I haven’t slept for almost two days yet I still cannot sleep as of even now that I returned to Manila, and until now my heart is filled with much sadness and sorrow for what I have witness in Samar and Leyte, and by not being able to find any of our Orthodox brothers and sisters makes it almost unbearable. As of now, I cannot say anything without crying again. This is the reason why I wasn’t able to give you much details in my previous email about the visit to Tacloban. In order for me to unload a little of this seemingly unbearable feelings and thoughts about the situation in Samar and Leyte, I would like to share with you some of the things that happened and request your prayers that God may direct our steps in doing His will.
After traveling for almost 20 hours from our mission chapel of St.John Maximovitch in Sta. Maria, Davao del Sur, we reached Samar at 1:30AM. From Samar to Leyte, all we can see are debris from totally devastated houses, fallen tress, dead bodies of people and animals, and other things that the only thing you could say is “Lord, have mercy!”. I was able to use my mobile phone to take some pictures but I am not even sure if I would even look at those pictures again. Upon arriving at Tacloban city by 5:30AM we noticed that we have a very little fuel left and with that amount we were certain that we won’t be able to make it either in going back to Davao or to search for our Orthodox brothers and sisters in Palo, Leyte; and to help anyone who are in need with the relief goods we prepared for them. There is no more gasoline station operating in Tacloban and we have to travel again for 190 kilometers away from Tacloban just to refuel. On our way to find fuel, we decided to slowly distribute some relief goods along the way. We gave anyone we met on the road a pack of rice, sugar, noodles, canned goods, slippers, medicines and icons of the Mother of God. It was heartwarming to see that more than the goods that we were giving, people were asking for the icons of the Mother of God and upon receiving one, they immediately kiss the icon and say “Thank you, Lord”. Looking at each person we encounter as they kiss the icon of the Mother of God really quenched my thirst, relieved my tired body and made me simply speechless. How I wish I could have that same faith and devotion to the Mother of God which was truly admirable.
We thought that we will be able to get fuel upon reaching Ormoc city. We went to three different gasoline stations and the numbers of those who were trying to buy fuel was getting bigger and bigger as we went from one gasoline station to another gasoline station while we were continuously losing fuel without any assurance of finding another gasoline station. We were almost losing hope and were quite afraid that instead of helping people we might be adding to those who are in desperate need of help but God’s help is always available in the least expected situation. Although buying fuel is limited only for a maximum of 10 liters, we were able to buy 62 liters, just enough for us to have the fuel that we need to be able to distribute the relief goods that we prepared for everyone. However, on our way back to Tacloban to distribute all the relief goods, we were told by some locals to go back as the bandits were advancing toward our direction. One of the locals who witnessed the situation for the past few days stated that the bandits were looting all the relief goods and would kill anyone who refused to give. Just before the day we came, a group of armed men killed some men who refused to give in to their demands.
All other groups who are doing relief operations were advised to move back including Roman Catholic nuns who are residents of Tacloban City. I talked to the nuns since they are residents of Tacloban and asked if there are other ways of going to Tacloban city without passing through that area where the soldiers and the bandits were shooting at each other. The nun told me that there is no other way in going to Tacloban city but to pass through that area. We decided to wait for awhile until the tension ends. After praying and waiting for few minutes, even without any assurance for our safety, we decided to move towards Tacloban city hoping that the tension has ended. By God’s grace we were able to pass safely. Not even the municipal hall nor the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Palo was spared from this tragic event. Everything was devastated, bodies of dead people and animals were on the streets, and almost all trees in the mountains have fallen to the ground.
On our way to the St.Nikolai of Zica Mission Center at Barangay Barayong, Palo, Leyte, we saw everything was washed away by the flood and finding our Orthodox brothers and sisters was impossible. My heart crushed upon knowing that there was no other way to find any of them at that time. We then decided to proceed to Tacloban city proper hoping to meet any of them along the road while inquiring among the local which place did not yet received much help. Upon reaching Tacloban city, we were informed that the village for local fishermen hardly received relief goods up to that day, and so we asked around how to go to that area. We then proceeded to the fishermen’s village. On our way there, we started distributing some relief goods but before reaching the end part of that village everything that we prepared were already taken by some men from our vehicle. It was very sad that some men grabbed everything they could without considering others who are just as needy as they are. When I opened the door to get out and distribute some relief goods, some men immediately grabbed the two boxes I was holding which contained canned goods, medicine and some money. Some of the concerned locals pushed me back inside our vehicle and advised me to stay there for my safety.
On our way back to the airport, we decided to give anything we could still find in our bags to anyone we met. We also brought as many people as we can to the airport because almost everyone is trying to reach the airport so they can catch the free flight going to Cebu or Manila. We were not able to get a flight due to chaos in the airport but by the prayers of the Mother of God, we were able to ride the US military jet on our way back to Manila.
While waiting for our turn to ride the military jet, one man approached me and asked if I am Orthodox. He told me that he can’t believe his eyes to see an Orthodox in the Philippines. I told him I am Orthodox and asked if he is also Orthodox for which he proudly affirmed that he is Orthodox. We talked for awhile about various things even if I haven’t got his name, and I discovered that we have something in common. We were both in Tacloban to look for those people who are dear to us, and sadly both of us were not yet able to locate any of those we were looking for. It was just before we ended our conversation that I asked him if he has a prayer rope that he can use while he is looking for his fellow Belgians in Tacloban. He said that he has been in the Philippines for two years and he doesn’t have any prayer rope. I gave my small prayer rope to him and and an icon of St.Nicholas of Myra, and requested him to pray for our Orthodox brothers and sisters in Tacloban, he assured me of his prayers and it was only at this point that I knew his name and learned that he is currently the Consul of Belgium to the Philippines.
Just before we left, I approached one of the US marines who helped us get aboard the US military jet to thank him for the service he is doing for our country and to gave him an icon of St.Nicholas so that he will be able to rescue as many as he could. I was not sure if he will appreciate receiving an icon of St.Nicholas from me but to my surprise he immediately kissed the icon of St.Nicholas and said that he is his favorite saint. I asked him if he knows St. Nicholas and he replied “who would forget a saint that slapped a heretic”. Now, I understand why he is kind in helping us get inside the military jet. He is also Orthodox who loves St. Nicholas of Myra!
Upon reaching Manila, we tried to plan how we could better help again those who are still in Tacloban and other gravely affected areas. But after much planning and praying, all I can do at this point is to leave everything in God’s hand and make sure that my best intentions in helping people wont get confused with any temptation for overly doing things nor for worrying much on things that I am not totally in control.
There are still a lot of things that certainly and continuously breaks my heart until now, things that I never mentioned in this email because it is better left unsaid. Things that best coursed through prayer and fasting, and for such reason that I am again asking for your fervent prayers because knowing myself, I am not really sure how much longer I can bear these things, but knowing God, I am sure that He has purpose for all of these and I am requesting for your holy prayers that I may be able to understand His purpose and have the courage to His will.