Five weeks on, the search for missing relatives continues in Leyte

Published: 14 December 2013 11:14 CET

By Nichola Jones, IFRC, in Leyte

In two weeks time, families in many parts of the world will come together to celebrate Christmas. But for thousands of people in the central Philippines, the festivities will be marred by the pain of being separated from loved ones caught up in the typhoon chaos.

Anxious friends and families are waiting to find out the fate of those missing since the storm.  The Philippine Red Cross has dedicated tracing teams working daily to try to end the agony.

This week, one team has been heading to remote mountain areas, wading through rivers and climbing over coconut trees in their quest to trace missing families. The volunteers are equipped with paperwork including the name, age and last known address of the missing person. But Haiyan rendered many areas unrecognisable, which means it is almost never a case of simply knocking on a door.

“Sometimes we don’t even have an address which means we usually go by foot and ask the local community – and because people know their neighbours here, that generally works,” said Gerwin Mata, a tracing team leader for the Red Cross in Leyte.

On Wednesday Gerwin’s team travelled to Salviacion in Burauan, northern Leyte, in search of Mhean Bantula, whose 68-year-old father Benito Abosejo had contacted the Philippine Red Cross desperate to know whether she had survived.

After negotiating tough roads strewn with debris, the volunteers found her village. After checking with locals and asking around, they eventually tracked down Mhean, 35, who is heavily pregnant. “I am so surprised to hear from him,” she said. “He lives in Mindanao and to know he’s been trying to find me means so much.”

The teams are each armed with a satellite phone to ensure those missing can contact their families. A tearful Mhean took the phone and quickly called her father.

“We give each person a couple of minutes to call the those who were looking for them and to catch up, and then we move on to the next case,” said Gerwin.

This week northern and central Leyte municipalities have been targeted by the tracing team and dozens of people found. But for every elated family, there are others whose lives are shattered by the call they receive.

Gerwin said: “Many, many times we have been to an address and found out that the person was killed. In those cases, I have to call the person looking for their loved one and tell them that they have died. It’s very tough for the family.”

The Philippine Red Cross has reunited tens of thousands of people since Haiyan hit, not only in Leyte but nationwide.