Samar Weeps

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I remember the story of the Bells of Balanggiga, how they were brought to the United States as war booty. The massacre of Balanggiga was never taught to Filipinos in my time. I do not know if it is an item in Philippine history books and shared with young Filipino students today. I hope it is, though, because it can give us many insights of exploitation and arrogance – and a native people’s desire for respect and freedom.

Due to the incessant rains that have hit Eastern Samar and Southern Leyte these past few weeks, floods and landslides have wreaked havoc on people’s lives once more. The tales of floods and landslides in Eastern Samar and Southern Leyte are like broken records, ugly unbreakable cycles that make even uglier the fate of the poor. The “howling wilderness” that US General Jake Smith wanted Samar to be is like a prophesied curse that afflicts many parts of the island today. There may be no more American invaders, no more General Smiths after almost 110 years after the incident, but Samar is howling from a suffering that seems to be non-ending.

While I was very quickly informed about the landslides in St. Bernard from fellow Gawad Kalinga volunteers, it took me several days to know that floods were choking at least two towns in Eastern Samar, raging rivers washing away homes and the situation was simply forcing their residents to undergo once more their more what seemed like an annual flagellation. I had been to Southern Leyte from 2004 to show sympathy to friends and the poor when I had opportunities to do so. The tragedies in San Francisco, San Ricardo and Lilo-an remain vivid scenes in my mind – my first time ever to see real images of death and damage caused by landslides. Of course, the landslide that covered a barangay in St. Bernard a few years later was a pitiful repeat of death and horror from calamities.

Samar, though, is a slightly different story. This island of Waray-speaking Filipinos has evoked in my mind several negative images by the reputation it carries. First, of course, is that Samar is a perennial victim of typhoons. Second, it is a hotbed of leftist rebels. But it is the third that is strongest in my mind – that Samar has the worst roads in the country. For the longest of times since I had known about Samar from the perspective of poverty and natural calamity, I had assumed that the bad roads were a consequence of the frequent floods. I may be partly right, but also mostly wrong as many Samar residents can confirm.

Poverty and calamity are regular features of Samar. I did not suspect that corruption was another one. Apparently, it may be the worst curse of all. Corruption may be what the spirit infamous General Jake Smith has reincarnated to be in the modern day politicians who exploit the suffering of the people, the cyclical tragedy brought upon by storms and floods, to enrich themselves in the perpetuation of poverty and underdevelopment in the worst of ways.

Typhoons and floods, and occasional tragedy, are not uncommon in the Philippines. Yes, some are worse than others, but Eastern Visayas, Bicol, Quezon, Aurora and provinces of northeastern Luzon are also host to the typhoons that regularly hit the Philippines. Because of my advocacy as a Gawad Kalinga volunteer and the relief/rehabilitation work that we have been involved in the last seven years, I have visited all these provinces and witnessed the naturally and constantly threatened roads they have. The most famous is Kenon Road. I do not know if there is any other stretch of road that has been damaged as often as Kenon Road, but I just used in recently when we visited a GK village in the Camp Four area. Kenon Road is definitely passable and kept that way by a DPWH that is used to maintaining the road despite the constant damage it experiences from landslides.

Why would bad roads be a major curse of Samar, especially since the incidences of typhoons have significantly lessened in the last decade. The typhoon path has been veering more towards the northern side of the Philippines and this has given respite to Eastern Visayas and Bicol. Why, then, would Bicol not have better roads than before when Bicol has managed it, when Quezon has managed it, when neighboring Leyte has managed it?

It did not take me long to know the answer myself. A personal trip to Dolores, Eastern Samar, from Tacloban where I landed from Manila, allowed me to use the Samar roads I had often just heard about, or read about in the Internet and newspapers. I was told that we were lucky because the flood waters had considerably subsided and the roads were again passable – meaning it will not take us seven hours to get there as previously estimated.

What shocked me, though, was not the cracked roads but how they looked. Because the innards of the roads were exposed, it was obvious that they were terribly sub-standard. Those broken roads were telling a story of corruption that could have been initiated and then tolerated by the most senior of authorities in the province and the DPWH. Since I had heard of the terrible tale about bad Samar roads for more than a decade, and I learned firsthand from the residents that this has been so for several decades, the evidence of corruption was there in the broken roads which everyone could see.

Can politicians and bureaucrats be as heartless as Gen. Jake Smith? Can the suffering of their people mean nothing to them? Can corruption be so blatant yet tolerated by provincial and national leadership?

I wish not, or I wish “no more.” I wish the “matuwid na daan” will be more literal in Samar, that, indeed, the roads will be good because the people of the islands, no matter the poverty, are Filipinos of equal worth and dignity. I wish the curse of Gen. Jake Smith will not extend itself through the greed of officials who continue the massacre of Balanggiga.

“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.” –Albert Camus

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