Thursday, June 20, 2019

#PhilippinesLovesIndonesia: A journey from Palo, Philippines to Palu, Indonesia

A CALL from a friend in Israel disturbed my silence one day. "Reynaldo, what did you do to help Indonesia?"

I was perplexed for a while. Adamant what to say, I blurted out that I would have wanted to volunteer. After the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), the desire to help has always been burning in my midst.

And this is the perfect opportunity, so I thought.

So I posted on my Facebook page if there's anyone, a doctor, a nurse or a rescuer, who would be willing to join me in this sojourn.

Needless to say, a few sent me private messages and I finally settled with a nurse and a rescuer since the doctor backed out at the 11th hour.

Latest updates

From the news desk, about a thousand people perished due to the earthquake and simultaneous tsunami that hit Palu, Indonesia.

Still, an estimated a thousand people have not been recovered from the debris and others might have been possibly devoured by the seas.

It was reported that the international support has not been recognized by the Indonesian government. It has pulled its resources to help its people.

Booking challenges

Even with the multifarious reasons, work, family, safety..., I had to consider, I tried to ask my agent to search for our flights. Due to the disaster, flights were canceled or redirected, and costs plummeted penultimately. But we had to book anyway and took the risks amid the setbacks.

To make the long story behind the long trip short, we arrived in Palu, Indonesia, after a roller coaster ride. We left October 3 and reached Palu October 5 after four plane rides, five long stopovers, and an almost 24-hour land trip from Gorontalo to Palu.

Even before we flew from Jakarta, we were alarmed that flights to Palu were canceled. So, we had to reroute for Makassar, purchasing new tickets. However, we were advised again that going to Palu would take us two days via land and sea trips. So, without refunds, we rebooked for Jakarta-Makassar-Gorontalo.

Another news broke loose from my friend from Jakarta, alarming us that foreigners were not allowed by the Philippine Embassy to proceed since the Indonesian Government prohibits entry of foreign support. After a brief conversation with the Philippine consul, I got the clearance to proceed but with the risks that we might not be able to pursue our mission. But we took the risk anyway.

Sauvateuers Sans Frontiers (Rescuers Without Borders), our contact and support from France and Israel, updated us with the two teams sent ahead of us. We learned that they reached Palu ahead of us; however, they were denied entry, and they retreated. Hence, we were summoned just to back out.

But the persistence in me never faltered, I saw the vision to be allowed to pursue the mission. Finally, we just decided to fly for our final destination and continue the trail in the road for about 24 hours. Along the stops, we met people, particularly the medical team from the Health Department who assured to assist our entry to the ground. That gave us a sigh of relief.

Footages in Indonesia

After almost two nights without sleep and rest, lo and behold, we entered the ruins of Palu. We saw the devastation caused at the infrastructure and all structures with piles of garbage alongside the roads. Since it was the sixth day after the tragedy, only debris remained. The roads were passable. But like Yolanda, we could smell the odor of rotten and decaying bodies of human flesh. We had to bear with it and the memories brought back by our own experience.

From those views kilometers before the city, we never saw humans alive and walking; the place was totally abandoned and uninhabitable. We proceeded to the city where ruins of the earthquake and tsunami were evident depending upon the location. For areas near the sea, structures were blown away or damaged by the surge of water. For areas away from the seas, damages were caused by the earthquake. A few people loitered around in the now seemed dead city. People settled in evacuation sites, and a few had makeshift homes outside their homes. We learned from interviews that they slept and stayed outside of their homes to be safe from aftershocks, and they wanted to shield their things.

Even from our journey on the way to Palu, we came across with truckloads of relief goods and ambulances for medical support. Amazingly, all we saw were vehicles owned by the Indonesian government and people. Indeed, no foreigners trooped to the place as foreigners were even trapped at the airports. Maybe good for us because we were received by a local guide, and we have the closest semblance to Indonesians.

The whole morning was devoted for an ocular view around the city to check the extent of damage, the condition of the people, the evacuation sites, and the possible operation that we could do amid the limitations we had.

Since the two teams from France and Israel that we were supposed to join were not allowed entry, we had to settle with the 60-kilo medicines and supplies we brought and the capacity we had.

With me was a nurse who could function as a doctor where he is detailed at the emergency cases, and a rescuer -- both are firefighters of the Tacloban Fire Brigade of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. When asked about my readiness to serve, my only confidence is my experience of Yolanda, serving about 3,000 people, providing food and relief operation, medical services, security, and debriefing activities. That was the reason why I became a volunteer!

Mission impossible accomplished

After the ocular inspection, we had to proceed to the Ministry of Health for the proper introduction. Indeed, we were advised that foreigners were not allowed to do a mission. But a lady introduced us to a local called Manado Medical Mission and allowed us to donate our medicines and supplies. Persistent as I am, I asked if there is a possibility to help, so we were advised to register with the officers at the immigration office at the airport. So we did go. Our identities were verified like prisoners or intruders, and we were asked if we had a connection to locals. Since we had a tour guide and the local mission team, then we were set free to what we needed to do.

