TACLOBAN CITY - Amid the widespread destruction and devastation caused by super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) when it slammed into the central Philippines in November, one bright spot has been the reuniting of a father with two of his daughters who had been separated the last four years.
Estelito Cabutin, 38, of Daram town in Western Samar province in the central Philippines, last saw Estela, 9, and Maria Veronica, 8, in 2009 when his wife left their home and took the two children following a rift.
While Cabutin took care of their youngest child, now 6-year-old Althea Mae, in Daram, Estela and Maria Veronica were left in the care of their maternal grandmother in Tacloban City in the neighboring island province of Leyte as their mother went to look for a job elsewhere.
"I was just waiting for the right time to see my children and eventually get custody of them. I did not expect that it would happen because of Yolanda," Cabutin told Kyodo News in a phone interview Wednesday from Daram, referring to the typhoon by its local name.
Cabutin, with Althea Mae in tow, was reunited with Estela and Maria Veronica on Dec. 18 at the Tacloban City Women and Children's Center where the two children had been brought after Haiyan destroyed their house and claimed the life of their grandmother.
Estela and Maria Veronica were first reunited with each other on Dec. 7 at the center after the former was brought there by a family that temporarily took care of her after the typhoon struck on Nov. 8.
The two were separated during the typhoon as the storm surge that swept their house washed them away to different areas.
A neighbor temporarily took care of Maria Veronica until she was turned over to the center on Nov. 10, while a well-off family from the nearby town of San Miguel briefly took custody of Estela until Dec. 7.
"Somebody had informed Estela's caretaker that Estela could be the sister of Maria Veronica, who was already with us. That's why they brought Estela here. But Estela initially did not want to be separated from that family because, according to her, they lived in a comfortable house and the food was good. But when she saw her sister here, both cried and then they became inseparable," Linda Latoza of the center told Kyodo News last Monday.
Maria Veronica, as she had told Kyodo News in an interview last Nov. 19 at the center, initially thought Estela died during the typhoon.
Carmela Bastes, the head of the Women and Children's Center, recalled that when Cabutin arrived to retrieve Estela and Maria Veronica, the two did not immediately recognize their father and refused to approach him.
Latoza remembered seeing Cabutin being "teary-eyed" immediately upon the sight his two children.
"They said he was not their father. But it was very obvious to us, just looking at the semblance of their faces, Estelito was indeed their father," Bastes said.
"It took at least two hours for the two children to recognize their father, and eventually decide to go with him," she added.
Cabutin said he was very happy to be reunited with his two children, making their Christmas and New Year celebrations in their home in Daram's Burgos village merry and meaningful "even if we are just poor."
He said he is already content without his children's mother, who is now living in Manila, and will strive to ensure that the three children continue with their studies.
"We're fine now. We're all together. And Maria Veronica's head wound that she suffered during the typhoon has already healed," Cabutin said.
But he appeals for help from generous donors for his daughters because, due to a lack of formal education or training, his only means of living now is hook fishing.
Citing the Cabutin family reunion as one case of "good things happening in the midst of bad times," Bastes said Haiyan or similar tragedies should therefore not make people lose hope "because God has plans for us."
"That family is really meant to be reunited," Bastes said.