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November 21, 2013

Neighbors Burying Neighbors in Palo, Philippines

by Steve Herman

Bodies continue to be discovered in the central Philippines two weeks after an unprecedented, devastating typhoon. At a damaged church in Palo, just south of the city of Tacloban, bodies are being placed in a mass grave.

The body of 12-year-old Jayvee Venuya is lowered into a hastily dug grave in front of the San Joaquin Parish church. Hours earlier, the girl’s neighbors - returning to their destroyed home - could not ignore the overwhelming stench leading to the decaying remains of the sixth-grade student.

The community’s lay minister, Alex Balano Bardilla, said every day an awful odor reveals the fate of additional congregants. “You can detect that there are dead bodies because of the smell. It smells worse. The smell of the deceased animals is different from the deceased people.

"There already are 250 bodies here, and more are being buried every day. Despite the hardships for the living, every effort is being made to give some respect and dignity to the dead,” said Bardilla.

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All 2,000 families of the San Joaquin neighborhood have been severely affected by the typhoon. Only about one-fourth of the families remain. The rest have fled or are dead.

In this spot in the makeshift church cemetery, 17 members of one family have been laid to rest together.

Visiting the survivors here every day is Jennifer Hardy of Catholic Relief Services. She always tries to cheer up the children, who have become homeless, hungry and heartbroken.

“We are at the site of a mass grave. So I think the reality of the situation has sunk in to some extent, but what is still to be determined is how long this recovery effort will take. And that is what I think people, as they go through day by day, they will be wondering why are not things better yet,” said Hardy.

Most of the San Joaquin adults were well on the way to a better life, relatively prosperous by Philippine standards - employed as teachers or government workers. Their government has not responded, however, as they might have expected. There are no search-and-rescue teams here, no forensic specialists, not even a mortician.

The authorities have supplied just one critical item  - body bags.