At a certain time when everything seemed to be happening everywhere, except, perhaps the spot where I was—where I gazed, wide-eyed, caught up with the vastness of stagnation and void – there was a particular kind of impulse. It could be moral fiber; but really, it was just a matter of chance.
By chance I became a part of the Disaster Response Team of the Philippine National Red Cross in Davao City in 2006. My high school classmate called on one of those boring days during the semestral break, which I spent over-feeding fishes and coiling in the couch to watch Shrek for the nth time. He invited me for training on Disaster Management. Because I was hungry for something to happen, I was glad to be part of anything that could break my monotonous days. Besides, if there were a gang war in our ghettoized neighborhood in Santo Niño, Matina, I thought I might be able to help. Yet I had never thought I could respond to a disaster with a sense of planning and order. I was one of the most panicky people I knew. Then again, I attended the training despite my father’s displeasure, saying in his coarse voice that I am too frail and small, “basi ikaw pa’y tabangunon.”
The five-day training was attended by undergraduates from different colleges and universities in Davao City. Some of them came in batches of three and five. Almost half of the class were nursing students from Davao Doctors College. There were eighteen trainees and I was the only one who came from the University of the Philippines Mindanao.
The first four days were a series of lectures on the Red Cross Movement, on disasters, on relief operations—from logistics to the overview of the psychology of a victim or evacuee. We were inside a classroom setting: white walls, a white board, armchairs, and a teacher. With the lecturer’s voice fading amidst the muttering of my seatmates, the view of the Ateneo building across Roxas Avenue, and my own thoughts, how prepared could we be for a disaster?
I came to realize later that what we were supposed to do as a team was to provide momentary relief for real people who suffered from distress and loss. A disaster implied a cost: how much had been lost and how little had remained. On the fifth day, we executed a disaster response drill. With that, we were declared ready to plan and execute an effective relief operation.
When I returned to our house, my father asked me what I had learned in that five-day seminar. I did not have the mind to instantly pluck out something brilliant except the running joke my team mates and I enjoyed in class: “Kung naa gani’y disaster, mu-squat sa floor,” I told him, “unya tabunan ang dalunggan.”
In the summer vacation that followed, I experienced my first relief operation. A Muslim village in Sitio Ilang, Tibungco had caught fire and destroyed the houses of four hundred Tausug families.
“Four hundred families,” my friend said from the other end of the phone. It was always like that. They counted those who were affected by the smallest unit of the community. A family, to put it simplistically, is the triad of the father, the mother and the child. But it was not like that in reality. It was more of a pentagon, a hexagon—or the shape of an exploding star.
“Mag-unsa mi ana, Gus?” I asked him for lack of anything to say.
“Sige na gud, Sel. Mag-repack. Mag-distribute ‘mo ug relief goods. Gamay lang ang nag-confirm na mu-anhi ba. Dili pa g’yud na sure. Sige na.”
And he convinced me.
Considering my father’s eternal unease that anything bad would happen to me, I decided not to tell my parents. I thought it would only curtail my own impression of the deed’s significance. Most of all, I did not want to end up explaining to them a humanitarian vision that they had never found in me whenever I did the household chores.
Early morning in the reception area of the Red Cross building in Roxas Avenue, we volunteers stuffed hundreds of plastic bags with food aid. Inside each bag were cans of sardines, a box of powdered milk, and packs of instant noodles. We weighed and repacked a number of sacks of rice into three kilos each bag.
We drove off with the PNRC truck to the compound of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Magsaysay Avenue just before noontime. What awaited us in the yard was another batch of food aid to be repacked. There were only thirteen of us and it looked like we could be lost in the heaps of rice sacks and boxes.
From the yard, we formed a human chain to easily pass on the relief bags to the PNRC truck. My arms mechanically jerked each bag, which weighed more than four kilos. When it appeared that all was set – the food, the non-food aid of mat, blankets, and plastic water containers crammed in the truck — Engr. Edwin Patalagsa, the chapter service representative of the Disaster Management Service, briefed us for the last time. We were again reminded of the precautions.
