Young scour hills for food as weak fall ill

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 1998, 12:00am

In the centre of the southern Philippines city of General Santos, signs outside grill houses still advertise 'all-you-can-eat' buffets.

But just two hours away, up a dusty mountain trail, B'laan tribal children are forced to scavenge for food in the hills each morning.

Their village of San Jose is one of the worst affected by the El Nino drought that is destroying the once-fertile plains and mountains of South Cotabato province on the island of Mindanao.

'Up until recently, bandits used to come and threaten us and steal our animals and crops,' said school teacher Norma Logan-Sandigan. 'Now we don't worry. They know we have nothing.' The 3,000 or so households dotted around the hills fear they may not survive if the drought lasts a further two or three months as expected.

They say they have already faced great misfortune.

A freak fire has swept through the surrounding hills, destroying their last mango trees and blackening villagers' hopes. Their reservoirs and springs have dried up, forcing them to drink from a creek that runs down a dusty river bed.

Animals are dying and the children and old people are rapidly falling sick with fever and dysentery, their empty bellies swelling.

Older children have been pulled from local schools and forced into the mountains to scavenge for anything remotely edible - a practice that has led to deaths through poisoning in other parts of the island.

Even the healthy say they are too weak from hunger to work, with most eating little more than one bowl of thin rice soup a day.

They sit on the stoops of their shacks, staring at the burnt-out hills and listening to the loud rustle of the dying trees and palms around them.

A pile of dry corn husks stands next to a threshing machine that has not seen action in months.

'We have not seen any deaths yet, but we don't know how long we can last,' Ms Logan-Sandigan said.

'People are now putting all their faith in God.

'This is a very religious place and we are all sharing things together.' The Philippines National Red Cross yesterday delivered 25 kilograms of rice to about 800 families as part of the slow and arduous task of supplying emergency food rations.

The Red Cross said a total of 1.4 million people were affected by the drought in the cities of General Santos and Cotabato and the four surrounding provinces.

Amid the jubilation, tensions ran high as some villagers realised they would miss out as the food went to those more needy.

'We are trying our best, but it is never enough,' one volunteer said.

'Just look at this place, it looks like a great bomb has been dropped on it.'