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Tacloban: Dealing with the dead and dying

As homeless and hungry survivors of Typhoon Haiyan flee, Filipino volunteers are left piling corpses into mass graves.

Last updated: 19 Nov 2013 18:40
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A mass grave in Tacloban stretches 100m, filled with the decaying corpses of the city [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Tacloban, Philippines - According to tradition in this predominantly Catholic country, the dead are commonly laid to rest after nine days of paglalamay, an elaborate practice of prayer and mourning. But 12 days after Typhoon Haiyan swept through the central Philippine city of Tacloban and its neighbouring towns, the deceased still litter the streets here, with body bags left uncollected.

While Haiyan's death toll continues to mount, government officials struggle to distribute food to hundreds of thousands of evacuees. At the same time, many homeless survivors, left for days without food and water, are fleeing the city en masse. That leaves the task of burying the dead to understaffed government forensic investigators and volunteer groups. As of Monday, the government had reported almost 4,000 fatalities, with the final count expected to rise yet further.

Discussing aid efforts in the Philippines

Outside the town centre, in a hillside cemetery, city workers have dug a mass gravesite stretching over 100 metres. For days, eight-wheeler trucks have been arriving with hundreds of bodies, some only wrapped in cloth. Almost none of the victims' family members have been present to bid their final goodbyes. In some cases, entire families have perished.

"I feel guilty for not being able to do what we ordinarily do," Alex Opiniano, a senior Catholic cleric told Al Jazeera, referring to his task of giving final funeral rites to the dead.

"We do what we can do, but these are beyond our capacity," Opiniano said, his voice trailing off in exhaustion. He said his church, the Sto Nino parish, had lost "a number" of workers.

Two blocks from the church, in a seaside area usually reserved to welcome tourists, government doctors try to gather identifying marks from the dead. Left inside body bags for days, in the sun and frequent rain, most were no longer recognisable. Volunteers, loading and unloading the bags, wear multiple masks to ward off the smell that has saturated the entire city.

Alex Uy, a doctor and chief forensic investigator, told Al Jazeera that it would take several days - if not weeks - before all the victims are buried.

"It is hard because the bodies are all bloated," he said. "But we still try to get forensic data, like fingerprints, DNA and other physical identification marks like their shirts."

The victims are then tagged, to help family members trace their dead relatives.

"Corpses are not just dead animals that you haul into a mass grave," he said.

Noel Sol, a volunteer diver from Manila, told Al Jazeera that, for days, his team had retrieved dozens of bodies floating by the Leyte Gulf near the city. 

Overseeing the burial operation is another medical doctor, Bubi Arce, a top aide of the city mayor, who barely survived after the storm surge reached his apartment.

"I'm doing this, because I want to think that if this had happened to me, someone else would pick up my body and bury me," Arce told Al Jazeera.

Exodus

Eleven days after Haiyan's more than 300kph wind slammed into the central Philippines, the government is reporting that relief goods have started to reach the remotest areas hit by the storm. On Tuesday, President Benigno Aquino III visited the hardest-hit areas in Samar and Leyte.

But with the United Nations reporting on Monday that four million people have been displaced by the typhoon, the government faces the unenviable task of feeding the hungry masses.   

Relatives search for Philippine typhoon survivors

In Barangay Basper, right across the street from one mass grave, the family of Estrella Tomate - her nine children and 24 grandchildren - are staying put in their village. They have built a makeshift tent from corrugated iron and bamboo. As of Friday, Tomate said her family had not received any relief packages from the government, and was surviving on a sack of rice they retrieved from a cargo ship marooned after the storm.

But at Tacloban's central bus terminal, thousands of city residents, who have lost their homes, are no longer waiting for government help to arrive. Instead, they have decided to leave the city, scrambling for the first available bus.

Alfred Romualdez, the city mayor, told Al Jazeera that as many as 60 percent of the city's population had left. With regional universities, hospitals and banks also shut down, even transient residents of the city are also not coming back, paralysing the city's business activities a week after the storm, he said. 

Al Jazeera caught up with Ofelia Benico and her four children as they waited for a bus for Ormoc City, 100km west. Like many families, Benico said that they could not find food in the city, and whatever food they received from government agencies was only enough to last them one or two meals.

"We may have survived the storm," Benico said. "But if we stay, we are going to die of hunger here."

Lea Cruz and her family, including her 70-year old mother, Esther Cinco, were heading for the capital, Manila. Cruz worries that her mother, who survived by climbing onto a neighbour's rooftop, would get sick, and they could not find medical help with all hospitals in Tacloban shut down.

The family of Melissa Mabini from Tanauan, Leyte, have also left for Manila. For three days after the storm, her father and siblings survived by eating coconuts. Even if her family would like to stay, she says, there's nothing left from their coconut farmland. In the entire central Philippine region, at least 2.5 million coconut trees have been destroyed, depriving many farmers of their source of living, according to the government's agriculture department.

Back at the Sto Nino church, Monsignor Opiniano said that it was "depressing" to think that it would take long for Tacloban to recover. 

"We can hardly afford to think of the day after tomorrow," Opiniano said. "We live on a day-to-day basis. Because if you try to think of the future, we just feel so sorry and so depressed."

Follow Ted Regencia on Twitter: @tedregencia

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Al Jazeera
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