The thriving village silenced by a sea of mud

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2006, 12:00am

Crude blackboard map is only reminder that people once lived in Guinsaugon

The small farming village of Guinsaugon used to have a school and three churches, lush green fields and more than 300 houses.

Now all that remains is a crude map, a quick sketch on a blackboard to help rescuers get an idea of what Guinsaugon looked like before it was swallowed by so much mud all the bodies may never be recovered.

'It was a prosperous and productive village,' says Hamito Coquilla, his eyes red with fatigue and tears.

From across the Lawigan River, he can only stare at the bleak blanket of muck that buried Guinsaugon, and almost everyone in it, on Friday. Only a few rice paddies remain, everything else is gone. His wife and three children, his uncle, and one of his cousins have not been heard from since.

'There were lots of houses, including many made from stone and brick that were several storeys tall,' he says with some pride, emphasising the difference between this village and the others on Leyte island, where bamboo huts are the norm. But they were no match for the tonnes of mud and boulders that came crashing down the mountainside.

'My wife sent me a text message to tell me about the landslide. I started running from the next village,' says Mr Coquilla, a 37-year-old truck driver.

He got a last message from his cousin on Saturday.

'Since then I've heard nothing,' he says. 'In just a few minutes, they lost everything.'

One of his cousins was a teacher at the village school, where 200 students and 40 teachers are believed buried, a small number among the roughly 1,400 people unaccounted for.

'The school was built with tough materials,' he says hopefully. Rescue workers want to share his optimism, but several Philippine officials have conceded hope of finding more survivors is all but lost.

The truck driver, frantic about his own family, used his bare hands to dig through the earth and rubble to save a woman and her child. They were so caked in mud that he could not tell how old they were.

Since then, the soldiers and rescue workers sent to the scene have asked him to leave the disaster zone, warning him to stay off the unstable ground, which is saturated after days of heavy rains.

Rescuers are pouring into what was once Guinsaugon, now covered in up to 30 metres of mud, rock and debris. Many cross the river in the scoop of a bulldozer that is serving as a makeshift ferry.

'We came to help,' says 19-year-old Ian Degamo, vice-president of the youth organisation in the neighbouring town of Maasin who, along with about 15 friends, is helping to distribute food to workers.

'My girlfriend's relatives are among the missing,' he says.

While there is no shortage of motivation or good will, the rescue effort has repeatedly been hampered by bad weather and the village's inaccessible location.

Brigadier-General Mastin Robeson, commander of the US Marines diverted from training exercises to help with emergency relief operations, makes a list of items needed by the Philippines aid charities on site.

'We have to get organised,' he says.

After several marathon negotiation sessions, all parties decided to set up an emergency command centre on the nearby island of Cebu, but is there enough time?

Only about 20 people have been pulled out alive. The bodies of the rest may never even be recovered.

'I was only able to pull out one body,' says Irvin Lograno, 21.

'But when I pulled, I only had the limbs.'