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Paeng’s Ground Zero: ‘Forced’, unsafe relocation blamed for deaths

Chrislen Bulosan, with photos by Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 17 2022 03:16 PM | Updated as of Nov 19 2022 09:39 PM

Philippines Coast Guard via AFP
Rescuers poke through the thick mud as they retrieve the bodies of victims of a landslide in the village of Kusiong in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao on October 29, 2022, in the aftermath of tropical storm Paeng. Philippines Coast Guard via AFP

DATU ODIN SINSUAT, Maguindanao — As rescuers clawed through mud in search of bodies, the father of a 9-month-old child waited desperately for authorities to find his son who was swept away by the rampaging flood unleashed by severe tropical storm Paeng.

Nestor del Rio Jr. had tied himself to a tree, while tightly holding his other child and wife as the floods raged. 

“Yung asawa ko umiiyak, hinahanap yung bunso ko na 9-months kasi nabitawan niya. Hinahanap niya sa akin, sabi ko ‘wala dito, humawak ka lang sa akin,’” Del Rio Jr. told ABS-CBN News.

(My wife was crying, trying to find our 9-month-old child because she lost her grasp on our son. She was asking me where he was; I said, 'He's not here, hold on to me.') 

“Sabi ko, ‘wala na.’ No choice na talaga. Walang iwanan. Kahit anong mangyari,” he said, crying. “Pumasok ako sa Episcopal church, sabi ko, 'Lord, kahit makita ko lang ang bunsong anak ko, kahit bangkay na Lord basta makita lang namin.”

(I said, 'it's over.' We had no choice. We do not leave each other, whatever happens. I entered an Episcopal church and said, 'Lord, I want to see my youngest child, even if he's already just a corpse.')

The Del Rios were among those who waited for the remains of their missing family members. 

In the afternoon, cadavers were dug one by one, including their baby.

Some drowned in the flood while others were buried alive in thick mud.

Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News
Rescuers from the Maguindanao local government, neighboring towns and from various organizations dig through mud and rocks to retrieve the bodies of victims of the landslide in the village of Kusiong. Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

One survivor, Mercedes Mokudef, lost her daughter, grandchild, sibling and spouse in the landslide. 
 
“Napakasakit talaga. Ang hirap na ng buhay, nangyari pa ito,” Mokudef said.

(It's really painful. Life is hard, and this happened.)

Before the calamity struck, about 300 families from the Teduray tribe were allegedly forced to relocate to the foot of Mount Minandar in the town of Datu Odin Sinsuat.

At least 24 died and 30 others were injured in the landslide in the area.

The indigents were transferred from their coastal homes in Sitio Tabinabon, Barangay Kusiong due to the threat of storm surge and tsunami, according to the local government unit (LGU).

In 1976, many villages in the town were washed out after the country’s most disastrous tsunami in the Moro Gulf, with over 1,800 deaths and almost 800 others left missing.

Datu Odin Sinsuat Mayor Lester Sinsuat said it was unfortunate that they braced for tidal waves and failed to anticipate a landslide, as the region is mostly spared from typhoons.

“Yung mga nasa gilid ng dagat, pinunta natin sila sa high ground, dahil sa history ng Datu Odin, never nagkaroon ng landslide. Kaya kumpyansa kami. Akala namin walang landslide dahil above sea level na yun. And kung merong storm surge o tsunami, safe na sila doon,” Sinsuat said in an earlier interview.

(Those living near the sea were evacuated to high ground because, in Datu Odin's history, there has never been a landslide. So we were confident. We thought there would be no landslide since it was above sea level. And if there was a storm surge or tsunami, they were safe there.)

‘FORCED’ TO AN UNSAFE RELOCATION?

Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News
Relatives pray over the remains of landslide victims brought to a mass grave in the hills near the village of Kusiong in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao. Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

The relocation site of the families, before they were transferred, had to secure documents from the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Energy (MENRE) of the Bangsamoro Government: a geo-hazard certification and an environmental compliance certificate.

But according to a source, there are no records of compliance documents by the LGU.

