Filipinos Return to Leyte, Afraid of What They Will Find

With communications down, many have only one way of finding out if loved ones are safe in the wake of Haiyan, and that's to physically return to the hardest-hit areas and look for them

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NOEL CELIS / AFP / Getty Images

Residents pray at the Santo Domingo Church in Tacloban, on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte, on Nov. 12, 2013

It’s quite likely that the ticket office of Roble Shipping in Cebu has always been a gloomy sort of place. Fluorescent lights, inefficient air conditioners, lines that never move. In one corner, a bored girl declaims queue numbers into a mike with the reverb turned up full, as though she were in a netherworld karaoke bar.

These days, however, the room isn’t merely gloomy. It’s suffused in gutting, personal tragedy.

A courier in a brown UPS uniform, his eyes all red from crying, leans over the backrest of the chair in front of him, and joins his hands in prayer.

Another man with a tale of survival gesticulates wildly, showing how the water rose and gushed around him.

Everyone here is trying to buy a ferry ticket to Leyte, where Supertyphoon Haiyan — known in the Philippines as Yolanda — did its worst.

(MORE: For Filipinos Overseas, a Desperate Wait for News of Typhoon’s Wrath)

They are going home to look for their loved ones — to trek the near impassable, corpse-lined roads to the flattened barangays, and wander the wastelands of rubble, in the hopes of finding a clue, or a survivor who knows something, or an official who miraculously looks at the photo on a proffered phone, recognizes a face and says, “Ah, yes, they’re safe, they made it to the shelter.”

In the absence of communications, and with sat phones only in the hands of a few aid agencies and government officials, the search for loved ones has taken on desperate dimensions. So have the efforts of survivors to tell the outside world that they are not among the 10,000 feared dead — or that some family members are gone, swept away by the black, churning storm surges.

Journalists visiting the hardest-hit areas come back pockets stuffed with handwritten messages. Survivors talk straight into the lenses of news cameras.

“I’m letting you know that [Josie?] is no longer here. We were separated by the power of the waves. Even my child, I wasn’t able to hold on to my child,” says one survivor on a news broadcast, addressing the friend or relative they hope is watching.

(MORE: ‘They’re Walking Because There’s Nothing Else’: Dazed Survivors Struggle in Haiyan’s Wake)

“Our house was destroyed, my father is dead,” says another. “Please send us food. We have nothing to eat.”

Saturation coverage of stories like this has affected everyone who has a loved one in Leyte, and in the offices of Roble Shipping, where people are making the mercy dash of their lives, the tension has become unbearable.

A phone starts ringing. A secretary sits down right next to it but doesn’t even give it a glance. A cell phone on the other side of her starts up as well, but she ignores that too. And it’s somewhere around this time that a woman throws a fit. Screaming about getting money back for a ticket that was never used. It doesn’t matter.

Another secretary shrugs. “I’ve never been as yelled at like I have today,” she says to me.

There are just too many people who want to go home. And too many people who know, deep down, that there will be no home waiting for them when they get there.