TACLOBAN CITY — A 10-meter high concrete cross has been erected over a mass grave in this city where an estimated 2,900 unnamed victims of super typhoon “Yolanda,” which was one of the strongest ever on the planet, were hurriedly buried a week after the devastation in 8 November 2013 to curtail a possible outbreak of diseases as a result of corpses that then littered many areas of the city.
Facing the towering cross is a black oblique granite slab where the names of 2,273 “Yolanda” casualties are inscribed.
The super typhoon killed at least 6,300 people, mostly residents of the city.
The area, once dominated by small crosses as markers for family members and friends to identify the dead, will be replaced by a common “Yolanda” memorial marker that is set for unveiling on 8 November.
The larger part of the mass grave during yesterday’s All Saints’ Day celebration still had small concrete crosses still standing while gravestones provide confirmation that bodies of those who died have been identified.
Linda Sabulao, a 48-year-old housewife, offered flowers and candles on the memorial for eight of her relatives and friends whose names are inscribed on the stone.
“This decision to put up a memorial here is good. This is better than before when people would scramble for those crosses to put the names of their relatives only to find out that another family would claim it the next day,” she said.
While many surviving family members gather to say prayers and reunite with other relatives on marked gravesites, Rose Cinco, a 28-year-old nurse, lights a candle with hesitation.
“I offered the candle not for the dead but as a prayer that we reunite soon,” she said, referring to her elder sister Rina whose body remains missing up to this time.
“While we don’t have her body, our family will continue to hope that she might still be alive,” she said. “She could have been brought to other places. It’s been a long time, but a miracle may still happen.”
The need to grieve
The glimmer of hope to find still missing relatives is already fading for many survivors. “We need to accept that she is already dead for us to start grieving. It is important for us to grieve so we can move on,” Cinco said.
Almost six years since typhoon “Yolanda” battered the country with the city as ground zero, there is still no accounting for the missing persons. Different accounts of agencies that responded in the aftermath put conservative estimates of missing persons between 1,300 to 2,000.
Immediately after “Yolanda,” a team led by forensic expert Raquel Fortun was sent to help identify the dead for proper burial. The team opened body bags one by one to systematically tag them but after five days, the work was stopped by the National Bureau of Investigation over procedural issues in identifying the bodies.
Fortun estimated the death toll of “Yolanda” could have reached 18,000, way above official figures. She said some families may have all died, and nobody was left to report the missing and the dead.
Social services highlighted
Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez said in a statement the anniversary of the storm slamming into the city would highlight the efforts of the local government in providing the much needed social services to communities.
Expected guests are President Rodrigo Duterte and other national officials, foreign envoys, and representatives of non-government organizations that helped rehabilitate the city after the killer typhoon.
The President is expected to inaugurate a water system project for families who moved to post-disaster relocation sites.
Anniversary activities will start with a Mass on the night of 8 November at the site of a shipwreck in Anibong village. There will be a memorial service, which includes a blessing and wreath-laying ceremony.
In the evening, a concert will be held at the City Hall grounds sponsored by the Tingog partylist. The concert replaces the traditional sky lantern memorial every 8 November.
Six years on, Romualdez acknowledged the many challenges that continue to hound the post-disaster housing projects, such as transportation, schools, and livelihood.
“Let us not focus only on housing. We really have to focus on (the) different needs of the community. We will put an extension of City Hall in the north to serve about 45,000 people there,” Romualdez said.