By Cecil MORELLA
TACLOBAN (AFP) – Since her mother, father and three siblings were swept away by a tsunami-like wave that engulfed Tacloban, Nica Cabutin has been learning to live as an orphan, one of many created by the Philippines typhoon.
She was found clutching wreckage after one of the most powerful storms ever recorded whipped up a huge surge that brought the ocean ashore, leaving the city in ruins and thousands of people dead.
Nica’s house and entire family were, in her own words, “brought away by the sea”, said Carmela Bastes, director of the Shelter for Abused Women and Children, a refuge for rape victims and those afflicted by violence, where the orphan now lives.
The young girl is shy about her lopsided hair, which was cut short so the two large gashes on the side of her head could be treated.
“She tells us she’s in first grade and we also estimate she’s eight,” said Bastes, whose staff tracked the girl’s family to what had been the Alimasag neighbourhod of the devastated city.
Survivors there told officials that nothing has been seen of her parents or siblings since Super Typhoon Haiyan struck on November 8.
They are presumed to be five of the more than 4,400 people the United Nations says have died, while Philippine authorities put the toll at just under 4,000.
Nica was one of the first children from Tacloban to be placed in government care after losing parents to the typhoon, said Liliosa Baltazar, director of the city’s social welfare department. But, she adds, she is not expected to be the last.
“We can’t say at this point how many there will be. We expect the local officials of the (Tacloban) districts will turn over orphaned children to us. Right now they are attending to the needs of their own families.”
April Sumaylo from Save the Children in the Philippines says the charity believes around three million children have been affected in some way by the typhoon.
“We have talked to children who have lost their parents,” she said.
“We have seen some children who said they are the ones scavenging for food and water. It’s obviously very distressing for them.”
Nica lives on the ground floor of the women’s shelter. Its roof was blown off in the storm and, as is the case in much of Tacloban on Leyte island, there is no power or water.
Under normal circumstances, she might have been placed in one of the city’s two main orphanages, one run by Catholic nuns and the other by non-governmental group SOS.
But they too were badly damaged by the storm surges and ferocious winds that tore through the Philippines’ central islands. Both had to be evacuated, officials from the two shelters told AFP.
When Nica first arrived at the shelter she would cry all the time, said Bastes, but now she is more used to being there and plays with the other children.
Despite all she has gone through, Nica is bearing up well, said Bastes, perhaps too young to understand the magnitude of the horror that has befallen her.
“We do not know if this will remain the case,” she added.
Once the city’s welfare services get up and running again, Nica and other children like her who emerge over the days and weeks ahead will be handed over to officials and eventually put up for adoption.
“We have to place them with a family,” said Bastes. “They can’t be in this institution forever.”