Thursday, November 28, 2013

'Waray Waray,' let's rock!

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/ by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Before anything else, let me share what my friend, actor-activist Joel Saracho of T’bak-Pilipinas, posted on Facebook last Sunday (during the Pacquiao-Rios boxing bout in Macau) which got lots of “likes” and “LoLs”: “I have this nagging suspicion that today, a lot of people will temporarily cease being disaster management experts. They will become boxing commentators and sports analysts.”

This caricatured the blamers, finger-pointers, flame-throwers and I-told-you-soers who added to the fallout of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” that leveled most of the Waray-speaking Eastern Visayas (that is, the provinces of Leyte and Samar) and parts of Western Visayas. Of course, the morning-after experts all sounded like they meant well, but after a while the ululations, especially from those with obvious malice intended, could get annoying.

Soon after The Great Howler left, people in devastated areas crawled out of the rubble with nary a possession, many with their entire brood missing. The stories of loss, survival and heroism—there’s an ocean of them. Now, more than two weeks later, international, local and government relief groups still have their hands full, but things are beginning to look up and people are starting to break into smiles, sing songs, and play basketball. And what a bonus that boxing idol Manny Pacquiao won with nary a cut on his face, and promising to pay the survivors a visit and share his prize money.

I last visited Samar and Leyte in 2010 to see for myself community-driven development projects. I visited Balangiga, in Eastern Samar, the historic little town that fought to the death the colonizing Americans on Sept. 28, 1901. The event that happened during the waning years of the Philippine-American war is now known as the “Balangiga encounter.”

To resist domination, Balangiga tribesmen attacked the elite Company C of the 9th US Infantry Regiment. It was a suspenseful strategy that showed the Filipinos’ boldness and daring in the face of a superior force. Forty-eight Americans perished and 28 native combatants died. (I remember watching the movie “Sunugin ang Samar” directed by Joey Gosiengfiao.) In retaliation, the Americans waged a scorched-earth campaign and turned Samar into a “howling wilderness,” earning for Gen. Jake Smith the sobriquet “Howling Jake.” Hundreds of Filipinos were killed. The Americans took with them three church bells of Balangiga. (There is an unrelenting campaign for their return.) I hope the lifelike replica of the bloody event by National Artist Napoleon Abueva in front of the Catholic Church of St. Lawrence was not ruined by Yolanda.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Benedictine nuns amid the ruins

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

The Divine Word Hospital (DWH) in Tacloban City was the only hospital that continued to operate in the immediate aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” which wrecked almost everything in its path in the morning of Nov. 8. Operated by the Missionary Benedictine Sisters—and funded, too, through their unrelenting efforts—the 160-bed hospital became a hub of life-saving emergency activities that challenged the survival instincts of the nuns, the hospital staff, the 159 patients and their bantay (watchers).

It was all hands on deck, a scene out of “ER,” the TV series, except that roaring wind, rain and sea were tearing away at sections of the hospital outside and inside. There was no place to hide. “Mother Nature was crying, howling so intensely,” recalled Sr. Ana Maria Raca, superior of the hospital. Window panes crumbled to pieces, air conditioners jumped out of their niches, roofs peeled away, electricity and all means of communication went dead. 
By the time the sky cleared, the almost dying were dead, and the new admissions—the badly injured or near dead—severely tested the traumatized hospital staff. And the nuns, too, some of whom could have perished had they not given in to instinct and put into practice the spirit of obedience at the 11th hour. Yes, in this day and age of headstrong nuns.

All the 16 Benedictine nuns who were in Tacloban when Yolanda hit survived. Not all of them were connected with the hospital. About half of them were from the Benedictine-run St. Scholastica’s College-Tacloban, which was about 45 minutes by motor vehicle from DWH. The school’s superior, Sr. Baptista Busmente, was in Manila, but the newly installed president, Sr. Julia Yap, was on campus before Yolanda hit. The school nuns knew of the warnings but some thought it was safe enough on campus. But Sister Julia was restless. A marine biologist who can dive and swim, she would have been the least worried.