It was categorized under “low to moderate” in terms of geo-hazard susceptibility, upon assessment of the Mines and Geoscience Services (MGS).

MENRE’s Forest Management Services director Abdul Jalil Umngan said the landslide victims live at an extended area of the mountain. The risk, however, was seen at a different area nearer to the mountain.

A source said 200 meters south of the area had high susceptibility to rain-induced landslides.

However, several locals said the LGU had compelled them to move to the relocation site, where the landslide struck. 

Sen. Robin Padilla has sought a probe on whether or not they were forced to relocate in a "landslide-prone" zone.

In a Senate resolution, he cited reports that 127 of 300 families relocated in December 2020 had petitioned the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and protested their transfer, but the agency allegedly failed to respond.

“Where relocation is considered necessary as an exceptional measure, such relocation shall take place only with free and prior informed consent of the concerned Indigenous Cultural Communities/Indigenous Peoples (ICCs/IPs), and whenever possible, they shall be guaranteed the right to return to their ancestral domains, as soon as the grounds cease to exist," Padilla noted in a press release.

The Bangsamoro government said the residents were drilled to prepare for earthquakes and tsunamis in previous years. 

Local officials said they were ready for an investigation after receiving reports of coerced transfer, too.

“May mga complaint nga na forced daw yung relocation kasi ginawang resort. So it’s a good area for investigation. We welcome yung investigation ng senate para ma-clear yung area. Majority kasi d'yan mga Teduray, ito yung mga non-Moro na indigenous people so kawawa naman sila kung tama yon,” BARMM interior minister Naguib Sinarimbo said.

(There were complaints that the relocation was forced. So it’s a good area for investigation. We welcome the Senate investigation to clear the area. The majority of them are Teduray, non-Moro indigenous people, so they are pitiful if that were true.)

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATIONS: CLIMATE CHANGE

Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News
Roads are covered in thick mud going to the village of Kusiong in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao a day after the deadly landslide. Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

Climate change is believed to be the main cause of deadly flash floods and landslides in Maguindanao. 

Weather disturbances have “intensified” and become “more frequent” compared to previous years, according to the Bangsamoro MENRE.

“From 1968 to 2010, only 3 disturbances visited the Bangsamoro territorial jurisdictions. That’s in a span of what, almost 4 decades,” Umngan said. 

Tropical storm Paeng was expected to slam into Catanduanes and bring rains to parts of Luzon, based on state weather bureau PAGASA's monitoring.

Mindanao authorities did not expect the unusual volume of rain because the region was not in the path of the typhoon. Instead of flash floods, residents were used to preparing for a gradual rise of water around Ligwasan Marsh. 

But as Paeng moved closer, water from the mountain ranges in the towns of Upi and Datu Blah Sinsuat rushed down to low-lying communities and triggered the landslide.

“Hindi tayo prepared sa klase ng tumama – yung flooding at landslide. Masyado tayong used doon sa yearly na flooding dito na yung pagtaas lang ng water level sa Ligwasan Marsh, yun ang focus ng preparation,” Sinarimbo said.

(We were not prepared for what hit us – flooding and landslide. We were so used to yearly flooding and the rise of the water level in Ligwasan Marsh, that was our focus of preparation.)

Deforestation was also a factor to the destructive flooding.

Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News
Coffins bearing the remains of landslide victims are carried through the barren hills surrounding the village of Kusiong on the way to a mass grave. Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

"Contributory 'yung pagkabawas ng mga kahoy sa taas natin. Noon pang 1970s, may mga logging permits na grinant doon so part po 'yun ng naging problema. Naputulan ng mga kahoy 'yung mountain ranges na 'yan," Sinarimbo said in an earlier interview on ANC.

(Decrease of trees in higher lands were contributory. Since the 1970s, logging permits were granted in that part of the land, which became a problem. Woods in those mountain ranges declined in number.) 

Maguindanao started to feel the massive effects of weather disturbances in 2010.