We proceeded to a certain locality, about 30 minutes away from the city. There, we exuded our best to render services to hundreds of sick and victims of the calamities. For a brief moment, we became almost like doctors or nurses rendering basic services to the patients suffering from the aftermaths of the earthquake and tsunami. Some were wounded, coughing, febrile, pained, traumatized and disheveled. Since we were not doctors, we had to provide basic services and medicines only and advised them to go to the hospital for further medication and lab exams. This we did exhaustedly but happily whole day long.

The next adventure we did was to visit the ground zero. Everything we saw was total ruins; all the buildings were damaged by the earthquake and blown away by the tsunami. The whole picture was like a barren land as far as our eyes could see, with hips of garbage everywhere. Definitely, we had to wear masks to evade from the foul smell of human flesh, which could not be retrieved anymore. What was noteworthy was the fast recovery of the roads to make them passable everywhere.

Since we needed to catch our flight back to Jakarta, we had to embark again on the almost 24-hour ride to Gorontalo. We had to cancel our flight from Palu-Jakarta since all flights were moved to the latest days due to the prior cancellation of flights, and locals evacuating were given priority. And take note, no refunds of tickets.

Takeaways from the journey

Poverty is still a hindrance to going out of our comfort zones to extend a hand. But thanks to SSF for the assistance and from few friends who shelled out little support. As volunteers, it is truly a sacrifice of time and resources and even a risk of life. But we pulled it through.

Personally, I am indebted to the world for the support to Eastern Visayas during the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda. It is truly the right time to pay it forward. Yolanda made us selfless, I believe so.

A NO is not always a NO in the case of policies. Persistence often pays off. Even when the government does not allow foreign support, we made our way by connecting to locals and showing them the sincerity of our support. There was no backing out, and we succeeded.

The world should be open to help. It is not about treaties; it is about our love and concern for humanity, whatever color or races we have. Another volunteer friend from Project Hope, Macedonia, said that after all, it is love that brings us together as one humanity. This is why we are all over the world to extend a hand. "If our hands are tied with the laws and policies, and other personal reasons, who else would go out of their way to help," he stressed.

Indonesia is a strong nation, and the people, like Filipinos, are happy and resilient. I recalled the time when I had a European guest during Yolanda who said that Filipinos can still plaster smiles in their faces and even pose for selfies, but if the tragedy would happen to them, there would be no reason for them to live anymore. My friend's observation is the same as Indonesians. In fact, we had lots of "selfies" because they were happy to see us, the Filipinos, wearing our shirts with the tagline "#PhilippinesLovesIndonesia." It was sweet to note when they responded that IndonesiaLovesPhilippines too.

Message of gratitude

Finally, I could not thank enough my newfound friend, Robert Abueva, the nurse turned doctor and soon-to-be-lawyer, for going out of his way from law school and nursing shifts, and losing his salaries the whole time we were on our journey. To Melvin Serrano for the robust (literally and figuratively) help as the bouncer of the team. Special thanks for their donors of medicine and supplies. Thanks for the true spirit of volunteerism.

To Lali, our tour guide, and our driver we named "Palito"-look-alike for the safe routes within four days. Although we spent about 10 million rupiahs (we became millionaires) for such immersion, it is worth it. Without you, we would not understand the language of the locals. Best interpreter, ever.

To Ari and Beatrice from SSF, for the financial assistance and encouragement to pull through everything, which made this mission a reality. Our friendship is beyond compare five years after Yolanda.

To a few friends whose names they do not want to be mentioned, but I will mention anyway: Dr. Anita Salazar, Abby Valenzona, Don Joshua Margate, Elle Garcia, Zos Montes, Rhoel Ladera, Joyce Barredo, and friends. And for well-wishers and those who prayed hard for the success and safety of this mission. A million thanks!

To Sir Jude Duarte for always believing in my endeavors and pursuits, and for the understanding and patience of my whole team in the university.

To my family for always being supportive no matter what it takes just to pursue this journey. You are always the source of my joy and the reason for my existence.

Above all, to Mama Mary and the Lord for the divine intervention to make this happen.

God bless the Philippines! Terima Kasih! Thank you!


Dr. Reynaldo "Rey" Garnace, 47, is the chief administrative officer of the Leyte Normal University in Tacloban City. As the then campus director of the Philippine Science High School-Eastern Visayas Campus in Palo, Leyte, Garnace took responsibility in the evacuation efforts of over thousands of residents in their school when Super Typhoon Yolanda leveled the central Philippines, killing over 7,000 on November 8, 2013. Garnace and his team traveled to Palu, Indonesia on October 3-9, 2018, with the humanitarian group Sauvateuers Sans Frontiers (SSF) Philippines partnered by SSF Israel and France.


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