By: Caroline Brennan, in Palo, Leyte for CRS | It’s easy to miss one of the more remarkable emergency efforts taking place on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, an area leveled by Typhoon Haiyan. Here, in coastal and hillside towns where 6,201 people perished in November’s storm and nearly 2,000 are still missing, you see in all directions piles of wood, debris and garbage that line roads and cover the lawns of homes and schools.
The harrowing remnants of devastation should be uninviting. And, yet, they have become a source of communion, a place where many Filipinos are finding resolve,
Throughout Palo, teams of Filipinos take on the exhausting physical work to clear garbage, trees, and the heavy fallen debris through Cash for Work projects. No matter the backdrop of waste, this is one of the most valuable contributions to the relief effort.
To provide anything—clean water, materials to rebuild homes and schools, and other
necessities—you need to be able to reach communities via clear access routes. In other words, you need to clean up the mess.
“We emphasize a level of care in the clearing process,” says Jose “Dax” Evaristo Tibus, a program coordinator with Catholic Relief Services Philippines who oversees cash-for-work programs in Palo. “It’s not simply debris removal. At any time you can be confronted with a human being under the debris,” he says. “So, you’re not just digging and digging. You’re taking things one by one, piece by piece. You’re also taking in all the smells. It’s part of the process—facing reality. We were devastated, but we have to go on.”
Dax, a native of the southern Davao region and a manager of CRS programs there, traveled to Leyte to take part in the emergency relief effort.
“In times of devastation, it can be hard to stand on your own, especially when the loss is stili fresh,” he says. “Sometimes, you just need someone to be with you.”
Dax is among the dozens of CRS Filipino staff who have come from around the country to heip. His regular work with CRS is on the island of Mindanao, where he leads efforts to resolve conflict in communities that have a history of inter-religious tension and fighting,
In Palo, his work is more physical. Dax spends entire days under the scorching sun or pouring rain, knee-deep in heaps of garbage, directing teams of men and women who have signed up for the opportunity to clean their neighborhoods. His job is to guide the meticulously organized process and to keep spirits up.
“It’s important to bring people together,” he says. “The idea of people forming teams offers a good feeling. People talk to each other. At times they come across a silly thing and they laugh with each other, making things more normal than they were just a few days or weeks ago.”
Isagani Labong, a project participant and supervisor of a team at the San Joaquin Central School in Palo, agrees.
“Our minds are focused on this work and not on the trauma,” says Isagani. “We know each other well. We ail live here. We went through this experience together.”
The men and women taking part in cash-for-work activities are paid daily rates (at the national minimum wage per national guidelines), and typically work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. CRS provides workers with heavy protection gear, including helmets, gloves, masks and boots.
“It gives us money for everyday expenses,” Isagani says. “It is a way up, a way to move on.”
Teams of 10 are assigned to designated areas, where they take on heaps of debris one street, school and “barangay,” or neighborhood, at a time. Wood is divided according to whether it can be used to rebuild or is only suitable for firewood. Garbage is also separated, and taken away in trucks to government-designated dump sites.
Even though the work provides relief from the trauma, it gets personal – when a corpse is found in the debris, for example.
“When this happens, the team stops and people will shout,” says Dax. “They will be asking, ‘who is she?’ and … will come and mourn over them. We have a kind of talk in our group just to relieve the depression, because they often know who the person is.”
Bodies are identified by the barangay captain and by family members, and the victims’ names are then cross-referenced against a missing persons checklist. Eventually, the family and the government remove the bodies for burial. Mass graves now fill areas in Palo, outside churches and even the St. Joaquin School
“When i carry bodies, I just tell myself I want to be a good person—100 percent a good person,” says Isagani.
These incidents are thankfully on the decline and progress is visible each day as more streets are cleared. Community members taking part in the work describe this effort as therapeutic.
“The best part of this job is when you talk with the people, converse with them, allow them to be themselves,” says Dax. “Honestly, it’s quite a hard job to truly listen. When you listen, you realiy have to be with the person, embracing their spirit in a way. When people sense they are being listened to, they can share whatever they are carrying.”
“My message to them—and to myself—is to live it, maximize it. Don’t be too individualistic, says Dax. “Change things. Do something collective/’
Isagani adds, “God has given me a second life, so why not move on?”