That late afternoon on the eve of Yolanda, Sister Julia surveyed the landscape around and beyond. “I was overcome with a strange feeling. As a marine biologist, I am familiar with the behavior of the tides and of the sea,” she told me. Was it fear of impending doom? She was also well aware of the kind of ground the school buildings (about three years old) were standing on—reclaimed land near a mangrove area.

When Sisters Julia and Ana Maria spoke to each other over the phone, a decision was made: The school sisters must go to the hospital, spend the night there, and wait the typhoon out. Sr. Lourdes Obejas, who was flying in from Manila, was told to proceed to the hospital and not to the school.

Sr. Edissa Manrique wasn’t too keen on going to the hospital, but Sister Ana Maria insisted that no one was to be left behind. All the school nuns moved over to the hospital and took with them provisions for a day. No hemming and hawing. “Obedience without delay” is a monastic practice of those with religious vows.

Some footnotes here. The first Missionary Benedictine Sisters came to the Philippines from Germany in 1906. Known for their adherence to “ora et labora” (pray and work), they run about a dozen schools known for strict discipline and emphasis on social awareness, the Tacloban hospital (one more coming up in Pambujan, Samar), and ministries for the marginalized.

These sisters that I mention were the ones I spoke to last Sunday at St. Scholastica’s College-Manila where relief packages were being sorted out before transport to Leyte. These sisters flew to Manila days after Yolanda to help with relief efforts. Several truckloads have already been transported to the hospital by land and air.

The traumatic experience was still evident in the nuns’ voices, but the grace of humor somehow lightened the load. They recounted how they, along with the hospital staff, subsisted on rice porridge and boiled eggs three times a day till food supplies came, how it was not to have a bath and change of clothes for days, how they had to find the words while blessing the dead.

St. Scholastica’s Tacloban was a total wreck. The nuns’ decision to evacuate saved their lives. In the aftermath, witnesses saw looters hauling away sinks and the nuns’ carry-on suitcases. “As if they were walking out of an airport,” a sister said with a chuckle.

The Benedictines’ school in Ormoc City was not as badly hit, and expectedly, it was their farm-retreat in Alangalang that did not run out of food and water. There were peanuts and root crops in the ground and farm animals to be butchered. The 40-plus seminarians on retreat were a great help.

After the deadly storm surge, two nuns from the hospital went out to join the walking wounded in search of food for the patients. “Twice I bumped into [Interior] Secretary Mar Roxas,” a nun recounted. She broke out of the cordon and exclaimed unabashed, “Mr. Roxas! Mr. Roxas! Please give us rice for the hospital!” The rice came after their second encounter, and with President Aquino present this time.

This space is not enough for all the stories. No aid is too small or too big for the survivors of this unprecedented “world-class” disaster. Alumnae here and abroad (Canada, the United States, etc.) of Benedictine schools (St. Scholastica’s Manila and other branches) have been giving aid through the nuns, sending cash, even providing transport planes. For info on relief efforts and donations, visit http://haiyan.scholastican.org. It has a list of bank accounts under the name Prioress of the Community of Benedictine Sisters.

As the Benedictines had taught us in our youth, Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus. That in all things God may be glorified.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Media's heroic coverage of 'Yolanda'

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

The first images of the fury of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” that were sent from the eye of the storm to the outside were from the media persons who were themselves trapped, battered and in near-death situations when the horrific onslaught from sea and sky began and continued for several hours.

The sounds and images did not come out fast and easy from devastated Central Philippines. For many hours, communication was dead and those of us in Metro Manila and elsewhere had no idea how deadly Yolanda (international name: “Haiyan”) was, that nothing like this had pounded this country, or this world for that matter, in so many lifetimes.

Despite the dire warnings from weather experts, and even with President Aquino calling on local governments and the citizenry to gird for the worst, there was little that could have prepared those in the path of the supertyphoon for its deadly visit. Nothing and no one was spared. Poor and rich, saints and sinners, old and young, politician and proletariat. The provinces of Leyte, Samar and parts of Cebu and Western Visayas were the worst hit, flattened by wind, rain and sea surges that roared like a tsunami gone berserk.

