UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham’s Philippines visit diary
Six months ago, when we heard about the devastating typhoon in the Philippines, it felt very far away. The images on our TV screens were horrifying as we heard story after story of families who had lost everything – their homes, their livelihoods, and loved ones.
As a dad of four children and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, I didn't hesitate when UNICEF offered me the opportunity to visit one of the most badly affected areas, Tacloban. Nothing would've prepared me for the experience I had. The destruction was mind blowing, but it's the resilience of the Filipinos I met that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Flying over Leyte Island it's clear what this kind of super storm can do. Everywhere you can see flattened buildings and homes, the area dotted with tents and blue tarpaulin.
Once on the ground we headed straight to the Astrodome, a small arena that had been used for basketball games and music events. Many families had fled here during the typhoon. Sadly, this stadium was too small to take in everyone and many people died outside.
Families have made makeshift homes in the now empty food stalls that surrounded the perimeter of the stadium, as well as using tarpaulin to put up temporary shelters in the grounds.
In the middle of these shacks, is something called a UNICEF child-friendly space –a small tent which gives children the chance to play safely together away from the trauma that's all around them. As a dad, it was deeply moving to meet children as young as two who were left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing when sea and storm water swept through their villages.
I also had the chance to visit another UNICEF tent, this time for mothers and babies. In this quiet space mothers can get help feeding their babies and learn how to care for their children in such extreme conditions. It was a really peaceful tent and it was so obvious that the mums were so grateful to have this place away from the devastation outside. It was a privilege to meet them.
We then travelled to a huge tented warehouse where all of UNICEF's emergency supplies are stored - things like health kits, water kits, school materials and nutrition supplies. Unsurprisingly, a disaster like this is a big logistical challenge but UNICEF works around the clock to deliver life-saving aid to children in this kind of situation.
We are up early the next morning and as we drive further out of Tacloban City the devastation of the typhoon becomes even more shocking. One of the eeriest sites is the palm trees – twisted and at strange angles, they act as a constant reminder of the storm that came tearing through this part of the Philippines.
As we pass down the road I'm told that there have been major improvements. There was nothing before... and now there are tiny, tarpaulin shacks made from the rubble or whatever people could get their hands on. At least the road has been cleared now. Seeing the current level of devastation makes you think what a huge operation it would have been to even get it to this state. Factories along the road have completely lost their roofs. All that remains of some buildings are ghostly iron structures.
We come to a church cemetery with fresh flowers on small mounds and stop to pay our respects. There are photos of children who lost their lives in the storm and the loss here has never felt more real.
We continue on to Tanauan, to a health centre which is nothing more than a small concrete building but has so much energy inside. I meet mothers and babies who are getting vaccinations. After visiting the cemetery this feels so positive. UNICEF is making sure health services for communities keep going so that babies and children get the vital vaccinations and medical care to protect them, especially when conditions at home mean they are more vulnerable to disease and infections. I even get to give some of the babies their polio drops.
We leave the health centre and head on to a nearby school that was badly damaged by the typhoon. There are big UNICEF tents that act as temporary schools.
Many families fled to the concrete structure that was the school but even here they were not safe. No one predicted how the typhoon would turn into a storm surge causing the sea to whip up, with waves reaching six metres high. The water rose quickly in the school and four children died in the building. I hear how the children are still traumatised by what they've experienced. The day before, when it started to rain heavily they ran to each other and were crying and shaking.
I visit all the children in the various tented classrooms – there are 54 children still going to this school and it's lovely to see how happy they are to be back in class. Here I meet an 8-year-old girl called Venus and play 'patticake' with her and her friends. Later we visit Venus and her family, who are now living next to the school in one room. Tragically not only did they lose their house in the typhoon but Venus' younger sister died after being swept away by the rushing flood water. It's so upsetting to hear stories like this.
After spending time with Venus' family, we head out onto the grassy clearing that sits in the middle of the rubble to play football. It is like no game I've ever experienced with about 20 children on each side chasing the ball. Afterwards I look back on this and think it sums up the spirit of the Filipino people, who have endured such tragedy but are still full of fighting spirit, looking ahead to the future. I know they are incredibly grateful to people from countries such as the UK who have donated so generously.
UNICEF delivered life-saving supplies and services when the typhoon hit and they're still doing the same six months on. The children who were caught up in Haiyan are still traumatised by their experience and need ongoing assistance.