Dream dashed, lives on hold in Philippines quake zone

Rita Elatabelo (66) by  the minibus taxi she is sleeping in since the quake that destroyed her home on the island of Bohol on October 15. © IOM 2013 (Photo by Joe Lowry)

By Joe Lowry

Rita Elatabelo’s world has fallen apart twice in the last seven months.

Two years ago she retired after 44 years in the capital Manila, and moved back to her native village on the island of Bohol with her husband and one of her sons. Over the past ten years they had been building their dream retirement home, in the little village of Libertad, their corner of paradise. But just as they were getting settled, her husband passed away.

And then, two weeks ago today, the ground shook and Rita’s life’s dream fell apart.

Now she sleeps in the back of a jeepney (minibus taxi) with her 36-year-old son, who has learning difficulties. She has no electricity, only limited supplies of water, and dozens of neighbours who are suffering the same privation.

The huge 7.2 magnitude quake that rocked Bohol and neighbouring Cebu two weeks ago was not particularly deadly, given its size. But its impact has been enormous. Over three million people have been affected to a greater or lesser degree, with 350,000 effectively homeless or too scared to go back inside damaged homes.

Rita Elababelo’s dream retirement home, torn apart by the October 15 quake. © IOM 2013 (Photo by Joe Lowry)

“I was watching TV,” Rita recalls. “It was 8.12 in the morning when everything shook and shook. I was very very scared and couldn’t get outside.” She gestures to the side of the house, open to the dark night, and goes back to the jeepney, candle in hand, for her 14th night of uncertainty.

Aftershocks are coming at the rate of three a day, sometimes more, making people too scared to go to work in the ricefields, to pick fruit, or do anything much. Rita’s neighbours, the Simbahon and Atabelo families are living in a makeshift tent across the road from their houses. There are 16 of them aged from four to 87 years old. “Look, we are packed in like sardines in a can”, says farmer Ramon Atabelo.

Resilience Philippines style. Too scared to go back to their damaged home, 16 members of an extended family are sleeping in a temporary shelter by the side of the road since the 15 October Bohol quake. © IOM 2013 (Photo by Joe Lowry)

On the day of  the quake he and his wife and her sisters were travelling by truck to work in the field. “The ground shook up and down, then side to side. We crawled away, first one way, then the other.”

There are pulling together, trying to stay positive, but there is tension in the air. Dogs run skittishly around in the night, a sullen group of young guys play pool in a bar nearby. Aid has been sporadic so far: some food, some water, some tarpaulin.

The damage to infrastructure has been massive, with countless bridges and roads crumbling, making a true picture of the scale of the needs hard to establish. IOM’s pipeline is taking shape, thanks to an intimal $1.4 million from the United Nations’ central Emergency Relief Fund, and a further $5.4 million under appeal for emergency shelter, non-food relief, camp management coordination and – crucially – humanitarian communications which will ensure psychological support.

Four generations are among the 16 members of an extended family sleeping in this temporary shelter in the village of Libertad, Bohol. © IOM 2013 (Photo by Joe Lowry)

Lionel Dosdos, IOM’s man on the ground reflects on the mood we have uncovered on this snapshot, deep in the Bohol night, 70 kilometres away from the epicenter of this unexpected quake.

“This is resilience, Philippines style”, he says, with a quiet pride. “They don’t want to cry. They stick together and smile through it all.”

Joe Lowry is a senior media and communications officer for IOM