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Christmas in a devastated land


The story starts on a Friday night, the end of another tiring week, the start of another weekend with families, just nine days before Christmas. The date is 16 December 2011. The place is northern Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines.

A father was singing Christmas carols to his little girls. A mother was already in deep slumber, exhausted from a day’s work. The children were about to go to bed.

And then it came. Howling winds came in punches; in waves. Power lines tripped. Then floodwaters rose. People scampered to their roofs and to other elevated places – a coconut tree, a building, a bridge, wherever they could stay to cling on to their lives.

In the dead of night, a surging tropical storm named Sendong ripped through northern Mindanao.

Before the sun rose the next morning, hundreds had disappeared. Fathers, mothers, daughters and sons were heard screaming for help; shouting the names of loved ones.

Layers and layers of the thickest mud, along with trash and soot, covered the streets and villages.

The morning after, houses were uprooted, doors cracked open, windows shattered. There was nothing but mayhem and crumbs of homes.

Nine days after, on Christmas Day, I walked on the path ravaged by the storm.

I could smell the stench of death even before I actually stepped on Burgos Street, one of thousands of devastated patches of earth here in the province of Cagayan de Oro, dubbed the City of the River of Gold. Now it is a river of thick mud where cadavres and dead animals floated when the storm struck.

The putrid smell of decomposing bodies – of dead carabaos, of cats and dogs and of men, women and children – pervaded the air.

There were no gifts to open, no festivities, no Christmas meals to feast on, no carols or jingling bells. The people were busy surviving, salvaging remnants of their homes.

According to the government’s count, there are now at least 1,500 people dead.

Survivors have sought shelter in makeshift evacuation centres – in public schools, in basketball courts, under bridges – whatever space they could squeeze their way into.

Novelyn Gales, 24 years old, lost everything to the killer floods. She is among the hundreds of evacuees seeking shelter in an open-air basketball court.

Across the cramped evacuation centre is the village where Novelyn used to live. Now, where tattered homes used to stand and little children used to roam around and play, there is nothing left but a clear view of the horizon, a devastated patch of land and a golden mosque with a crescent moon not too far away.

There is no river of gold today, just a river of mud flowing endlessly. Bloated cadavres were seen floating here the morning after the flood, Novelyn said. Her dreams, like those of other survivors, were washed away, too.

Photos: Jes Aznar, http://blog.jesaznar.com/

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