As the truck lumbers past the rubble-strewn remains of Tacloban City, onlookers pull shirts over their faces and use fingers to plug their noses. The truck is laden with death, 34 people killed by Typhoon Haiyan. Their decay, after five days in the heat and humidity, creates a stench that blankets the street as the truck passes by.
This is a funeral procession, or what amounts to one in a place where unidentified bodies still lie on roadsides, their skin now sloughing off in decomposition.
The truck’s trip, before it is interrupted by a report of attacking rebels, is the opening of a mass burial effort in a city overwhelmed.
“This is the very first truck,” says Jay James Arroyo, who is with the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation. He is following the truck in a covered pickup, and has dabbed Vicks VapoRub under his nose to help mask the smell.
From the day Haiyan hit, the startling number of visible corpses has been among the most affecting symbols of the devastation caused by the typhoon, which the United Nations now estimates has affected 11.3 million people – nearly one in 10 in the Philippines.
But not until Wednesday has a major effort been mounted to clear them away in Tacloban. Crews lay rows of corpses on a plaza in front of a downtown shop overlooking the water that once sold souvenirs. By Wednesday morning, 185 had been brought here, a fraction of the official death toll, which stood at 2,344. They expect 600 to be buried in coming days.
“Right now the mayor wants all the bodies removed,” says Emmanuel Aranas, a senior superintendent with the NBI. Not far from him, a single small hand sticks into the air out of one of the body bags. “The burial itself is only temporary. When the situation is better, then the government will conduct identification if they want to.”
For now, not even the basics of identification are being carried out. No one knows, for example, how many of the 34 bodies on the truck are men, women or children.
And to underscore the fraught situation in Tacloban, the burial effort is halted in a flurry of screaming and running, when a report of gunshots sends the NBI agents and accompanying troops frantically seeking cover. The soldiers, most of them unarmed, say a local rebel group called the New People’s Army has fired from a bridge ahead. The New People’s Army, or NPA, is the militant wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. “There is information that some rebels will attack,” one says. The soldiers are visibly scared. One crosses himself.
Nearby residents join the rush away, mothers clinging to babies. One man running with a toddler trips on downed power cables, and falls hard onto the concrete. The trucks are eventually turned around and race back to the souvenir shop, soldiers yelling “Alert! Alert!” as they return.
On Wednesday, Nelson Javier watched while funeral home personnel drove up in an old Mercedes hearse to pick up the bloated body of his aunt, who died when a floating shipping container landed on her new house and crushed it.
The workers from the Rolling Hills funeral home tied her hands together, wrapped her in blankets, placed her on a stretcher and slid her into the back of the hearse. It was barely 9 a.m. and she was their sixth body of the day. Rolling Hills, which charges $1,200 for the pickup and a funeral, is the only such operation still running; the rest were either destroyed by the flood, or have owners who have left town.
The mayor of Tacloban has told residents to leave the city because the administration still lacked the means to distribute food or equipment to pull corpses from the rubble left by Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded. But other government officials defended their response. Philippines Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras told the BBC: “We have never,” he said, “done anything like this before.”