“Be vigilant. Kay sa ingon ani na sitwasyon anything can happen. Be alert ha. It will not be the safest place in the world.”
We loaded ourselves in. We were part of the cargo. We made up the relief from the disaster.
Girls were given the privilege to occupy the front seat along with the driver of the truck. All in all, we were five there. I hardly felt the air conditioning with the heat of the one o’clock sun and the height of my adrenaline. The wide highways in Lanang occupied the broad seamlessness of the rear glass. I was positioned in the center, so I had a good view of where we were heading. The color of the road blurred bluish in our plight. I felt like I was inside a submarine.
The girls beside me thrust their backs against the cushion of the seat. Somewhere along the way I thought of how tired I also was. But the roads of Sasa to Tibungco radiated the sun’s fervour and whipped us awake towards where a number of people waited for what we had for them.
We were deployed in the school campus of University of Mindanao Ilang-Tibungco Jr. College, where the evacuees were temporarily sheltered. A couple of the evacuees were already waiting for us in the gymnasium. The children dashed toward us as we were trying to pull over. What was running inside my head was what Sir Edwin repeatedly reminded us. The truck was purposely in its nose-out, ready-to-go-position. In case something beyond our control could happen, we could rocket out of the place. Taking into account the psychology of having lost their properties, the crowd could become aggressive.
“We should, at all times, secure ato’ng safety ha.” Sir Edwin reminded us for the last time.
The senior volunteers guided me as I first observed how the system works. A table in the gymnasium, appropriately distanced from the PNRC truck, released a “certificate” to each family. It entitles them to a set of relief goods to be distributed from the relief truck.
As I became familiar with the scheme, a wave of resentment overcame me. I looked at myself — the Red Cross cargo shirt was too big for me. The only things that appeared charming to me were the running and laughing children in the fields. Some of them gathered around us and watched us closely. The smoking and chattering young men, half naked, were under the shade of the tree. The smoke and their words disappeared in thin air.
The faces of older men and women suggested hostility and frustration. I thought I could dislodge them with courtesy.
“Maayong hapon, ‘nay,” I repeated what the senior volunteer said.
“Ay, bug-at biya ni, la. Mangita ‘ta ug ka-uban nimo, la.”
“Maayong hapon, ‘nong.”
“Salamat pud g’yud, ‘day,” a woman in a sarong told me as I handed her the bag of rice.
I did not know what exactly it was, but I felt weird around everything. Who should have really said, “salamat”? I thought of where I should have been at that time —at home trying to finish a chapter of a book, or calling some friend on the phone. It could be anywhere else but here. Where I was, was with those people saying, “Nangbakwit mi. Hastang ugdawa ‘tawon.”
The evacuation camp was dreadful. It was the culmination of everything that happened and everything that could probably happen to people. It is the curve of the hour glass where the sand plummeted as it emptied, and at the same time, filled. The impulse which I envied was to “bakwit,” to depart from something burnt, flooded, or destroyed. The disaster was a craft—and responding to it was even more so. It had a sense of timing that was so keen and provoking.
It was probably why some people fashion a nonexistent war.
It was already dusk when we left Tibungco. The team stayed at the emptied back of the truck throughout the ride to Roxas. It rained along the way. The sound of the drops of rain popped against the tarpaulin-roof of the PNRC truck. I was stiff, shaken by the long day’s pace. The distinct damp smell of the stocks of goods was trapped within the walls of the truck.
When I checked my cellular phone, I learned that I had missed two calls from home. I tried to prepare a deliberation in my head of what to tell my father, but I was dizzy and too tired to think. My fellow volunteers erupted into teasing me about the Muslim guy whom they thought was staring at me from a corner the whole time. We laughed at the futility of some things. There was a war somewhere that time, and a pair of lovers at the peak of their love making. But above all things, there it was: the certain impulse — the impulse to “bakwit” found as a matter of chance.
Roselle Jimeno is taking up Creative Writing in UP Mindanao.