Policewoman among unsung heroes helping disaster victims in Tacloban

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— by Christopher Johnson, all rights reserved —

People like Febsterr Sawan don’t get much international media attention, but they are doing most of the work to help the Philippines recover from the typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) disaster.

A policewoman in Cebu city, she hurried back to her mother’s house on the edge of Tacloban and Palo after the disaster to save her relatives. She also had a mission to save Chalmes Dwayne Tan, the 8-yr old son of her friend, a Filipina working in Abu Dhabi and David Gallie, a Canadian from Victoria.

“My best friend called me and said ‘please rescue my son’,” says Sawan. “I had to go there quickly to fetch him.”

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Unable to take her weapon or uniform onto military aircraft, she braved a city run over by looters and found the boy on Day Three of the disaster. He was with his grandfather, uncles and other relatives in a damaged house sheltering 50 people, she says. “He survived by hiding under the table during the storm. He was lucky. Thank God for that.”

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She brought the boy to Cebu city and enrolled him at South Hills international school in Cebu city. Leaving him with other relatives, Sawan returned to Tacloban city to fix up her mother’s damaged house. We flew together on a South Korean air force C130 cargo jet.

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Then we hitched a ride with police officers from other regions who were called in to help local cops who were also decimated by the storm.

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The whole neighborhood was missing roofs, windows and doors, and residents were still living in rubble.

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Even the dogs looked worn out by the struggle to survive.

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Entering her mother’s house, she was shocked by the mess. “I don’t even know where to begin,” she said. “Everything is in the wrong place. But we’re lucky that we still have a house. Many people don’t.”

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Her aunt Vilma Padilia came over, desperate for food. All she had was a few grains of rice in a large sack.

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Febsterr gave her as much as she could, and I also gave Vilma a few things from my own supply of crackers, water and bandages. Vilma was grateful and headed back to her own damaged home.

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Determined to make her mother’s house live-able again, Febsterr bought an overpriced tarp from a neighbor and stared at the roof, wondering how to put it up.

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The neighborhood boys, out of school and with nowhere to play, came to her rescue.

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“Filipino boys are amazing,” said Febsterr. “They aren’t afraid of anything. They believe they can do it, and they do it.”

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Later in the day, Febsterr took me on her cousin’s motorcycle to see Vilma and her other relatives in the Campetic area near regional police headquarters, which had been destroyed in the storm.

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Kids were playing amid the debris.

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A clever boy found a way to stay in the shade.

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We saw Vilma again. She cackled in laughter, calling me “Joe” (local slang for all white foreigners) and asking me jokingly if I had “sam-salmon” (slang for food). Vilma’s son, who had special needs, had died the day before the storm. The storm seemed to amplify Vilma’s sense of loss and tragedy. “I am laughing on the outside, because I am really suffering inside.”

She invited us into her house. There was no roof to keep out the wind and rain.

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“I’m tired all the time,” she said. “I often wake up soaking wet from the rain. We can’t live like this forever.”

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Another aunt down the street had news for Febsterr. The storm had toppled the house in their compound, killing Febsterr’s uncle and his wife.

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Febsterr didn’t have time to dwell long on their death. More than 5000 were dead and about 2000 missing. “Everybody lost somebody in the storm. My best friend from high school, everybody in her family died. Everybody is used to dealing with death now. Our focus now is on living: how to get food, water, shelter and medicine.”

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Febsterr’s aunt was fortunate. She had a pot of rice and water for the children.

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Her daughter carefully filled a bottle to the brim, wasting not a drop.

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They also had an old bike with a usable tire.

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A Hello Kitty doll graced the remains of the house, like a guardian spirit for the children.

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Their neighbor also had a motorcycle helmet and an axe, which he used to chop up debris and throw into a pile.

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Down the street, a number of children were sheltering with Febsterr’s aunt and her mother. The kids look haggard. They were scratching their eyes. I gave them some handi-wipes, which turned out to be a popular item in the disaster zone.

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As we left before nightfall, Febsterr promised to return soonest with more supplies. The task seemed overwhelming:  millions of storm survivors were going to need all the help they could get, for months and maybe even years. But people like Febsterr were determined to help them.

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