Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Field Blog from Tacloban - A little girl in a white dress

Toys left in the rubble in the city of Tacloban, Philippines
© UNICEF Philippines/2013/JMaitem

By Kent Page, Senior Advisor Strategic Communications, UNICEF Philippines

It's Sunday in Tacloban. Two days ago, while working with journalists on the ground, we visited one of the hardest hit barangays (neighborhoods) of the city. It's a coastal barangay where thousands of people lived in somewhat of a shanty-town, about 200 meters from the ocean's edge.

Their shanty town does not exist anymore. It bore the full force and fury of super typhoon Haiyan. There's literally nothing left as homes were wiped out and literally washed away by the typhoon, storm surge and gale force winds.

All that remains are the remnants of everyday items we all have in our homes - not in huge piles of debris as seen throughout the city, but random items strewn about haphazardly. A doll here, a tshirt there, a TV remote on the side, a small family photo album over there.

As we were wrapping up our work, I decided to take a walk-around and about 75 meters away came upon two bodies. One appeared to be a young man, and the other was a little girl in a white dress, about six years of age.

At this point it was two weeks since super typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines. Fourteen days that both bodies had been laying on their backs, staring up into the blazing sun and pouring rain that alternate on a daily basis in Tacloban. The decomposition and smell was overbearing, but I couldn't take my eyes off the little girl in the white dress. It seemed so wrong for her to be left to the elements like that, stared at by anyone passing by. It also seemed wrong that other children could easily stumble across her, including possibly a brother or sister.

UNICEF is not in the business of body retrieval - we are about supporting the most vulnerable children in the world through our actions in health, nutrition, education, child protection, water and sanitation. We are working round the clock for all the children affected by the typhoon and are making progress, although there is still so much to do.  But I thought that somehow, the little girl in the white dress was perhaps the most vulnerable child of all.

We had to leave, so I said a small prayer for both of them and then we moved on to do the rest of the day's work. That night I asked how to get in touch with a body retrieval team with whom I would follow up the next day and have the little girl and the young man properly taken care of.

By the following afternoon we had wrapped up several more media interviews to show the world the challenges being faced by so many Filipino children. We then stopped at small store - one of the first to have opened in Tacloban - to buy some water. Inside, I met a fellow Canadian who had been biking around the Philippines and arrived in Tacloban just before Haiyan struck. He had postponed the rest of his trip and was now volunteering with the local fire department. "Doing what?", I asked. "Supporting their body retrieval operations."

I quickly explained the situation and he took me over to the fire hall. Unfortunately, all their teams were already out working and the fire chief told me no one was available until Sunday. "Too late," I said. "Is there anyone else?" "Maybe the Mexican team can help", said the fire chief. "They're in the next building."

I went over and met the three body retrieval volunteers from Mexico. "We can go right now if you like", they said. "We'll bring a few extra body bags just in case, but our vehicle is out right now - could we get a lift?"

Thirty minutes later, we had arrived back in the barangay and they started their detailed work - photographing them for later identification, interviewing the small group who had gathered around to collect information as to who they might be, checking wrists and necks for identification bracelets and necklaces, and taking careful notes of all the information and the exact location of the bodies.

And then they moved on to picking up and placing each body in the thick, dark blue Philippine Red Cross body bags. It's important to describe how compassionately they did so, particularly for the little girl in the white dress. Kneeling down beside her, she was gently picked up, cradled in their arms and then even more gently laid into the protective, clean warmth of the bag, as if being tucked into bed. Her hands were placed across her chest and I'm sure a silent prayer was said by all who were watching.

And then ever so slowly, the bag was zipped up. No more oppressive sun, no more pouring rain, no more buzzing flies, no more curious onlookers - just a safe, protective, quiet peace for the little girl in the white dress.

We thought it was over, but sadly the work had only just begun. The local people pointed out seven other bodies lying twisted and turned amongst debris and uprooted palm trees in the swampy waters a bit further back. Five of them children, about 9, 7, 5, 4 and 2 years of age. All of them girls.

The Mexican team treated each body carefully, with all the compassion and dignity they each deserved. Within 2 hours, nine people, six of them children, had finally and properly been cared for by the gentle and professional  Mexican team.

Volunteer is wrapping dead bodies © UNICEF/Kent Page

There wasn't a body bag for the last child found, but the Mexican team wouldn't leave her exposed. They searched until they found some strewn about bedsheets which they washed in a pool of water. Then they wrapped her in the clean makeshift shroud. They then searched around for a few minutes and found a big colorful green and yellow piece of plastic sheeting in which they carefully wrapped the shroud. Somehow this makeshift body bag with its bright, beautiful colors was perfectly fitting for the lively spirit of a child.

Radio calls were made for a vehicle to come and retrieve the bodies, but as happens every day throughout Tacloban, the body bags would have to wait for a pick up the following day as demand is so high.

The Mexican team decided it would be easier to pick them all up the next morning, Sunday, if they were all brought down together to the beachfront. So they carried each body bag separately down to the edge of the beach, with the children being carried cradled in their arms. They slowly and carefully laid them down to rest on a clean concrete slab, once the foundation of a home, with their feet pointing towards the ocean.

Unlike two weeks ago, the ocean was calm and gentle now, with the waves peacefully breaking on the beach. It seemed as if the ocean was filled with remorse and regret about what it had done and was now trying to apologize. Clouds had set in overhead, but in the distance the rays of the setting sun broke through the clouds as the last child's body was laid there. For a few moments the chaos and upheaval of Tacloban was overpowered by the peace, quiet and beauty of the scene.

Today is Sunday inTacloban and churches throughout the city were overflowing with worshippers giving thanks for those who survived the typhoon and praying for those who had lost their lives. On this perfect Sunday morning with bright sunshine and blue skies, we heard that the three adults and six children had been safely retrieved and taken by vehicle towards their final resting place.

A few minutes later we were just outside a crowded church where UNICEF has been supporting families living in the church since the typhoon destroyed their homes. I was getting ready to do an interview about the emergency vaccination campaign that would cover the children sheltering at the church, when a young man inside the church walked past an open door near me.

He was holding the hand of a little girl, perhaps his daughter, little sister or niece. They didn't say a word as they walked toward the front of the church, but they both looked over and smiled as they passed by. The little girl was happy, healthy and protected. The little girl was wearing a white dress.