The Women from the Bunkhouse

 The author (sixth from right) consults local leaders and barangay health workers at the start of WeDpro's rapid relief response with a grant from ActionAid International. (Photo by Olan Santos for WeDpro/ActionAid)

The author (sixth from right) consults local leaders and barangay health workers at the start of WeDpro's rapid relief response with a grant from ActionAid International. (Photo by Olan Santos for WeDpro/ActionAid)

It is nearly lunch time and everyone is busy tidying up our Palo, Leyte, office. We are temporarily closing the office for a much needed break and an end-of project assessment. After an exhausting five months of non-stop emergency assistance to six coastal barangays in Palo, Leyte, and five barangays in Culasi, Antique, including two island barangays that got swept away by the raging winds of super typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, the Padayon sa Pag-laum staff is ready to take a breather.

The noon sun is relentless.  It is always like this. Then the rains would come, sometimes just to sprinkle the parched land, but sometimes in torrential summer downpours.  When the rains come. children cry, mothers become anxious and Yolanda comes back, with all its painful memories.  There is so much healing to do here.

The heat is unbearable, even with our non-stop electric fans humming then stopping, then coming on again. In Palo, electricity has been restored, but only in areas near the main roads and in the main center of the city of Tacloban.  At night, some street lamps are turned on when night falls. But there are many other areas that need lighting.  Houses that have not been repaired, and there are still many of these, cannot have power, in order to prevent accidents. MacArthur Park is dark after sunset, yet it is busy with vendors pushing carts with their version of mango slush and fried squid balls.

Three women arrive at our office gate, looking for WeDpro.  They are unsure how to pronounce my organization’s name.  One carries an umbrella. Under the torturous heat, all have glistening sweat under their eyes. I nodded.

“We are from the bunkhouses, in Tacloban,” says one, who introduces herself and her two companions. She is tall and vigorous, her eyes alert and her brows knitted in anxiety. Gemma (not her real name), does not want to sit down when a chair was offered. There is hardly any shade in the front patio.  The two companions eagerly sit themselves on a sofa that has seen better days. [When the office is full, other staffers sleep here, oblivious of the big mosquitoes that buzz around their weary bodies.] 

 Life goes on for this elderly woman whose home was completely destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan (Photo by Olan Santos for WeDpro/ActionAid)

Life goes on for this elderly woman whose home was completely destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan (Photo by Olan Santos for WeDpro/ActionAid)

“We heard that WeDpro is giving livelihood funds, and we’ve come to see if we can also be beneficiaries," Gemma explains. She says that someone from her village came to visit her, and told them that they should find the office of WeDpro.

I am not prepared for this kind of plea that sounds more like a demand. I can hardly open my mouth, now dry from the heat.  Where did you hear that?  I finally manage to compose myself. In a few hours, our plane will leave from Tacloban; a sign “Closed” boldly hangs on our front door.

“We are hungry, we are poor, we have nothing!  We don’t have homes. Demolished completely and there’s nothing to salvage!”  Sheila is desperate for her words to be heard.  I hear, you, Sheila, I say, trying to comfort her.

“You gave away money for women to set up food shops, didn’t you? We used to sell food as well. Doesn’t that qualify us? We are also poor and vulnerable.”

I nod. Yes, of course, they are poor and very vulnerable, my head is talking to myself.

Slowly, in a measured way, I explain that the livelihood projects, which we billed as “Balik-Kabuhayan” has just finished. The first phase of our program has just closed, and all the funds for the livelihood activities have been distributed.  With a heavy heart, I explain the entire program and that we are not able to reach out to the women in the bunkhouses because these aren't part of our targeted communities.

