CEBU, Philippines — If there’s one day Constancia Campanilla couldn’t forget, it’s her 80th birthday celebration.
Campanilla is not used to extravagant birthday celebrations. But Sept. 19, 2018 was an exception.
Food was abundant that day. There was dancing and singing.
“Daghan kaayo sila nagda og daghang pagkaon. Di na nako malimtan ako birthday bisag nagpanglimot na ko (My children and grandchildren came over to visit me, bringing food with them. I could not forget that birthday celebration),” Campanilla told The FREEMAN.
The family, she said, was on party mode until midnight.
Not more than six hours later, however, a tragedy turned that joy into grief, the laughter into cries for help.
Before the sun rose the following day, almost, if not all, of Purok 3, Sitio Sindulan, Barangay Tinaan in the City of Naga, where the Campanillas and their neighbors had lived for many years, was already buried in limestone, rocks, and soil.
Among those buried alive were Campanilla’s son, Lauro, his wife, Marcelina, their three children, and Campanilla’s nine other grandchildren.
Lauro, or “Larry” to his neighbors and family, missed the merrymaking the night prior as he did not like leaving the house during evening.
Nevertheless, Lauro, said to be Constancia’s favorite son, was able to say his birthday greetings to his mother earlier that day.
It was his last.
That fateful morning, Constancia woke up to the sight of her son, Lamberto, carrying Constancia’s physically-impaired husband out of the bedroom. She thought they were going to the beach as planned.
But when she rushed outside, wondering why people were screaming, she then saw thick cloud of dust enveloping the vicinity. Some of her neighbors’ houses were covered in debris.
Other homes remained standing but still incurred visible damages nonetheless.
Constancia felt an initial sense of relief in knowing she, her husband, and those inside her home were all alive at that point. But how about Larry’s family?
The worries escalated to despair when they received a text message from Larry pleading for help after he and his other family members were trapped underneath the earth.
But as much as relatives were willing to help, they couldn’t. For one, ground zero was off-limits to residents while authorities were conducting search and rescue, and then retrieval, operations.
For another, the manual excavation any willing family member would do to save trapped relatives proved futile compared to the huge boulders and gargantuan amount of soil debris that had covered the area.
The family of Larry, fourth in a brood of nine, used to stay in Constancia’s house but decided to move to another place to raise hogs. Larry’s home sat just several meters from his mother’s but it was situated on a slope.
Larry’s entire family, their two vehicles, and their hogs were buried.
Constancia’s sixth child, Chona, was haunted by the loss of her brother weeks after the tragedy.
The mother felt the pain twice as much.
Constancia broke into tears recalling Larry’s thoughtfulness, Larry being the kindest among his children, she said.
“Paita gyod namo maam, oy. Kana si Larry kinabut-anan gyod to. Pinangga gyod ko niya. Pirmi na gahatag nako,” she told The FREEMAN.
After the landslide, Constancia was brought to Mandaue City to live with her youngest child. She went back to Tinaan recently only to attend a fiesta and the activities for the victims’ death anniversary.
Constancia, who had lived in Tinaan since she was four years old, would have wanted to return home for good but her son wouldn’t allow her, concerned of her safety.
“Maayo unta maayo na sila ngadto didto. Akong bana bag-o pa namatay, samot kaguol nako dinhi,” she said in tears.
Constancia turned 81 yesterday.
While her memory may fade through the years, she said one thing is certain: As long as she is alive, she will never forget September 19, 2018 – not because it was the best birthday celebration of her life but because it was a prelude to a day she had lost a much-loved son and other family members to a killer landslide.
The official death tally was pegged at 76, with six still missing.
Two bodies and 15 body parts recovered were subjected for DNA testing by the National Bureau of Investigation. Until now, they remain unidentified.
To commemorate the death of the victims, their families held an eight-day novena at the ground zero, followed by a Mass at 6 p.m. starting on September 11 until September 19.
Today, exactly a year after the harrowing ordeal, a concelebrated Mass will be held at the City Hall at 7:30 a.m. to be attended by the affected families, City Hall officials and employees, barangay officials, and government agencies that extended assistance to the city.
It will be followed by a blessing of the tombs of the victims laid to rest at the city public cemetery in Barangay Naalad. Flowers will also be offered.
Acting City Mayor Kristine Chiong, who was the incumbent mayor at the time of the landslide, promises a solemn and simple commemoration.
“The most important thing to do on that day is to remember the casualties, to honor their lives, to give thanks that until now we are recovering, we are moving forward sa atong kinabuhi at the same time,” she said.
At 4 p.m. today, the families of the victims will gather at ground zero for a Mass and a celebration.
Chona said they will celebrate the first death anniversary of their loved ones as one in the area where they lost them.
Living in Danger Zone
In the wake of the incident, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared the sitios in Tinaan as no permanent habitation zone.
Yet some victims willingly took the risk.
