From hi-tech to hunger in one short hop


By Amélie Bottollier-Depois


“Go! Go! Go!” the American service member yelled as we were about to land on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. Strapped into my seat, my stomach was churning. It was a rattling start to a short but intense reporting assignment on aid operations for survivors of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

I’d yet to see their despair, their hungry, imploring eyes, and question my own role here, but already this short encounter with high-tech aeronautics was making me feel sick.

After a week in the Manila bureau, where I translated into French the heart-wrenching reports from my English-speaking colleagues dispatched to the disaster zones, I was happy, on this Monday November 18, to be allowed to accompany the Americans taking part in aid operations, for one day. Finally, I’d be doing some reporting.


vue sur la mer d'un avion de l'armée

The view of the USS George Washingon from a Seahawk helicopter off Tacloban, November 15, 2013 (AFP Photo / Mark Ralston)

Of course I hadn’t reckoned on the strain of the flight to the USS George Washington. Especially the take-offs and the landings. At 5:00 am at the Clark Air Force base, north of Manila, a crew member of our transport, a C2 Greyhound, handed life jackets to my photographer colleague Noel Celis and me. Helmets too, for protection, but also for muffling the deafening engine sound.

The soldier strapped us in, facing us backwards for security reasons, and then gave us a little briefing. “You will see mist forming inside the plane. That’s supposed to happen, it means that the air conditioning is working,” he said, just as a kind of white smoke started spreading around us in the nearly windowless cabin.

He also warned us that there would be a final 2G turn -- 2G being a reference to the acceleration force that makes you feel twice as heavy as you are. I’ve since been told that 2G is not actually very high, but for someone like me, who gets sick even on rollercoasters, it seemed more than enough. He also told us that the landing would be abrupt as cables would break our speed on landing. “Don’t hold anything in your hands, no telephones, no cameras. They could go flying and break, or hurt someone.”

Noel and I exchanged worried glances. Speaking was useless, we couldn’t hear a thing. An hour and a half later, that 2G turn pinned me to my seat and made me feel a little sick. “Go! Go! Go!” The plane landed like a hammer on the flight deck and came to a sudden stop. I was stunned by the impact, and happy to have asked for a plastic bag.


avion de l'armée duquel sort des carton de nourriture

US Navy personnel on the USS George Washington load relief goods for distribution to victims of typhoon Haiyan. (AFP Photo / Noel Celis)

As the exit hatch opened, I saw jets lined up on the bridge, and Ospreys, part plane and part helicopter, that the Marines use for their rescue missions. I was glad that the 20-storey carrier itself was hardly moving. So at least I didn’t also have to become seasick.

The inside seemed like a movie set. Steep ladders, heavy metal doors, soldiers stepping out of the way of the officer accompanying us, and a maze of narrow corridors. If they left me here alone, I thought, I wouldn’t find my way out for days.

After an interview with Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, who briefed us on the many tons of food and hundreds of thousands of litres of water the helicopters and the Ospreys had already brought to starving survivors, we boarded one of the helicopters headed for the region the typhoon had destroyed.

Just beyond the turquoise sea and white sand beaches, I could see the houses whose roofs had been torn away, and thousands of uprooted palm trees looking like stalks of straw, just like in my colleague’s photos. Now I could see for myself.

The residents of the first village where we set down, on the small, isolated island of Homonhon, calmly welcomed the Americans and the water they brought. I hardly had time to take a few pictures before the soldiers called us back to the aircraft. The less time we spent at each stop, the more people we would reach. The villagers waved as they watched us leave.

The mood was very different in the next village, on Leyte island in the Ormoc district, where we went after a quick stop at Tacloban airport to stock up on rice.

From above, we could see a message in English, set up in large white letters, probably with painted wooden planks: WE NEED FOOD HELP US.


Vue de l'avion sur la ville ou l'on peut lire écrit dans le sol

An aerial photo shows a message that reads "We Need Food Help Us" amongst the devastation in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in Ormoc, on the eastern island of Leyte on November 18, 2013. (AFP Photo / Noel Celis)

We had hardly landed, when dozens of hungry people rushed to the right-hand helicopter door where two US soldiers unloaded the rice. It was a mad rush. I filmed a grim-faced man tugging at a rice bag, and a woman and a young girl trying to grab another bag through an open window.

I was at the left of the helicopter, amid the roaring engine noise, and heard women with despair in their eyes shout that they had not received any aid before we came, 10 days after the typhoon, and they begged me for rice. They were just an arm’s length from my camera, but I didn’t have the heart to point it at them. 

I would have liked to talk to them, to tell their stories, but again there was no time. Our helicopter was empty and we had to leave. Just as the doors closed, I noticed a bespectacled man in the front of the crowd, repeatedly moving his fist to his mouth, to make us understand that he and the others needed more food.

I had tears in my eyes, and I felt guilty. If we journalists hadn’t been in the helicopter surely there would have been room for more food for them. But humanitarian aid was starting to arrive on a large scale and I tried to reassure myself that a fresh consignment would soon arrive in the village. I tried hard to convince myself. But I couldn’t shake off that uneasy feeling.

After this trip into the heart of the tragedy, of which I was only a passing witness, we returned to the aircraft carrier, to another world. We found a floating city, housing 5,500 marines in impeccable uniforms, and where the dining halls have ‘Mac and Cheese’ on the menu, and chocolate-chip cookies. A great contrast, but a necessary one: The point of having this floating city here, with its 80 aircraft and seven accompanying ships, was to make the rescue work more efficient, and to save countless lives after the typhoon ended thousands.


personnes recupèrent des sacs de nourritures

US Navy Pesonnel deliver relief goods to typhoon victims in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in Ormoc (AFP Photo / Noel Celis)

My priority quickly became finding a phone to call the AFP bureau in Manila and describe the scenes of despair that I had seen for inclusion in the wrap story of the day. That’s why I was here. To give a voice, a reality, to what the humanitarian organisations were warning about: The aid may be getting through, but hardship was still extreme in isolated areas, and there could be no question of slowing down.

A member of the US Navy communications service took me to a telephone that seemed hidden away at the other end of the ship, beyond a giant hangar housing the aircraft.

It was time to go home, and I started worrying about the takeoff. We crossed the flight deck, wearing helmets and masks, to get to our C2 Greyhound. We were told to strap ourselves in tightly so we wouldn’t be flung against the seat in front of us, and to cross our arms over our chests. “Go! Go! Go!”, we heard as we were catapulted towards the sky.

This assignment had lasted just eight hours. Eight hours of emotion, a rollercoaster ride between a jewel of the American navy, which in a different context would have been worth a story in itself, and the despair of a population suffering from a catastrophe without precedent in the history of the Philippines. Eight hours that left me with the bitter taste of unfinished business.

I had hoped to see the large-scale desalination installation on the aircraft carrier, but I never got the chance. Such a visit would have meant going through classified areas, I was told, so no go.


un homme et son enfant s'éloignent de l'avion avec un sac

US Navy Pesonnel deliver relief goods to typhoon victims in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in Ormoc (AFP Photo / Noel Celis)

But worse, I never got to speak to the villagers, or get their names. It’s true that I managed to show that the situation is still terrible for some of the survivors and we mustn’t forget them, at a time when world attention to this catastrophe is dropping off. That’s what I boarded the helicopter for. But I can’t get the image of the bespectacled villager asking for more food out of my head. I feel he is screaming at me that I haven’t done enough.


personnes subissant la force du vent par le décollage de l'avion

The gusts from a helicopter's blades push typhoon survivors. (AFP Photo / Noel Celis)

From hi-tech to hunger in one short hop