The Philippine media walked into the eye of the so-called perfect storm hoping to record the behavior of this “big one,” only to find themselves on their knees praying for deliverance, some of them thinking that death would claim them. Wet and shivering in the watery hell, they recorded their own last hours, so to speak, not knowing whether they would emerge from their shelters that were falling apart before their eyes. We would see footage of these only much later.
When the sky cleared and communication was back, some media persons were in near-tears; others stoically helped pull out the dead and searched for members of their news teams. The streets were littered with dead bodies and debris. Entire towns and villages were flattened. Tacloban City was a wreck. Where to go for food, water and medicines?

But before the coverage of the aftermath, there were the live images of Yolanda’s wrath, of Nature on the warpath caught on camera and beamed in real time, at least for a while, until everything went dead. Thanks to technology and the warm-blooded (I almost wrote “bloodied”) and intrepid journalists and cameramen (from TV, print and radio), the bad news was relayed to the world, not with lightning speed, but at least within the day. Thanks, too, to the TV and radio news anchors and print editors who did their best to track down their people who would send the news—that is, if they made it alive.

The good news is that no member of the media perished. They all made it, shaky and shaken but alive. The bad news is that the death toll and the number of missing persons are swiftly rising. The journalists’ coverage of Yolanda’s landfall and immediate aftermath was nothing short of heroic. We must salute them all, for braving the elements in order to bring us the news, the voices and the human faces of the suffering. Some reporters have since been replaced by their colleagues but they’ll be back, I’m sure, after a change of clothes.

A scene I found touching was how the journalists from different institutions banded together and looked after one another, our own Inquirer reporters among them, throwing to the wind their competitive streaks.

And thank God for small mercies, I did not catch any broadcast reporter, during the immediate aftermath, asking survivors the oft-asked question during tragedies that I most hate to hear: “Anong nararamdaman ninyo (What are you feeling)?”

Oh, but if a collective award has to be given to the media for the coverage of Yolanda’s deadly landfalls, its immediate aftermath, and related issues down the road, it might as well be the passing of the Freedom of Information bill. Is this too much to ask from the lobbying public and the legislators who saw how journalists risked their lives?

We’ve had terrible earthquakes (just last month in Central Visayas), floods, typhoons and landslides that claimed countless lives, many of these partly blamed on human unpreparedness or disregard for the environment. Yolanda was different and in a class all its own. While climate change worsened by environmental degradation could be the reason for extreme weather conditions, Yolanda seemed to have emerged from the belly of a monster with no name. Weather experts were at a loss for words to describe its magnitude and strength, except to say that it was the strongest to hit land—and it had to be the Philippines—ever recorded in so many, many years.

There will be more tragic images and stories to come, more work to be done, but also more hearts and palms opening. Filipinos from many corners of the world are sending help. Foreign aid is coming in, but it must be on our own native resources—material and spiritual—that our rebuilding must depend.

To foreign-based Filipinos who heckle, taunt and ask “What is so-and-so doing, where is the Church, etc.?” I say: You don’t know what’s being done on the ground.

The Philippines is at the center of the world, in the eye of the storm of goodwill, so we might as well prove to ourselves and to the universe that we can rise beautifully from the rubble. We have one another. This could be our shining moment, our defining moment.
                                                                 * * *
You may send your cash donation to Inquirer Help Fund, Bank of the Philippine Islands account number 4951-0067-56, or Metrobank account number 7286-8109-30

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fr. Joe shook hell in 'job heaven'

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Fr. Joe Dizon, 65, passed away on Nov. 4 because of
complications due to diabetes. He will be missed by his fellow social activists, street parliamentarians, brother priests and, most of all, countless workers whom he helped through the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) that he founded and ran for almost 20 years.

A celebration-fundraising (for his hospital bills) is being organized for next week by “Ganito Tayo Noon 1980-1986” activists. See Facebook.

Father Joe was a familiar figure in activist groups for decades. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man who walked among firebrands. The last time I spoke with him was some months ago at an ecumenical forum where he was a reactor. After the forum, he asked me to autograph a copy of my book. Oh, but before the forum, while we were waiting for the main speaker, I needled him about the excesses of his friends in the radical Left, the armed communists especially, and I cited the killing of unarmed army recruits on training and reports about land mines.