Despite knowing the DENR declaration, some of the displaced families went back to sitios saying they have no other choice.
All the houses near the ground zero were numbered the government as means of identification.
They claimed they were told by the government to be vigilant with any untoward incident. They said they are not afraid that another landslide will hit the area again since the land has been flattened already.
Marites Panilag, 52, said she and her family planned to go back to their house at the danger zone since they no longer have enough money to pay for the rental fee amounting to P13,000 per month in Minglanilla where they have been staying after the landslide.
Since the tragedy, they have had to travel back and forth to their houses to check on their animals.
It is hard, she said, to leave their house which was built through the hard labor of her son, a seaman. They spent P2 million for their two-story house which is just a stone-throw away from ground zero. They have been staying there for 30 years.
Panilag, who is battling breast cancer, said life has been particularly hard after the landslide.
“Sakripisyo gyod ni ang amo. Swerte kaayo mi safe ra mi. Pasalamat sa Ginoo. Nag-ampo na lang ko,” she said.
Just like Panilag, the Torres and Cabarrubias families also chose to return to their houses in January this year since the financial assistance they received from the government had been used up to pay for the monthly house rent of P4,000 in Barangay Tuyan.
Maribelle Torres, 32, with two kids, said they are willing to transfer to the relocation site. While waiting for any update from the city government, she said they prefer to stay at the danger zone.
“Kon di mi papahawaon ari gihapon but if papahawaon kay wa mi mahimo,” she said.
Torres said the families each received P50,000 in humanitarian assistance from the government and P1,000 when President Rodrigo Duterte visited the city during the groundbreaking ceremony on the relocation project earlier this month.
Torres’ mother-in-law, Estelita Cabarrubias, 69, has been living in the area since 1971. Her house witnessed the growth of her family composed of five children and six grandchildren.
“Gibadlong mi pag-una pero giingnan magbantay lang. Kon mausab ang plano sa gobyerno, balik lang mi diri,” she said.
City to the rescue
But what exactly is the city government doing for the victims?
Apparently, a lot.
Chiong said that first, she wrote to the NBI inquiring about the DNA testing but was told they lack reagents or substances for testing.
“We already expressed as early as last year that we will provide the reagents for the DNA testing. They are still processing the Yolanda victims until now then the victims of the Itogon, Benguet landslide, then kami na. I think it is not in the top of their list,” she said.
She said she already sought the help of DILG and Senator Bong Go for immediate action.
Chiong said there was a delay in the implementation of the relocation project by the NHA since the city has to lobby to the former to give the houses for free.
“Ang first MOA ila gihatag nako kay naay equity, so I returned the MOA and requested OPAV Secretary Mike Dino and Senator Bong Go to help us nga mo-proclaim sa President to have this for free,” she said.
Fortunately, her plea was not unheeded.
The project that seeks to build 152 units will undergo bidding following the groundbreaking. It is expected to be finished in a year.
The city has also funded the ongoing construction of 50 houses at a relocation site in Gawas Kalinga which will be provided to the displaced families for free. It is targeted to be completed in December 2019 or January 2020.
Chiong clarified that the city government has been transparent and closely coordinating with the affected families.
She said a total of 418 families were displaced by the tragedy. Of them, 213 opted for the P100,000 building assistance and chose to build their own homes.
The remaining 205 families preferred to be transferred to relocation sites.
If the family was directly affected by the landslide, it received another P50,000 from the city.
An additional P50,000 was also given to families living in the no permanent habitation zone. If their house was buried in the rubble, the city gave them another P50,000.
An affected family received P250,000 the most, Chiong said.
Chiong said the financial assistance was given to these families as early as last year. In all, the city received a total of P28.6 million in financial assistance from various entities. Out of that amount, over P456,000 remains unused as of Sept. 10.
When she assumed as the acting mayor, Chiong gathered the landslide survivors to remind them that the DENR assessment is subsisting, which means no one is allowed to reside at the delineated critical zones, including the no-permanent habitation zone.
But since the families insisted, all the city can do is monitor them, she said.
“To be very candid with you, di man ta makapugong sa mga tawo. We are not there 24/7. But what the city can do is provide financial assistance, that we already did; provide relocation, that we are already doing; and most importantly to inform them nga dili pa siya angay papuy-an,” Chiong said.
She said the city was not remiss in reminding the families about the risks of living at the danger zone.
“However, dagko na man na sila. I told them I know naay uban namalik gyud but it’s up to you. You have to take care, you have to know when to evacuate, you have to know if your life is in danger or your family,” she said.
Chiong admitted that while the mayor cannot be with her constituents 24/7, she assured them that in case of calamities, the city will warn and advise them and ensure that the covered courts are ready to house evacuees.
One of the impending threats, she said, was the possibility of soil from the sloping areas to erode during rainfall and the same incident last year may happen again.
But for her, the risk that history will repeat itself is less now that the hazards are being mitigated. (To be continued) — JMD (FREEMAN)