Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Philippine nativity scene one of relief

SURVIVOR LOGIC Towns that were devastated by last month's mudslides are using special symbolism in their holy day scenes, relieved the disaster's over -- for now

AFP , INFANTA, PHILIPPINES

The nativity scene at the cathedral in this town in the northeastern Philippines, hit by storms last month that left hundreds dead and missing, was re-enacted this year with Mary and Joseph wearing waterproof boots.

Joseph carried a spade instead of a staff, a reminder of how the people of Infanta have had to dig themselves out of layers of mud brought down by the storms that devastated the area.

Christians still attended Friday's traditional pre-Christmas mass in their best clothes even though they had to pick their way to the cathedral, itself only recently dug out of the mud, through muddy streets.

The church was trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive although the tragedy was still fresh in everyone's minds, the town's Catholic bishop, Rolando Tirona, said Saturday.

"What is important for us is to lift the spirit of the people," he told reporters near the town cathedral.

"They are responding beautifully. They come to mass with a smile on their faces," he said, pointing at crowds in the church that was dug from the mire by Philippine Navy engineers.

He was initially warned no one would come to the mass, "but the place was packed," the bishop recalled.

Christmas is normally one of the most festive occasions in this largely Catholic nation, where even the poor will save up for a sumptuous Christmas meal of ham, baked delicacies and hot chocolate, and generous presents for friends and family.

But things are still tough in Infanta and its neighboring coastal towns of Real and General Nakar which took the brunt of a storm that hit on Nov. 29, followed by typhoon Nanmadol on Dec. 2.

The first storm triggered flashfloods and landslides that swept down the mountains wiping out whole villages and toppling bridges, cutting the three towns off from land transport.

The typhoon then brought rough waters and heavy rains that hampered efforts to bring in relief by sea and air.

About 1,800 people were left dead or missing by the storms, most of them in the three towns 75km east of Manila.

Although most roads to the towns have been cleared, electricity has not yet been restored and those lucky enough to still have homes are still clearing out the mud left by the flashfloods.

Twelve-year-old Marife Aumentado is a resident of Infanta. She said she was enjoying Christmas even though her family lost most of its possessions in their house.

No one in the family died, she said as she walked across a sea of mud with her nine-year-old cousin.

Best of all, a neighbor gave her a present, a large mud-stained "Hello Kitty" doll.

"I'm very happy I got a doll. It was the only gift I received," she said, smiling.

Bishop Tirona said the Infanta residents had clubbed together to get Christmas presents for the relief workers to show their gratitude for their help.

He had instructed parish priests in the affected towns to include in their usual Christmas ceremonies any rites that might help people deal with the tragedy, he said.

"There are so many who lost not only their homes but their relatives as well. That is the truly sad thing," he said.

"We have met some and we can only console with them," the bishop said.

At the same time, Tirona said he had not met people who had lost their faith after the disaster.

Instead they blamed illegal loggers who allegedly stripped the mountain of forest cover, allowing the deadly landslides to occur.

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