It’s only words

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By Mags Z. Maglana

The Point Being

Friday, April 4, 2014


A RECENT trip through Yolanda-affected areas in Leyte and Samar and a class assignment brought back my interest in the variety of phrases used to refer to those who were affected by disasters. Applied by those who were themselves put in distress by disasters, or by others, the phrases range from victims, to victims and survivors, to victims-survivors, to survivors, to survivors-victims.

Having suffered great loss, many of those who go through hazard events do feel aggrieved, hence the use of the term "victims." Unfortunately, the word highlights negative traits that the website Journeys Towards Justice describe as “passivity, acceptance of one’s circumstances, and (being) a casualty.”

After having gone through great danger, there are those who want to focus on how they were able to endure the harrowing experience, thus the term "survivors." Journeys Towards Justice correlate survivors with “ingenuity, resourcefulness, and inner strength.” The phrase "victims and survivors" to me indicate two separate categories. Either there are two sets of people: one victim (perhaps referring to those who succumbed to disasters) and one survivor; or to the same persons being in two conditions at different points in time: at one stage when people are victims, and then moving on to become survivors.

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The hyphenation in "victims-survivors" point to a dichotomy in state; and perhaps alludes to the fact that one is still in a process. This phrase is very current among the humanitarian response and emergency assistance community who use it to refer to those who went through a hazardous experience.

The description "survivors" suggests the completion of a process leading to the point where one has completely shed the previous identification with being a victim. I would have thought that the process culminates with having survived, having overcome the trauma.

My curiosity was thus considered piqued when I encountered the notion of survivors-victims. This state suggests a continuing state of victimization or of becoming a victim after one has survived a disaster.

This notion is perhaps aptly captured by the slogan written on one placard of the Barug Katawhan, a movement of those who were affected by Typhoon Pablo in 2012, during one of their protest activities: “biktima na mi sa bagyo, ginabiktima pa mi sa gobyerno!” (We were already victims of the storm, and yet government is victimizing us).

More than being a mere play on words, this is an earnest call to be more mindful about the tags that we unwittingly take on or use.

Freely applying the Bee Gees in their song “Words,” sometimes we may feel that words are all we have, and that they are inadequate in the face of things. But words have power; they have more potency than we care to admit. Beyond being utterances that fade as soon as they are spoken, they can shape our perceptions of what is and what will be, influencing not just what we think, but also how we feel and how we view ourselves.

If it were I put in a disaster situation, like many I would initially rue my ruined state. But I think that after a hopefully short amount of time I would refocus on having conquered, rather than being conquered by adverse circumstances. The term "survivor" seems inadequate to recognize how the human spirit is able to triumph through extremely difficult situations.

Permit me then a moment of hubris because I would rather chose to be called "victorious" rather than "survivor."

Email feedback to magszmaglana@gmail.com

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on April 05, 2014.

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