Norman MacIsaac, the Executive Director of the LÉGER Foundation, shares his experience.
The group of Canadian volunteers and I drove back from Ninoy Aquino International Airport to our Manila hotel in our local partner’s Jeepney, a uniquely Filipino vehicle which is a Jeep converted into a bus with two long benches that would easily seat twenty or more. As we hauled the equipment out of the back, including our provisions and the portable water filtration plant, a homeless woman approached us and shook our hands: “Thank you for helping the Philippines!” she chanted melodiously to us. This woman had nothing but a couple of small barefoot children in tow. Together, they were wandering the streets, begging for food. But she had not come to beg from us. She had come to thank us—thank us for helping those in the Eastern Visayas region who were even worse off than she and her children were. Looking at this woman and her shoeless family in the street, my heart sank. She was thanking us for helping those even less fortunate than her…
The arrival at our final destination was an entirely different experience. The airport was in shambles. The Philippine army, with the support of U.S. Marines, had set up a perimeter to keep those who desperately wanted to leave from rushing onto the airstrip. Soldiers were completing a manifest, prioritizing urgent cases to be evacuated, while ensuring the remaining weak, famished and dehydrated remained calm and orderly.
Behind that wall of wire mesh, guarded by mostly young men with M-16s, were the faces of those desperate to leave this ill-fated island. I glanced for a second at their anguished faces, and felt deep compassion for their worry as night began to fall. I was sure that most of them would not get on the last C-130s to leave that evening.
Meanwhile, we were gathering our equipment and heading in exactly the opposite direction, towards the worst hit areas, back to ground zero.
The ride between the airport and Tacloban City, in an army truck protected by Filipino soldiers, will be engraved in my memory forever, as will the stench of the corpses that lined the road. In front of one battered house sat a man, sleeping, stretched out in a chair, as if to guard the remains of what used to be his wealth. I saw the injured and disoriented, searching for loved ones, probably in vain, Mother Nature having left behind nothing but piles of rubbish and debris. Areas that must have once been lush groves of coconut trees now looked like broken matchsticks littered over hilltops, with little that might be salvaged.
Norman MacIsaac, Executive Director of the LÉGER Foundation
Coming soon: Smiles and serenity