"Survivor" is a word I heard all my life. My father was a survivor of events humanity could never fathom: The Bataan Death March, World War II Japanese concentration camps. The hows of survival is equally incomprehensible; one can spend a lifetime piecing together a patchwork of memories to understand how one survives and others don't. It could endlessly plague the mind and ultimately force it into silence, a world where my father lived to accept his fate and of those who were not as fortunate as he was. He continued on with life, as common sense might dictate, through ensuing years that included the immediate rescinding of his war benefits by the U.S. Congress in 1946, an act made worse by the silence of the Filipino people -- as if to swallow more poison after being poisoned so many times.
That was my late father's war, my family's war. Our war against nature is something we will never win. Super Typhoon Yolanda's wrath was played out on the world stage for all of us to see. From 100 deaths, it grew into 10,000 overnight, triggering a deluge of international support as images of the aftermath appeared one by one in social media as if those dead bodies strewn everywhere were debris from wholes with no surviving parts.
Like a silent, yet horrifying movie, the early aftermath began with looping images: a flattened town, vehicles on top of each other, downed trees, roads littered with debris -- nothing less apocalyptic than the tsunamis of recent past. Many of us in the diaspora watched and waited from our comfort zones for the next unfolding. As survivors rise from the ruins, images finally gain voices: cries of desperation and grief, faces of hunger, echoing sense of loss in their pleas for help. A fuller picture emerges the moment you open your mouth to share what it was like during those lost, dark hours while the ocean's wrath repeatedly pounded against you. I thought about what my father used to always tell us, how people watched helplessly while their tired and sickly bodies were marched through the roads of death into the Japanese camps. Some risked their lives to give them food, others just -- watched.
I watched. Like many people, I watched. I watched a survivor say that they still haven't eaten, five days later. I watched angry people get pushed out of a cargo plane that was flying their sick relatives out for treatment. I watched survivors looting out of desperation, finding food amid armed soldiers who would shoot them as soon they found their first meal on the ground. I watched the President of the Philippines blame local politicians for not being prepared enough although five days later his officials could hardly be found in ground zero. I watched the wife of the local mayor, a former actress, describe the scene as if she was the star of a calamity movie where she was the sole survivor. I watched her husband tell international news reporters how he was called a "ghost" because he survived while stuck in the attic of a high-ceilinged ballroom 20 feet above ground, while those in lower elevations got swept away with their tiny houses turned into waves of lumber sticks. I watched a Filipino representative cry at a climate change summit and promised to stop eating until they reached a resolution.
I am still watching, while you struggle to find food and water for the past five days. I sit, I watch, I wonder what I can do. Is donating money enough? Is keeping my friends informed through social media an act of help? What does this disaster mean to me as a member of millions of diasporic Filipinos who live in a country that contributes most to carbon emissions that result in global warming? Will I become one of those Filipinos who watched my father through the Death March and fell into helplessness and silence?
As I pen this letter, I make a decision to make a case against silence. Mine, and yours. I am a survivor's son. What he couldn't do, I learned. The voice I gained is the dark memory he suppressed. Our country gave it validation. After all, we come from a culture of forgetting. A culture of shame. Our historical memory is short. Silence becomes the exact moment of stepping into the light of forgetting, where the future is bright and dark history is best left behind.
For now, I wish you healing. Tomorrow, when the noise dies down and the light is brighter, I will wish you more. I would wish that you don't surrender to silence. That you don't turn your back to this dark moment. I wish you would be angry. Very angry. Those who perished are now inside your heavy heart. You will hold in your throat their last cries for as long as time allows. They can only speak through you. I wish you strength as you find their voices and harness their anger to speak of truth. I wish you courage as you remind the world that no one wins a war declared against nature. I wish you a torch of light and truth as you fight those who will keep telling you that forgiveness can only be found in silence. I wish you a weapon called voice.
Son of a Survivor,