This prompted former President Benigno Aquino III to issue 2 executive orders to conserve and protect the forest lands and prioritize the National Greening Program (NGP): 

  • Executive Order No. 23 declaring a moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in the natural and residual forests, and creating the anti-illegal logging task force
  • Executive Order No. 26 declaring an interdepartmental convergence initiative for a national greening program

As part of the action and mitigation plan for flash floods, MENRE identified a 35-hectare portion of Mt. Minandanar to plant 58,310 trees to intensify its greening program. It also eyed involving all stakeholders in the community.

“There is a directive that we will also adopt a multi-cropping system by using not just forest trees but bamboo and some of the fruit-bearing trees so that we can motivate our local people in implementing and planting the green corridor,” MENRE’s deforestation director Umngan said.

The greening program, however, will take 3 years as the plants need to be nurtured. Such intervention for flood control will also require both vegetative and structural interference.

“My recommendation is for the other agencies in-charge for infrastructure to also introduce their own way of flooding control or erosion control,” Umngan said.

RESPONSE CHALLENGE: LACK OF RESCUE EQUIPMENT

Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News
Rescuers, using whatever means, help in the retrieval of landslide victims in the village of Kusiong. It took an hour for the responders to retrieve the remains. Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

In its overall assessment, the regional government said that while it issued urgent advisories down to the LGUs and ordered the deployment of rescue teams during the onset of heavy rains, they lacked rescue equipment.

“Wala silang rubber boats. Yung mga rescue teams na na-train natin, wala namang equipment, so di sila pwedeng isabak,” Sinarimbo said, who is also the head BARMM’s Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence.

(They don't have rubber boats. Our trained rescue teams don't have equipment so they can't be sent there.)

LGUs are in charge of procuring these equipment, as a chunk of their funds needs to be allocated to disaster preparedness.

“The LGUs are supposed to provide doon sa budget nila, annual appropriations nila… Internal revenue allocation nila, yung share nila from national taxes. Merong mandatory doon na 5 percent for disaster preparedness. Yung sa region, meron kami eh. So we are able to procure yung equipment. Pero sa level ng LGUs, wala ako masyadong nakita,” he added.

(The LGUs are supposed to provide their budget, annual appropriations ... their internal revenue allocation, their share from national taxes. There is a mandatory 5-percent fund for disaster preparedness. There is one in our region. So we were able to procure equipment. But among LGUs, I didn't see much.) 

A live Facebook video of Mayor Totoy Agustin of Pigcawayan, Cotabato province, went viral after he appealed for help from those who have spare equipment, while rescuers were shown wading in chest-deep flood waters.

“Baka may rubber boat kayo diyan o bangka man lang, baka pwede pong pakidala. May mga ire-rescue kami na pamilya dito. Hindi kami makaabante, kulang kami sa gamit… Ang Brgy. Buluan, medyo lagpas tao na,” Agustin said on the video.

(Maybe you can send rubber boats or motor boats here since we need to rescue families. We can't advance, we lack equipment... The water in Brgy. Buluan is already above head-height)

Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News
Responders help in the retrieval of bodies of landslide victims in the village of Kusiong in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao on October 29, 2022. Hernel Tocmo, ABS-CBN News

Authorities have rolled out a recovery plan for the typhoon-hit towns and survivors.

Evacuees, who mostly took shelter in schools after the incident, will be transferred to temporary evacuation centers which the Ministry of Public Works would build.

“Ito yung magiging focus ng early recovery para hindi ma-disturb yung education,” Sinarimbo said.

(This will be the focus of early recovery so education won't be disturbed.)

Authorities set a 2-week timeline for the construction of the temporary evacuation centers. By early December, the displaced families should vacate the schools.

Sinarimbo said some residents whose houses were partially damaged have returned to their homes. They will be given carpentry tools and financial subsidies for repairs. 

Meanwhile, the housing program for those who lost their homes has been planned out but will “take time” as it needs to undergo hazard assessment and land procurement. 

“Sana mabigyan kami ng bahay para makauwi kami at pang-capital panimula kasi totally damaged yung kabuhayan namin,” said evacuee Ajeed Muhammad.

(I hope we could be given houses so we could go home and some capital to start over because our source of livelihood was totally damaged.)