It’s a scene that plays out dozens of times. I switch on my camera and the person I’m talking to flashes the sweetest smile. Even in these, the hardest of times, such smiles light up the face of many Filipinos.
But then the moment inevitably comes where the person I’m speaking to breaks down. It’s as though their talking to a journalist suddenly makes them realise the extent of their misfortune.
So, I set down my camera. Often, I end up holding the person as they break down. My mission to Tacloban lasted only six days but in terms of life lessons, I feel like I got 15 years’ worth.
I arrived in the ruined city on Saturday, November 9, the day after Typhoon Haiyan hit. Along with AFP Manila photographer Noel Celis, we were able to get on board one of the first Philippine military planes to reach the region, which was ravaged by winds of more than 300 kilometres an hour (185 mph) and enormous waves.
Before long, Tacloban would see hundreds of troops, rescuers and journalists arrive but for the moment we were among only a small handful of foreign press on the ground. We discover the full extent of the disaster at the same time as some of the rescuers.
The airport had been pulverised by the typhoon. Only a few gutted buildings and a sorry-looking sign for Philippine Airlines remain. Everywhere we look there are uprooted trees, tangled cables and debris. As I land amid this apocalyptic landscape, just a few hours after quitting my comfortable surroundings in Hong Kong, where I’m based, it feels like I’m in a film. But reality soon takes hold.
The first of many striking images I have of Tacloban is that of a woman sobbing over the little body of her five-year-old son. This was in a church where seven bodies had been placed. We soon realise that covering this disaster, which is of a scale bigger than we’d envisioned, is going to pose problems. There’s no electricity and all the phone lines have crashed to the ground and mobile phones aren’t working. We’re in the middle of absolute destruction – I’d never imagined such devastation was possible. We brought a satellite internet router but it has limited battery life.
As I’m putting together my first video in the middle of this ruined town I notice that the battery on my computer is draining at alarming speed. I quickly finish up and start transmitting the piece through the satellite device, but the data only sends at a snail’s pace. There’s only 10 percent left on the battery; I soon realise it’s not going to happen.
Click here to open the video in a separate window.
Such technical problems seem paltry compared to the horrifying misery being experienced by tens of thousands of Filipinos, victims of the most powerful typhoon ever to have hit the country. But for a reporter, transmitting information is everything. I’m not a troop, a rescuer or a first responder. I’m a journalist. Showing the rest of the world what’s happening here is the sole reason for my being in the country. If I can’t get my images out, I’m useless. So the lack of electricity and phone make me panic. For me, these outages are worse than the hunger, thirst and filthy conditions I’ll experience during my stay.
Finally, we find a Philippine army command post set up in a ruined building in the airport. They have the object of our dreams: a generator. I persuade a soldier to let us charge our gear on one of the outlets.
This miserable and ruined hovel becomes our headquarters. We spend the first nights there, 15 of us crammed onto wooden planks with other journalists, soldiers and rescuers. The ground is muddy and disgusting insects teem around us. It smells of urine (of course there are no toilets) and the stench mixes with the odour of dozens of decaying bodies, which under the blazing sun are quickly decomposing around us.
Survivors start to congregate at the airport. They queue for hours for some water, for an anti-diarrhoea tablet. Extreme emotion surrounds me. From the moment the sun sets, around 5 p.m., until daybreak, there’s nothing to do except to talk to people around you. I spent the first night with a family who’d lost everything. The couple had a six-month-old baby and were also looking after a neighbour’s son. The mother tells me she doesn’t know how to swim and that when their house was engulfed by waves she begged her husband to abandon her and save the baby. Fortunately, all three survived. It takes me hours of conversation before I realise that they’d make a good interview, and I turn on my camera to talk to the woman. In such moments, where we are all living with the same hunger, the same thirst and to an extent the same destitution, I almost forgot to do my work.
Odd as it might seem, in a sense I’m happy that the working conditions were so difficult for this assignment. If I’d been able to stay in a hotel, I of course would have done so. But I would have missed a lot. This woman might have spoken to me on camera, but it would have been different.
It’s in moments like this that I think that I’ll always want to be a reporter – to go to places where no one else is going, to shed light on situations the world doesn’t know about. I must film so people can see.
