First Person: Mud + Memories

Honolulu-based photographer Lucy Pemoni shares her account of the tragic aftermath of the Philippine mudslides.
Clinging to faith, villagers mourn the loss of an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people. photo: Lucy Pemoni

In February, heavy rains sent the side of a mountain in motion, smothering everyone and everything in its path. guinsaugon, a remote central Philippine village, suddenly disappeared.

With no warning, a Protestant church and a Catholic church, a school with 200 children, simple homes, stores, an entire village, were engulfed in five minutes. Any sign of life, under a layer of mud more than 30 feet deep, faded quickly. The first hours of rescue efforts turned into days of filthy and dangerous body retrieval.

I initially went to the Philippines as a freelance photographer working for the Associated Press to cover the U.S. Air Force delivery of relief supplies. There, I found international rescue volunteers, lead by the Air Force and U.S. Marines—most of them recent Iraq veterans—living in rain-soaked tents beside a river muddied with runoff from the decomposing bodies.

These volunteers headed off daily across the small river to find any sign of a miracle. No miracle appeared. The schoolhouse was never seen again.

A week later, the rescue work proved too dangerous and hope gave way to logic; the rescue efforts were officially halted. Hours later, a memorial was held across the river, within view of the former village.

The bulldozers departed and remaining family members erected a simple cross for the ceremony. They now had a place to say goodbye to parents, spouses, and siblings. They now had a place to express their grief at the sudden, unnatural loss of family and friends.

Life continues to be difficult in the central South Leyte Province. Many daily amenities we take for granted—running water, electricity, adequate housing—are rare. Many have been left homeless or displaced by this natural disaster.

donations can be made to:

Asian Relief and Medical Services (ARMS)
C/O Christians in Action (CINA)
290 Iramina-son
Okinawa, Japan 904-0303
Pastor Glenn Kennedy

Our Lady of Peace Foundation
Toll Gate Coastal Road
Paranaque, Metro Manila
Sister (Dr.) Eva Fidela Maamo, S.P.C.