CAFOD’s Nick Harrop has recently returned from the Philippines. He writes:
I am in the town of Palo, standing by a water bladder – an inflatable tank that can hold 10 cubic metres of drinking water – watching it being filled from a truck. More and more people are arriving with jerry cans and buckets, waiting to collect drinking water from the six attached taps.
“I’m a survivor of the typhoon!” says a young man standing next to me. “I’m a good swimmer!” He smiles and mimes a breast-stroke.
I introduce myself. He tells me in broken English that his name is Edzil and he’s 18 years old.
Towards the sea, to our left, there are no buildings standing – just haphazard piles of wood, collapsed coconut trees and debris covered in mud. 200 mph winds dragged roofs off buildings, and sent glass windows hurtling through the air. But most of the damage was caused by the storm surge – a 12-foot wall of fast-moving, debris-filled water that obliterated everything in its path.
I ask Edzil where he was when the typhoon struck – and I’m astonished by his answer.
“On a boat,” he says. “At sea. I am a fisherman. There were many people on that boat. All the others died.”
He still has a smile on his face, and it takes me a moment to take in what he’s said. Everyone he was with died?
“There were big waves,” he says. He indicates how high the waves were by raising his arm at full stretch above his head and then saying the word “more.” He describes the noise by making a revving sound and putting his hands over his ears.
“There were big waves, the boat rocked and…” He makes a downward gesture with his right hand.
“I held on,” he says. “I held onto the boat. I held onto anything. I swam for three hours.”
I ask him how he felt. He shrugs.
“The water was cold. Your mind is confused. You do not know how you can keep swimming. The Lord gave me the strength to swim.”
I try to tell him how sorry I am to hear what happened – but he changes the subject.
“This is a dirty area,” he says. “All the houses were destroyed. Everything needs to be cleaned up. It is hard to breathe. Chemicals, trees, dead bodies. They have side effects. You do not feel well. Many people have been sick.”
Edzil points to the bladder. “Many thanks for the water,” he says. “It is important to us. This water is purified. We have enough now.”
Caritas member Catholic Relief Services is providing clean water and sanitation for more than 100,000 people around Palo. In practical terms, that means installing water bladders, building safe latrines, clearing debris, providing soap, water purification tablets and other sanitary products, and encouraging communities to work together to prevent the spread of disease.
But whatever the impact of our work, I find it extraordinary that Edzil is expressing gratitude. I try to imagine the range of emotions I’d go through if I’d experienced what he has – swimming for my life, knowing that my friends were dead, then discovering that my home had been wiped off the map. I’m not sure I could be polite, or friendly, or grateful ever again. Where does he find his hope?
“I have a mission,” he says, “to have a good future. I want a new house. A new job. I don’t want to be a fisherman. I can’t forget my memories. There are dead people in the sea. I want to go back to school and become an engineer. I find it easy to understand things. I have a good brain – like Albert Einstein!”
He is silent for a moment.
“I thank God for saving me,” he says. “It was not my time to die.”