At the same time, I never felt like a vulture journalist, a voyeur feeding off the misfortune of others. And I also know that if I shared the trials of victims of the catastrophe for a few days, I now am home, showered, fed and rested. Those I’ve left behind in the muddy ruins will have nothing or little to eat or drink perhaps for several months longer. I also know that many of the people I met have no means of survival. They’re probably already dead.
It was at Tacloban airport, in the makeshift hospital set up by the military, that I witnessed a woman giving birth. That she and her husband even survived is a miracle. My colleague Jason Gutierrez, who joined me on Sunday together with photographer Teodoro Aljibe, has already told of the encounter on this blog. It was an unbelievable moment. I had never been present at a birth before, and it was surprising to find myself filming a woman who had just given birth on this floor.
I started to edit my video sitting on the ground, amid blood, debris, and wailing from the baby. I could have gone elsewhere to do my job, but I somehow felt a responsibility towards this young mother of just 21. I didn’t want to leave her even for a minute. I feared that she would die while my back was turned. Luckily the young family was quickly evacuated to Cebu by helicopter, along with a woman who had just gone into labour. This happy story has since gone around the world, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that everybody wants to see and hear in the middle of this nightmare.
But happy stories have been few and far between in Tacloban. The airport soon turned into a hellish place where thousands of desperate people flocked to, ready to go to any lengths to get on a plane that would take them far away. You could even see some people, as if possessed, running after planes that were already taking off. A feeling of death was everywhere. Every time I came by a spot I had seen previously I noticed that the corpses had since taken on a different hue, that they were bloated some more. I was stunned to see so many people standing the entire day next to a corpse, in the middle of the ruins, holding an umbrella against the pouring rain, because they had nothing else to do but guard their dead. Streets were clogged with people moving around aimlessly, looking for their missing families or carrying their young children, dehydrated and shaking with fever, in the faint hope of somebody, somewhere offering a helping hand.
Photographer Philippe Lopez joined us on Tuesday together with video journalist Diane Desobeau and reporter Cecil Morella. At one point some of us, including my colleague Jason Gutierrez, followed a group of rescue workers whose job it was to gather the corpses. It was a trying mission. Philippe Lopez made a sign for me not to come any closer. I obeyed, but still caught a glimpse of a dead baby in a wicker basket. I put down my camera. I’d reached my limit.
The only way to continue our work was to climb onto trucks taking corpses to the place where experts would try to identify them. I sat down in the front seat next to the driver. My two colleagues had no choice but to travel in the back, amid the decomposing bodies. That’s the kind of moment when you hesitate, when you wonder whether to continue or whether to get out. But the answer is always the same. Inform, inform, inform. That’s what we came here for. We must tough it out.
During my six days there, I was impressed by the endurance, the generosity and also the pride of the Filipinos. Everywhere I went, people smiled in front of the camera, asked me where I was from, asked me if I was alright.
In Palo Leyte, a village completely flattened by the typhoon and still waiting for rescuers to arrive, they even offered me food! Of course I couldn’t take it. On my first day, I gave most of my water reserves to a child dying of thirst, and then found myself getting so thirsty myself that I got dizzy… But I knew that if I broke down I could not finish the job I’d come here for, I would no longer serve any purpose. So I took the food rations that were offered to me, the same rations that, although weak with hunger, I had refused before, because it felt like an indecent thing to do, like robbing the victims of the typhoon.
Often people asked me to film them in the mad hope that I would help them to pass on their personal messages. “Mother, I am alive,” they would say in front of my camera. Of course, it was not possible for me to pass on dozens of desperate messages. But how could I get them to understand this? How could I refuse their pleading? How could I quash the only glimpse of hope that they could see amid this complete destruction? Impossible. So I complied — I filmed them, although I knew I would never use these images. They thanked me profusely. It broke my heart to be doing this. I felt guilty and weak. But I also saw that this sad charade seemed to really lift their spirits.
It’s at moments like this that I have to face up to an obvious truth. The truth that there are limits to what journalists can do. We cannot solve the world’s misery all by ourselves. Those six days in Tacloban taught me a lot about my profession, and about the pragmatism you need when covering this kind of tragedy, and I also learned a lot about human nature. I only hope that the experience has not left me hardened.