Waray says, Tindog, Tacloban! (Stand Tall, Tacloban).

Bert B. Eljera

Bert B. Eljera

A journalist for more than 25 years, Bert B. Eljera has extensively covered the Asian Pacific American community in California, Florida and Nevada. His expertise in ethnic culture, political empowerment and issues that impact minority communities provides depth and nuance to his writings. He has written for top newspapers in the Philippines and the United States, including the Los Angeles Times, Florida Times-Union, Vero Beach Press-Journal, Stockton Record, Asian Week, and The Manila Bulletin. He resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.