FIRE! FIRE!, someone screamed as a huge blaze ripped through a small community in Tanza, Navotas in the Philippines.
The tragic irony was that this was the night before the Philippines began its annual Fire Prevention Month, which falls in March.
All it had taken was a small spark from a defective electric fan, and local resident Emma Garnodo (40), together with 40 other families, were rendered homeless that night, watching helplessly as the flames engulfed their neighbourhood and destroyed all they owned.
With her father and her husband away that night, Emma – who has lived in Tanza her whole life – heroically saved her mother and three children from their burning house.
She desperately tried to fight the flames until her neighbours eventually pulled her away for her own safety, as the fire rapidly engulfed the entire neighbourhood.
Several weeks on, Emma recalls that night with much regret, and still feels she shouldn’t have stopped trying to save her house. After all, this was just not any ordinary house; she had inherited it from her mother and had poured her life’s work. Even more devastating about her loss, was that the house had been renovated just a few months before the fire.
Emma’s husband and her father had worked day in and day out for a month to finish changing decrepit parts of the house and provide more space inside.
A woman of candour, Emma talks about the fire incident, and her life so far. It has been almost two months since she lost her house and today, she continues to grieve.
“Tawa ka ngayon. Maya-maya kapag nalungkot ka, nag-iisa ka, iiyak talaga. Kasi ngayon lang naming na-experience iyon. Since birth, hindi kami nasunugan. Ngayon lang talaga. Para akong pulubi nanghihingi ng damit sa bata kasi iyong karamihang dating puro pang matanda; pambata, wala. Tsinelas wala rin sila. Ginagawa ko humihingi ako. Pakapalan na lang ng mukha.”
(I laugh it off, but every now and then when I’m alone, I feel the pain and I cry. This is the first time this has ever happened to me, and to my family. We’ve never had a fire like this. Now I feel like a beggar, asking for clothes for my kids, since most of the donated clothes are for grownups. There aren’t a lot of clothes for kids. We don’t even have slippers, so I’m just begging for them. I just have to swallow my pride and beg.)
Immediately after the fire, IOM Philippines' Mass Evacuations in Natural Disasters (MEND) team visited the families who had lost their homes. After a quick assessment they concluded that each family needed a closed space to live in for the meantime.
The MEND team then provided temporary homes through the Alternative Transitional Shelter (ATS) assistance initiative. The team conducted an orientation for some of the evacuees on ATS construction to ensure that the right procedures were followed, protecting them from accidents and injuries. The temporary homes were set up in the Tanza National High School Covered Courts.
Currently, temporary residents in the Tanza National High School covered basketball courts, Emma and her family are uncertain of the future. Where, when and how will they move on?
She cannot go back to where her house once had stood, as the landowner has decided to sell the lot. There is no assurance, much less news, from Tanza barangay (village) officials and the Department of Social Welfare and Development that she will receive government housing.
Despite that, Emma busies herself at the Tanza Clinic, where she is employed as a health worker. Now expecting her fourth child, her temporary home has at least given her family privacy and comfort for the time being.
As Emma and her family get on with their lives and hope for a new home, she holds dear everything she has today.