Marge Francia is a UNICEF Philippines Communication Officer
A few weeks before Christmas, Mary*, 13, dreamt that she was having a Christmas party with her friends and family. It was the day the devastating Typhoon Bopha and floods came to the southern Philippines.
“I fell unconscious when a log hit me as I was swimming in the floods and mud. I had a dream that we were having a Christmas party,” she said.
A Rare Occurrence
December 4, 2012, was a day that changed the lives of more than 250,000 Filipino children living in the worst affected areas of the southern Philippines. Super Typhoon Bhopa made landfall in the early hours of the morning, in a region that is rarely visited by typhoons. It unleashed strong winds over miles and caused more than 740 deaths. 890 persons are still missing.
At the time of the floods, Mary was at home with her uncle and his family, her adoptive family. Mary’s biological mother was also visiting to see her. Mary and her 7-year-old cousin Bettina received warnings and evacuated to the village hall, while her family packed up their belongings.
A Narrow Escape
“I waited and waited for my mother, I went back to the house because I wanted to help them carry our things. Then I saw our house being swept away, so I ran back to the village hall. I asked, where could my mother be? Then my cousin started crying,” said Mary, while surveying the wounds that covered her arms and legs.
Mary escaped to higher ground twice, before being completely overwhelmed by flood water and losing hold of her cousin. Days after that terrible night, they found the body of her uncle, whom she fondly calls father, buried under the mud and debris. They still have not found her mother, her aunt, her 19-year-old cousin Jerome, and Bettina. Since the storm, Mary has been under the care of social workers who are now trying to locate her next of kin.
No Double Victims
“In situations such as these, separated or unaccompanied children must be given proper care, and all measures should be put in place for them to be reunited with their relatives. We must also strengthen child protection systems so that no further harm comes to them, so that they are not exploited, abused or trafficked,” Jess Far, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist said.
In Compostela Valley, there are three reported cases of separated or unaccompanied children so far. It is likely there will be more. The island of Mindanao is a known source region for traffickers, and so UNICEF is working with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to ensure that no child becomes a double victim of their circumstances, through registration and creation of protected areas for children.
Mary has now chosen to live with a teacher in her community instead of a girls’ home, while social workers track down her remaining relatives, and volunteers continue searching for those buried under the debris.
“I want to stay here in my community, because this is where I live,” Mary says with certainty.
The month of December is a much celebrated time in the predominantly Catholic country, so the tragedy and loss at this time is doubly bitter. In the midst of this unspeakable tragedy, Mary is trying her best to make this a Christmas she can live through.
*All family names have been changed.
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