 Still grieving from the loss of a dear departed, a child weeps at the heels of a WeDpro staff. None said, her heart screams. (Photo by Olan Santos for WeDpro/ActionAid)

Still grieving from the loss of a dear departed, a child weeps at the heels of a WeDpro staff. None said, her heart screams. (Photo by Olan Santos for WeDpro/ActionAid)

“We are overcrowded there, the toilets are shared among many families, and it’s hot.  We have no jobs! Now, they are saying that all those who have been moved there are not going to automatically receive permanent homes. So where will we go?” Minda [not her real name] complained. “People say that we have a better situation, people in the bunkhouses. That’s not true!  Often, we don’t have food because either the relief goods are delayed or simply do not arrive. “

“Have you heard about the rotted relief goods?” Sheila asked. I nod my head.

There must be some livelihood projects for you there, I say.  Donors, and big ones, are giving away assistance. We are a small NGO.  I am desperate to find words to explain why we are not able to give them assistance.

“If there’s some, we don’t know about that,” Gemma says. "We have not been given livelihood. That’s why we’re here!”

I explain the project parameters again. I repeat that we don’t have any more funds and in fact we are waiting for the program to continue. And yes, we will consider them, if we are given funds to assist in their livelihood needs. This conversation about livelihood lasted for around another 15 minutes.

When they become sure that there is no money to give to them, they actually become much more relaxed and they tell me their stories, how they survived Yolanda and managed to live. Others were not as lucky.

“There is politics everywhere,” says Gemma, who is one of the bunkhouses' team leaders. She can barely conceal her anger and disdain, now written all over her body. “Disaster na nga, pulitika pa rin.” [There’s politics even in disaster.]

Minda pipes in. “My little girl cannot sleep. She stays awake most of the time because she says Yolanda might return. If she’s able to sleep in the daytime, it is full of nightmares, images that haunt her.”

Have you been given psychosocial assistance, you know, counseling?


We are hungry, we are poor, we have nothing! We don’t have homes. Demolished completely and there’s nothing to salvage!

“We’ve heard about that,” Gemma says, “but no, we haven’t had something that could help us begin to work out our fears, our anxieties.  Never mind that, for as long as we have food, income and eventually, permanent homes.”

Their homes have been demolished because they all lived near a creek.  But not all of them may have the chance to be relocated.  They’ve been in the bunkhouses for nearly three months now.  The controversial bunkhouses were earlier reported in the media as below standard and overpriced.

They talk more about their lives in the bunkhouses. I hang on to every word uttered. But the feeling of helplessness is so strong my head spins. Maybe the heat, I say to myself.

Gemma has been feeling sick. Her palpitations continue. She couldn’t sleep for weeks right after Yolanda washed away everything she owned.  She is a single mother, and she takes care of her old mother. They all live now in the bunkhouses.

“I went to Manila, and stayed with some relatives, to have myself checked. I went to PGH (Philippine General Hospital). The doctors ran tests. Nothing was wrong with me, they said.  I think all those palpitations, difficulty in breathing are really just part of my trauma.  I am hoping all my aches and pains will go away. I need to be strong.”

“Thank you, anyway,” says Gemma as she picks up her umbrella and makes a nod to her companions, Minda and Sheila. “ I understand,”  she says, her way of bidding goodbye.

I manage to hold back my tears.  My throat is so dry. I bid them a faint goodbye. I go up to them and hug them.  

I will try to do something, even write about it. Even a simple story, so people may know.  Write a letter to government. Write about your woes and your demands. That I can deliver to the Palace through friends. No, I am not well connected, I say to them as a gentle smile comes from Gemma’s lips, but I will do my best.

“I will come back,” Gemma says, “even if you don’t have livelihood for us.  I want to volunteer. I think that’s the best I could do. At least I am doing something for myself and those in the bunkhouses. Not just ask, but do something, give back. I will be back.”

The bunkhouse women leave, walking under the torturous heat, sharing an umbrella.

I am waiting for their letter, their statement.  I am going to see the bunkhouse women again, I promise myself.

 

Follow us at https://www.facebook.com/padayonsapaglaum. WeDpro is a partner of ActionAid International for the Yolanda Response.

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 Aida F. Santos

Aida F. Santos

Aida F. Santos writes poems and essays when not busy with her work with communities devastated by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan.