Six months after super typhoon “Yolanda” ravaged Samar and Leyte with relentless ferocity, the multi-purpose hall in Barangay Sulod, Basey, Samar remains in abject disrepair.
The hall sits right across the sea, now placid and blue, as though it had not once turned into a deadly monster that almost swallowed an entire town.
Basey still has to recover from the pummeling it endured in what has become known as one of the strongest typhoons in the world, but on this day, the 17th of June, there was palpable optimism in the air.
People flocked to the multi-purpose hall, lining up as early as six in the morning because an announcement over the radio had said that a non-government organization (NGO) was coming to assist them recover birth certificates and other important documents that might have been washed away in the typhoon.
That NGO was the Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS, Inc.), which had initiated the project Access to Benefits and Claims after Disaster (ABCD). Several partners had pitched in, including the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Philippine Statistics Authority, local registrar offices, and local government units.
I was there as a lawyer-volunteer for the weekend, having finally found a “Yolanda”-related intervention where my skills would be meaningful.
The snaking lines at the multi-purpose hall extended to the street but even under an oppressive sun, people were undeterred. A middle-aged man with a toothless grin happily said to no one in particular, “Ayan, tao na kami ulit (There, we are human beings again)!”
He might be referring to the reconstitution of identification documents, but his words were equally a wry nod to a cataclysm that shook the core of their humanity and tried to take all they had.
Casimero Villas certainly felt that super typhoon “Yolanda” took all he had, all that ever mattered to him. The retired 59-year-old police officer thought he had seen everything. So when he heard from neighbors that a super typhoon was lunging towards Palo, Leyte on November 8, 2013, he quickly hammered a few boards on their ceiling and bought food supplies to last a few days for his family.
He recalled his 29-year-old daughter Nerissa fretting about a power shortage and the possibility that food in their ref would spoil.
After “Yolanda” had unleashed its wrath for hours, Nerissa was nowhere to be found. His wife, Nila, 49, sister Evelyn, 37, son-in-law Elmar Perote, 32, and grandson Ezekiel Noah Perote, 11 months, were also missing. His house had been washed away, and he lay unconscious for hours amid a pile of debris. It took 30 days before Villas was able to retrieve the bodies of his family members. It was the longest 30 days of his life.
Picking himself up from almost insurmountable grief, Villas soon found himself facing a problem often overlooked by disaster-intervention specialists: the bureaucracy of recovery. Aside from his family, he lost everything else he owned in the storm surge: the deed to a small property that he had purchased with his savings over the years, all his identification cards, all the birth certificates of his family members. Among his missing ID cards were those issued by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, Pag-Ibig Fund, Commission on Elections, Philippine National Police, Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Armed Forces and Police Savings & Loan Association, Inc.
Jenny Osmeña, a 28-year-old mother, on the other hand, was anxious about the opening of a new school year. While she and her school-age children had managed to survive, their birth certificates had all been washed away.
“When I realized that ‘Yolanda’ had destroyed all the birth certificates of my children, I was worried they would not be able to go back to school. It’s a big deal for me because education is the only treasure our children can inherit from us,” the mother recalled.
It was a relief for Jenny to learn that she could get copies of the document for free, and that the organization would conduct satellite application centers near their place so she would not have to shell out a lot for transportation expenses.
Two of her children—Daril, 9 (Grade 3) and Venz, 6 (Grade 1)—are now back in school in Rizal village, a one-kilometer hike across muddy pathways and rice fields from their home in sitio (sub-village) Canawayan.
Jenny and her common-law husband of 10 years, Ian Delantar, are considered among the poorest of the poor, earning only P2,000 monthly from farm labor. The P2,000 monthly cash they receive from the government through its Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), augments the family’s income.
“I couldn’t imagine paying for copies of my children’s birth certificate,” Delantar said. Just buying food is a struggle now that the distribution of relief goods has stopped, she added.
Villas and Delantar are two of the thousands of people assisted by IDEALS. Since December 2013, the group and other international humanitarian organizations have been supporting lawyers in Leyte to carry out the legal mission project in villages where all legal documents were either blown or swept away by “Yolanda’s” fierce winds and storm surges.
“It all started with a single text I sent to my friends in November asking for office supplies for us to serve the legal needs (of ‘Yolanda’-affected villages). That text reached IDEALS and it started supporting us,” recounted Atty. Ronan Christian Reposar, who has been practicing environmental law for a decade before joining the legal aid advocate.
On April 9, 2014, on the heels of the ABCD project was born the Mobile Civil Registration Project that specifically targets the registration of births, marriages and deaths.
“We want local government units to sustain the initiative by making civil registration free and simplifying the process,” said IDEALS executive director Edgardo Ligon.
Targetted for the service are typhoon-displaced residents of Tacloban City, Palo, Tanauan, and Tolosa in the eastern part of Leyte; San Isidro, Isabel, Kananga, Palompon, Matag-ob, and Ormoc City in northwestern Leyte; Basey and Marabut in Samar; Lawaan, Balangiga, Quinapondan, Giporlos, Guiuan, Salcedo, Mercedes, and Hernani in Eastern Samar.
Some stories have been truly remarkable, even if the loss of documents was not exactly brought about by “Yolanda.”
Becario Vinas, for example, has been identified as one of 10,000 victims of the martial law regime. In 1982, soldiers arrested and detained Viñas, his parents, two brothers and two in-laws, on suspicion that they were members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA). He was initially glad to learn that the Human Rights Victims Claims Board was giving compensation to identified victims of the authoritarian Marcos regime, but was stricken to find out that the Board required a birth certificate for it to process his claim. Fortunately, IDEALS helped him secure the necessary document.
Just this month, Viñas received an initial P50,000 compensation from the Claims Board, a big help for him and his family whose livelihood had been shattered when “Yolanda” struck last year.
“After decades of waiting, I finally got my compensation. Although no amount of money can make up for my suffering, this means so much to us,” said Viñas, a farmer from the sleepy village of Legazpi, approximately eight kilometers away from the town center of Basey, one of the two disaster-stricken towns in Samar.
Many, if not most, of the residents in the typhoon-hit areas live below the poverty line and are beneficiaries of the government’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program.
In many poor rural towns in the country, unregistered births are not uncommon given that most babies here are born at home with the help of traditional hilot or kumadrona (midwives).
The trip to the civil registrar in the city can be too expensive and cumbersome for most parents. Each LGU also collects a P100 to P500 penalty for late registration, the amount varying as it is based on the economic classification of the town or city. In addition, an individual must spend for the drafting of affidavits as well as for transportation from their village to the town center.
“How can you expect a poor man with a daily income of P100 to secure these documents for his family? No wonder many people die without certificate of live births,” Ligon said.
In the case of “Yolanda,” this state of affairs has complicated the collection of claims benefits. To collect death benefits as a result of the super typhoon, relatives have to present a death certificate. However, a death certificate cannot be generated without a birth certificate.
This was confirmed by Atty. Anna Liza C. Albaniel, local civil registrar of Tacloban, which was considered as “Yolanda’s” ground zero. The lawyer said that many of those who perished in the city during the storm have no birth certificates. “Their relatives want to claim benefits, but they could not secure a copy of the death certificate since the birth of the dead person was not even registered,” Albaniel said.
Nearly 90,000 individuals are now waiting for authenticated copies of civil registration documents, as part of the massive reconstruction of identities for victims of the super typhoon in Eastern Visayas.
As of the end of May, 87,448 applications have been submitted to the local civil registrars (LCRs) by teams deployed by IDEALS in 18 towns and two cities along “Yolanda’s” path.
“Of the total number of applications, 90 percent of 78,651 were submitted through the Mobile Civil Registration Project (MCRP); and only 10 percent or 8,797 were from walk-in clients. That is expected since community workers have been going to villages to assess the civil registration needs of typhoon victims,” said Thebazile Anthony Monserate, MCRP area coordinator.
Almost all survivors (92 percent) are asking for copies of their birth certificates. A small fraction is requesting for marriage certificates (6 percent) and death certificates (2 percent). At least 9,911 individuals have already received authetnicated copies of civil registry documents as of end of July.
IDEALS also provides legal services, aside from civil registration assistance. In Palo, Leyte, for example, there was a rush among international organizations that wanted to provide housing for those whose homes were washed away by the surge.
In Palo, Leyte, for example, the barangay captain of Pangumbang, Jose Silvestrece, Jr. was tasked to facilitate a housing project for 261 households, with funding coming from donor Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
“The donor required beneficiaries to provide basic documents such as proof of ownership, but people have no money to process and obtain these documents,” Silvestrece recalled. They approached IDEALS through Atty. Reposar and legal missions were hastily arranged in different villages of Palo.
“The group conducted a data profiling and drafted the legal and notarized documents needed per beneficiary. It was completely free because most people lost their money and livelihood after ‘Yolanda,’” Silvestrece said. Within six months after the catastrophe, all 261 families in Cangumbang village had houses donated by CRS.
Ligon, however, raises the concern that funding for the project will expire before all needs are met. “The funding for this program is only until August 2014. There are still hundreds of thousands who remain unserved. The remote islands of Cebu are asking for our help too. We have not even reached the Panay area yet. Some parts of Iloilo are as severely damaged as Samar.”
Fortunately, this initiative is backed by the United Kingdom Aid (UK Aid), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Office of the Civil of Defense (OCD), Oxfam, and Interchurch Organisation for Development Cooperation (ICCO). Other partners are the IBP Legal Aid, IBP Makati Chapter, Ateneo School of Governance, Peace Equity Foundation, Foundation for a Sustainnable Society, Asia Foundation and the DLSU College of Law.
But first things first: Once these dispossessed regain their sense of identity and regard themselves as more than just victims or statistics, everything starts falling in place. Identity, after all, is a powerful force that confirms who one is, and what he or she is capable of. •