“Ano ba yan, pakisabi naman,” I said, then added a few more mouthfuls. He listened and nodded.

Years ago, I wrote a two-part special report on the working conditions at the Cavite export processing zone (CEPZ) and on the deplorable lives of the workers. The article was for Holy Week, and so it was quite fitting that a priest, Father Joe, and his staff would help me get inside the CEPZ. Father Joe showed me around and introduced me to the striking workers broiling in the summer heat and the women workers in their cramped living quarters outside the zone.

I just dug up that special report. Here is the first paragraph: “Pawning ATM cards at usurious ‘5-6’ interest rates in order to survive. Delayed and below-minimum wages. A perennial diet of instant noodles. Sleeping in hot, crowded quarters. Forced overtime or ‘OTTY’ (overtime, thank you). ‘Finish contract’ every five months. Perpetual contractuals. Union-busting, summary dismissals. Runaway shops. No union, no strike policy.” You can imagine the rest.

The WAC has been doing organizing work and espousing the cause of workers since 1995. It started as part of the sociopastoral program of the Santo Rosario Parish in Cavite and later became an independent nongovernment organization. Father Joe said the WAC drew from the Church’s teachings on labor and justice spelled out in papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Laborem Exercens, etc.). One of its important achievements was organizing the Solidarity of Cavite Workers (SCW), a province-wide alliance of groups that upheld genuine and militant unionism.

At the time of my visit, the WAC maintained a center called Bahay Manggagawa built from funds from the German Catholic bishops’ Misereor. The center was a haven for workers and responded to their needs, be these legal, organizational, or simply personal.

The WAC also provides training in rights and welfare, especially those of women, trade union management and organizational development. It publishes the quarterly “Manggagawa Manlilikha” for CEPZ workers.

“When we started there was not a single union here,” Father Joe recalled then. Putting up unions was a slow and hazardous process indeed. Certification elections were a major hurdle, with employers blocking the way through divide-and-rule or instant holidays on election time. Most workers would rather accept unjust labor practices than lose their jobs.

The CEPZ had been vaunted as a “job paradise” or “job heaven” but as WAC documentation had shown, it was not so for many. The special report that I wrote years ago showed why the CEPZ was not heaven at all. Father Joe and the WAC were there to shake the hell out of the “heaven.” I hope things have changed for the better.

Some years ago I was assigned to write a Valentine’s Day Page 1 story on Father Joe and his adopted son John-John, then a toddler. The article was about how the child came into the priest’s life, how he nursed the dying boy back to life, the boy’s biological family, the adoption process, etc. After the article came out, Father Joe told me he was going to keep it for John-John to read when he’s grown up. At our last meeting some months ago, he told me that his copy of the article was now with John-John.

How Father Joe landed in Cavite’s Diocese of Imus is a story in itself. He was among the activists thrown out of the seminary by Manila Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos. Really keen on pursuing the priesthood, he went to Imus Bishop Felix Perez who then took him in. (The late bishop was known for his critical stance against martial law and the Marcos dictatorship.) Other seminarians with activist streaks were also welcomed in other dioceses.

While it was in the Cavite workers’ milieu that Father Joe chose to live out his priestly vocation, he was a familiar figure in Metro Manila rallies and solidarity work. Cavite, his home base, while becoming a highly urbanized industrial zone, has not lived down its old reputation for highly charged politics and being a haven for criminal syndicates. He knew too well that priests had no protective shields.

I saw Father Joe sobbing and shedding copious tears at the funeral of his brother priest, Fr. Jesus Palileo, who was slain and left bloodied on a grassy field in Cavite. Father Joe told me that despite warnings, the young priest went out at night to seek the lost sheep. (I wrote about the killing, which might have been the handiwork of drug lords.)

Father Joe did not die a martyr’s death. He had not been well for some time but, with cane in hand, he continued to reach out. He harkened to the distant drums and was in step with the marching masses crying out for redemption.