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A community’s grief and anxiety through children’s eyes

The usual road to Loacan from Ucab, Itogon, Benguet is now missing in maps and photos, defaced from the wrath of the September 15 heavy downpour that saturated the soil and followed the law of gravity. The new route is via Sabkil, offering us distant views of Ucab and Loacan whose mountains bear scars from the recent onslaught, and unseen reminders of a century of mining.

After a 45-minute ride through Ambuklao Road, past landslides that were being cleared, we held our collective breath and kept our wits in place, fear disguised in nervous laughter as the hired jeepney descended down the steep, winding (i.e., hairpin curves), narrow road at Amteg.

The proof of the driving acumen among Cordillera drivers is the ability to negotiate a one-lane road while doing that nerve-wracking reverse shift to give way to an upcoming vehicle, of steering the wheel to the edge of the road resulting in a passenger’s cardiac somersault and sudden religiousity.

With relief goods that weighed half of all our weights combined, the thought of the vehicle veering down the ravine if and when the brake malfunctions, was paralyzing. We gratefully arrived at the mining community of Purok 1, Loacan Proper where the elementary school is located. No one would think a catastrophe hit this place, with the usual activities of people by the road. The heat was quite oppressive and gradually, one sensed THE gloom.

They seemed like other ordinary children with their playful, even impish behaviour, spontaneous smiles, restlessness and banter. They knew we were coming and were expecting an activity. While the rest of the public focused on news and regular updates on the extent of damages and casualties, rare, if not absent, was focus on the situation of the children in the affected communities.

Except for Grade I students who were unable to join us since their teachers were away on a seminar, students from Grade II to Grade VI were to undergo a psychosocial processing through visual arts and creative writing.

These are avenues for creative expression of the children recovering from distress and anxiety, or exhibiting abnormal behaviour as a result of trauma. Two weeks after Typhoon Ompong’s rampage caused massive landslides that buried more than a hundred residents who were mostly families of small scale miners, both teachers and students, at close range are still in shock and mourning. To go about the daily routine is almost a burden as uncertainty pervades the air with kin and friends missing beneath the killer mudslide.

The children were asked to describe what they saw and heard, what they felt, how they are presently coping, and what they are looking forward to. The illustrations are telling of the myriad of emotions of the children who witnessed and actually heard nature gone berserk. The common theme and images were of the physical deluge, of relentless rain battering their puny shelter, of earth slithering down to conquer humans, of deforested mountains and rainwater coming together, rushing down to obliterate hapless victims and burying them in mounds of mud, of rescuers shovelling, of relief workers coming to their aid.

The fear, helplessness and grief showed in the lines and colors executed by the students. Always, always, the reminder and question gaping through the images, “What have you done to our home?”

The literary outputs were explicit with raw emotions and had the common tone of sadness and defeat, of being powerless against the rage of nature. In detailing the chronology of events, they wrote of the impending storm, of the actual lashes that battered their walls and roofs, and of the sound of rushing water and grumbling earth. The children recaptured their moment of agony upon hearing their parents talk and weep about those who died in their attempt to help their relatives and neighbors. Many wrote about mourning for the dead, sympathy for the bereaved, and grasping at threads of hope for bodies still unretrieved. ”Sana mahanap pa nila sina Uncle…” was a repetitive plaint of tragic innocence.

Having been traumatized by Ompong, they expressed fear of the reported approaching typhoon Paeng. Aware that they cannot redirect its course, they wrote a plea for it not to take lives again or destroy their houses. There were those who were ambivalent about the role of mining in the disaster. “Dahil sa pagmimina kaya naglandslide. Kung mawawala na ang pagmimina, paano na ang trabaho ng magulang namin?” When asked to verbally share their insights about the tragedy, a cheerful boy volunteered, “Kung mawawala na ang pagmimina, pwede na tayong magtanim, para meron tayong makakain.”

Children being children, they have dreams for Loacan and the days ahead. They wrote of wisdom that we can learn from.

“Ang gusto kong mangyari dito sa Loacan ay sana maayos na yong mga bahay na nasira,maging alerto kapag may susunod na bagyo, maging maayos ang kapaligiran, magtipid na dahil wala na ang pagtratrabahohan dahil inestop mona ang pagmimina pansamantala at sa kapayapaan, sana mahanapan nila yong pinsan ng aking nanay. Sana mawalan na ng takot o lungkot ang aking mga magulang.” (Klouie, 10 yrs. old)

Time and attention must be given the children. Though distraught, they are coping with the huge changes in their homes. Their parents, teachers and community officials must heed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that may manifest in various ways. There are continuing nightmares they have to grapple with caused by external causes they were not responsible nor accountable for. Their teachers who are in daily engagement with them have to be equipped with basic psychosocial skills to deal with these manifestations. Most importantly, this is the time to listen to the children’s plea: to get the community on its feet again, for the Loacan residents to be more nurturing of their environment, and to be prepared and alert for any impending disaster.

The usual road to Loakan may take long to recover or may even be totally diverted or rerouted, the children know this. But what they look forward to is a way out of the devastation, a restoration of normalcy and a sense of security.#

(In coordination with the Serve the People Brigade, the facilitators of the psychosocial workshop and art therapy conducted in Loacan Elementary School last Sept. 27, 2018, were staff of the Cordillera Women’s Education, Action and Research Center (CWEARC), the St. Louis University School of Nursing, and members of Tuklas Innovation Project and Sulong Likha of the Dap-ayan ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (DKK).