Christmas Day in the City of the River of Gold

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Photos by Jes Aznar and text by Iris Gonzales

CAGAYAN DE ORO– We can smell the stench of death even before we actually stepped on Burgos Street, a place where two rivers converge nearby, one of thousands of devastated patches of earth here in the province.

The putrid smell of decomposing bodies; of dead Carabaos, of cats and dogs; of men, women and children, pervades the air. I am standing in the middle of a long narrow road alongside Cagayan de Oro River. If pain had a smell, this would be it.

Both sides of the road are lined with houses devastated by the typhoon that struck in the middle of the night. The roofs are gone, the windows shattered. The doors are wide-open. The street is filled with remnants of the devastation.

Everything is covered with the thickest mud, smudged with soot and garbage: the heaps of clothes, bags, television sets, electric fans, tables, chairs, bed, curtains, pillows and whatever the residents have left.

It is December 25, 2011 but here in the City of the River of Gold, where a tropical storm struck in the middle of the night while a father sang Christmas carols to his little girls, there’s nothing to celebrate.

A flooding victim receives a toy from good samaritans on Christmas day in Cagayan de Oro city while in a makeshift evacuation centers after losing their homes and belongings to the flood. The city recently fell on its knees as deadly waves of flash floods submerged Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities in southern Philippines, killing more than a thousand.

There are no gifts to open, no jingling bells, no festivities, no laughter, just crumbs of homes to salvage.

Sendong, which came in the dead of night on December 16, left as swiftly as it came, killing more than 1,500 men, women and children and leaving many more homeless.

In makeshift evacuation centers, survivors swarm like mad dogs whenever relief goods arrive.

Novelyn Gales, 24 years old, lost everything to the killer floods. She is among the hundreds of evacuees seeking shelter here at Barangay Makansandig Evacuation Center.

Her three-year old baby is sleeping on a slab of plywood in a cramped space, filled with donations and shared with another family.

“We lost everything but we’re still lucky to be alive,” said Novelyn, managing a faint smile. When the floods came, she and her husband held on to a tree, the baby held tightly by both of them. There was no time to pack anything else.

As I write this, the death toll has climbed to 1,500 according to the Office of Civil Defense: 891 dead in Cagayan de Oro and additional 451 in Iligan City. Across the cramped evacuation center is the village where Novelyn used to live. Now, where tattered homes used to stand and little children used to roam around and play, there is nothing left but a clear view of the horizon, a devastated patch of land and a golden mosque with a crescent moon not too far away.

There is an eerie silence. By the side of the desolate village, a river of mud flows endlessly. Bloated cadavers were seen floating here the morning after the flood, Novelyn said.  Her dreams,like those of other survivors, were washed away, too.