I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.
For much of the time I spent there we were working to get the airfield organized, and to get people loaded onto military airplanes for evacuation.
At one point we had a crowd of 500 people attempt to rush the airplane. They had been standing in line all day without food or water, some for two days, and night was falling. The prospect of staying there through the night was just too much and they pushed through the gates, pushed past the policemen and surged forward in a human wave across the tarmac, straight towards the front of a C-130 with engines running. We stopped them, and managed to convince them all to move back and crowd into a little room that had once been a hangar (we could not have done that without volunteers from the crowd helping us, lead by a short bossy Filipina banker named Gigi, but that is a different story) and we closed a gate in front of them.
The next two planes to land were Malaysian. One landed right in front of this crowd of desperate people, the other in the second parking spot, about two hundred meters to the right. The officers and crew got out, not even bothering to unload their relief supplies, or even open the ramp. Instead they all rushed to the front of the airplane to take pictures of the refugees. Then they took pictures of themselves posing in front of the refugees, throwing up the thumbs up, the “rock-on” sign, peace signs. They brought news reporters with them who soliloquized with a background of starving desperate people, while the officers, crew and humanitarian workers chatted among themselves.
I was pretty close to running over like a crazy man, tearing the cameras out of their hands, and punching all those fat, self-satisfied grins off all of those uncaring faces. I didn’t. I smiled from ear to ear with the biggest fake grin I could manage and I went up to the captain of one of the planes. “Hey,” I said, after I introduced myself, “I don’t suppose you would be willing to fly some of these refugees to Manila on your way out, would you?” Casually, you know? Like, “Hey, mind if I hitch a ride down to the drug store, if you happen to be going in that general direction?”
“No, we cannot do that. We are flying back to Kuala Lampur.”
“Okay, well, maybe you can help me a little bit here? Like, how much of a detour would it be just to stop by Manila on the way?”
“Oh no, we cannot do that. We are due back very soon.”
“Okay, fair enough. But do you happen to have food on that airplane? I could really use some food for these people.”
“You would have to talk to one of the volunteers. They are in charge of that.”
So I did. I talked to one volunteer, and then another, and then another. The guy who was technically in charge of the goods was worthless, assuring me over and over that he would certainly get some food for the refugees, but too busy getting his photo taken with them in the background to follow through. The second guy said he would do it, no problem. They had boxes of family meals with biscuits in them, but they would have to take all the biscuits out. Okay, that makes sense, they don’t have cooking supplies right now, so biscuits are probably best.
But before they could hand out anything, or even open a single box, they brought out a bag of poster sized stickers and proceeded to stick one on every available side of every available box that came off that plane. The stickers has the Malaysian flag, the Malaysian president, some kind of sunset in the background and some words about the Malaysian people’s relief operation for the victims of the typhoon. Seriously? You cannot give out food until you have plastered stickers on the side of the box, which it is too dark to see, and which we are going to throw away anyway?
1:00 AM rolled around and another American C-130 rolled in, but the camp commander told use we could not load any people on it because he was afraid of them rushing the plane in the dark and getting cut up in the propellers. I had to explain this to the crowd through my civilian interpreters, and explain why there was still no food. I scrounged up an unclaimed pallet of water and distributed that. About twenty gallon sized jugs were passed around that crowd because I couldn’t find individual bottles, and the people sat or stood calmly in rows, filling their own bottles, offering the jugs to the people around them, passing them around that cramped, dark, smelly, crowded structure until every single person had quenched their thirst. There was not even one single argument or voice raised in anger. God bless them.
And still the Malaysians dithered. They had begun opening their boxes and removing individual packets of biscuits and placing them on a smaller pallet, but they were taking their sweet time about it. At 2:00 or 3:00 AM they assured me that they were almost ready and then they would take them over and distribute them. I had been going for 20 hours already so I showed them where the crowd was and introduced them to the civilians who had stepped up to take charge, and they assured us that it would be very soon. I went back to the tent and went to bed. I was up at 5:30 and back to the flight line by 6:00. The first thing the volunteer said to me when I arrived was, “We still have not gotten any food.”
I wanted to take that smiling, simpering, smirking “relief worker” by the throat and squeeze until his eyes popped out of his head. I wanted to hold him in front of that crowd of people and wave his bulging eyes in front of them and yell, “Look at them! They are hungry. They are starving! You have had that pallet of food sitting over there for hours and you haven’t distributed it why? Because it was still dark and you cannot distribute food until the sun is up and it is light enough for your cameras to see you doing it. If you don’t get pictures to make you look good back home, then what was the point?”
I didn’t. I am trained to smile, and be diplomatic, not burn my bridges. I needed him, he didn’t need me, and who knows what favors I might need from him later. What kind of international stir would that have made? Besides, it would not have fed my people. It would have done nothing more than make me feel better for a few seconds.
I went over and found him, congratulated him on having pulled together so many biscuits so quickly (that stuck in my throat like swallowing puke) and suggested that maybe if he was ready to get his media people going, we could deliver them now? Because these people really are very hungry. They have been without food for at least 24 hours by now. Then I physically bent down and grabbed one corner of the pallet and lifted it slightly. “This is light enough we should be able to carry it with four people.” He and two of his people had no choice but to grab the other three corners and I physically led them to the front of the crowd and set it down in front of them. The Malaysians jetted off to look for their cameras.
I explained the situation to the Filipina civilian who was the crowd’s spokesperson and she rolled her eyes, but she was a good sport about it. The whole crowd was. They were far more patient than I was, and I wasn’t the one starving.
Eventually they did get fed, just in time to stand in the sun, heat, rain and wind all over again for another full day, in the hopes of getting out of that place.
He just could not see what was right in front of his face. Punching him would not have helped that.