The Toughest Job in Town

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On November 20, close to Tacloban’s airport, the view is ghastly: in an open space in front of the Chapel of Saint Michael Archangel, next to a semi-destroyed building, bags containing over 50 corpses lie on the ground. The victims died 12 days earlier, but given the initial rush to clean up the streets they had to wait for almost two weeks before being taken care of. We have come here after joining a mission directed by the Fire Department in collaboration with Scene Of the Crime Office (SOCO), the forensic unit of the police. Among us are also three French firefighters who were sent to support the government’s efforts. From the frosty Alps to picking up dead bodies: not a leisure trip, we are afraid. It is up to groups like this to retrieve the victims who died during the typhoon, perhaps the toughest job in Tacloban. It is a necessary task: for moral reasons and because diseases are a real danger in a city where people crowd shelters and live with little clean water. According to Major Rodrigo A Almaden Junior, who heads the local Fire Department, they find about 25 corps every day. Tecson John S. Lim, the City Administrator, told the media that “everyday about 100 corpses are found, not counting those out on the streets”. At the airport, one of the firefighters points towards a wretched building and indicates that during the typhoon the water reached the roof: there was no escape for those who took refuge inside. Like in the case of an old man and a baby, probably grandfather and grandson, whose corpses were found still hugging each other. “They had nowhere to go, the water caught them”, says the firefighter, his eyes fixed on the shattered façade. A gloomy sky looms over us, and after about one hour it starts raining. Not a ... ... middle of paper ... ... is the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA). Their first duty is clearing the streets from debris, but, as unpleasant surprises are often hidden in the areas where they work, they also take care of the bodies they found. The MMDA is headed by Ramon Santiago, who tells us that as of November 20 they picked up over 800 victims. Mr Santiago is visibly thankful that that part of their job is now over. His subordinates even more: as we speak, two men dressed in what clearly is technical equipment – one, for some reason, looks rather like a professional diver – enter the room where we are sitting and shake hands with everybody before leaving. Mr Santiago says they are the people in charge of the retrieval. “They are going back to Manila, they are really happy”, he quips. Happy they certainly look like: their shift at the toughest job in town is finally over.

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