Makati City, 23 February 2006. While public attention is riveted on continuing rescue efforts in Southern Leyte, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has sent another emergency team to assess the conditions of the survivors. Their main concerns: the health of an increasing number of evacuees, and the trafficking of orphaned children.
“We have learned that an additional 3,000 people have been evacuated from five other villages in the towns of Liloan and San Francisco, which appear to be threatened by slides. Some residents have reported 3-meter-wide cracks appearing on mountain slopes,” UNICEF Country Representative, Dr Nicholas Alipui, said.
This in addition to over 1,600 people who were earlier placed in five evacuation centres in St. Bernard. However, thus far, relief assistance has been concentrated in St. Bernard. Liloan and San Francisco remains largely neglected by external assistance.
“Food supply is estimated to last for one week and medicines are running low,” reports Leon Dominador Fajardo, UNICEF emergency focal person.
“We need to ensure that the evacuees do not die of preventable and treatable infections in the process of avoiding another calamity,” Dr Alipui said.
Protection of children in evacuation centers
“We are also very concerned that the children who have been orphaned will fall in the hands of human traffickers,” Alipui added.
“Only around 87 children survived the mudslides,” reported Fajardo.
“Many of them have lost one or both parents. Already, we have heard of outsiders allegedly looking for orphans to adopt.”
Leyte is a known transit point for trafficked children. In February alone, the non-governmental organization Visayan Forum has documented 25 cases of trafficking in the area.
Other NGOs, such as World Vision and Visayan Forum, have agreed to inform the survivors, caregivers, and evacuation center managers of the threat of child trafficking and how to prevent it.
Stories of survivors
“I lost two of my children who were in school, my brother’s family, my husband’s sister, I was able to save my youngest child,” says Dolores Labañas, 38, who is staying at the Christo Rey National High School.
Like Mary Grace, Dolores was also doing the laundry and planning to attend the meeting of the women’s group at the rurhealth station.
Dolores felt a slight tremor but was not immediately alarmed. She heard a rumble from the mountain and then shouts from neighbors warning everybody to run for their lives.
“I jumped out of our yard. I looked for my youngest who was playing outside. When I looked back, I saw the mudflow. I kept shouting for my son. When I saw him, I grabbed him and we ran.”
Dolores’ husband was out of the village when the landslide came. “My husband keeps coming back to the site, hoping that our children and relatives are still alive.”
Mary Grace Bulagsac, 30, was going about her daily chores on Friday morning. The pleasant weather gave no warning of the disaster that was to hit the village. “I was hanging laundry to dry under the sun, when I heard a rumble, like the sound of a helicopter. Then, I saw the mudflow. I ran and took my son. We ran all the way to the rice field with my mother,” she recalls.
“Then, I saw the mudflow. I ran and took my son. We ran all the way to the rice field with my mother.”
Mary Grace and her son survived. Her husband was working in the fields when the mudslide occurred. He is listed as missing.
Threats of more landslides
In December 2003, landslides occurred in Liloan, San Francisco, and San Ricardo. Over 200 people were killed.
Because of this tragedy, these towns have already established early warning systems – thus the early evacuation of the residents
Geohazards identified in Southern Leyte include erosion and associated landslides in the mountains and proximity to the undersea Philippine Trench, a site of seismic activity.
UNICEF is helping local authorities to monitor the weather situation in seven coastal communities along the eastern seaboard.
“Helping the survivors back on their feet to rebuild their lives is the highest priority for us now,” said Dr. Alipui. “There’s been too much suffering already.”
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