[PHOTO - CLOUD OF DEATH: On June 15, 1991, exactly 20 years ago on Wednesday, Mt. Pinatubo erupted with such massive force that its pyroclastic materials destroyed everything in their path and killed 847 people. Considered the most powerful volcanic eruption in the 20th century, its monstrous cloud of ash and rocks is captured here as a vehicle tries to flee. (Photo by ALBERT GARCIA) FROM THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: Mount Pinatubo’s cloud of ash and pumice was deadly, but the whole Earth was cooled by its sulfur. (Photo by Alberto Garcia, Corbis)]  



Treading cautiously on the clayey soil, Manila Bulletin Chief Photographer and famed lensman Alberto Garcia knew he was only inches away from letting go of one of his biggest emotional baggage.

“Ikaw ba yan? (Are you this person?)” Garcia asked the brownskinned man standing in front of him while pointing to the four photos he took during the catastrophic June 15, 1991 eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo.

Taken from a cement bridge in this municipality, the previously unpublished photos show a man in a white T-shirt and pink shorts running away from a black cloud of hot ash and volcanic debris belched just minutes earlier by volcano.

“Ah, oo (Oh, yes),” answered Aeta descendant Reynaldo Denito, who, at 53 years old, has since settled in Barangay Loob Bunga here with his wife, five children, six grandkids and the rest of his extended family.




That was all Garcia needed to hear. He hugged Denito like a long-lost brother. Denito’s neighbors, mostly oblivious to that moment’s poignancy, nonetheless shared in it by giving an approving yowl and applause, with smiles frozen on their faces.

“Tama ang kutob ko, buhay pa siya (My hunch was correct, he’s still alive),” Garcia said, failing to hide his excitement.

For the veteran photojournalist, successfully tracking down Denito just days before the 20th anniversary of Pinatubo’s eruption was like hitting paydirt.

Furthermore, finding his photo subject alive means Garcia can now put to rest the burden he has carried with him since his first encounter with the Aeta farmer 20 years ago.

“Whenever I look at these photos, I always ask myself if this man (Denito) survived,” said Garcia, 55, who at that time was a correspondent for TIME magazine on special assignment to cover the “reawakening” of Pinatubo.

“I’ve always had a hunch that he was still alive. In that regard I’ve always wanted to go back (to Botolan). I want to know his story right after I took that picture of him.”

Blind faith

Perhaps that “hunch” was more of optimism, a sort of blind faith in a quest to attain peace of mind, since Garcia and his fellow media practitioners at the location – three groups in all, each with a van – could have saved the Aeta by offering him a lift.

With a black cloud (shaped like a cauliflower, locals recall) hanging over their heads, intermittent groundshaking and a continuous thundering roar from the volcano, the members of the media were already on escape mode when Garcia spotted Denito.

“He had that bewildered look,” recalled Garcia as he clicked a series of shots. “He didn’t seem to know what he was doing or where he was going.” Boy Cabrido, a freelance photographer that was part of the team, recounted how he asked Garcia a question – one that would haunt his friend for years to come.

“Pasasakayin ba natin (Shall we give him a ride)?” Cabrido said, pointing to the man with the pigs.

Garcia shook his head, according to Cabrido. Leaving Denito behind, the media vans were soon racing away as the hot cloud of ash and pyroclastic materials gave them their own deathdefying chase.

It was touch and go; run or rest in peace.

Years later, Garcia revealed how he struggled with the decision to leave behind the then 33-year-old Denito. “When in you’re in that kind of situation and in this kind of profession, it’s quite difficult to choose which to prioritize.”

“But I felt that I had a moral obligation to tell the world at large what was happening there, what these people were going through, and how they can be helped to survive this disaster.”

Considered as the most destruction volcanic eruption of the 20th century, the Pinatubo disaster left over 250,000 people homeless throughout central Luzon, killing over 1,000 others and burying vast fertile farmlands via destructive, rain-triggered lahars (mudflows).

Survivor’s tale

Appearance-wise, hardly anything has changed between the man in the pictures and the man in the flesh.

However, Denito now has streaks of gray hair and is losing feeling on the right side of his body. He said he suffered what he described as a “mild stroke” a few years ago while plowing a field that he has to walk nearly two kilometers each day to reach.

Asked how he managed to escape the advancing volcanic debris, Denito answered: “Tumakbo lang ako” (I just ran).

“Inabot ako nung mainit na buhangin, buti na lang hindi ako masyado nasaktan (I was burned by the hot ash, luckily I wasn’t hurt that bad),” Denito said. He had earlier taken his family to safer grounds.

“Noong malapit nang sumabog yung bulkan, binalikan ko yung baboy namin. Hindi ko naman alam na nacamera pala ako dahil nagmamadali na ako (I went back to fetch our pigs as the volcano was about to erupt. I did not know that pictures of me were being taken because I was in a hurry).”

Denito said the place had gone dark as night as the gigantic cloud of ash enveloped the place. “Natatakot na rin ako kasi masama na yung abo (I was fearful of the dangerous ash fall).”



Pinatubo revisited: Where've all the Aetas gone? ELLSON A. QUISMORIO


BATIAWAN, SUBIC, Philippines – Perhaps no group of people was as adversely affected by Mount Pinatubo’s climactic eruption on June 15, 1991 as the Aetas. They lost their home, livelihood and to a certain extent, their identity.

An indigenous tribes people characterized by their dark brown skin, small stature and curly hair (they are referred to somewhat degradingly as “kulot” by lowland dwellers, who on the other side of the equation are called “unat”), the Aeta have lived for centuries in the mountains of Luzon, tilling the rich soil for crops, had a culture of their own and was virtually self-sufficient.

There had little or almost no need for money.

But that all changed when Pinatubo literally blew its top 20 years ago, spewing everything from hot ash, soot, boulders and other volcanic debris on the surrounding lush forests that served as the Aetas’ home. They had no choice but to flee.

While not an Aeta, Jose Lawag, 49, captain of this mountainside town in Subic, Zambales, witnessed the utter damage caused to the tribes’ domain.

“The green forests completely turned white from the ash,” Lawag said in Filipino, adding that the land was covered with three to six feet of ash. It was as if the local mountains turned into the Swiss Alps in the course of one afternoon.

“It would be a full year before we could plant anything for food,” the captain recounted.

The local produce, which suffered greatly, included bananas, watermelons, bitter melons, sweet potatoes, gabi and other root crops. Traces of volcanic ash can still be seen strewn on the surface up to this day.


TOUGH LIFE Two decades later, the Aetas are still faced with a familiar dilemma: Stay in the lowlands or venture back to the mountains. Either way, they face a tough life.

“Namumulot kami ng suso para may makain. Walang hanapbuhay dito (We pick snails for us to eat. There is no work here),” said Esmelinda Sta. Maria, a council member of the Aeta tribes at the resettlement site in Barangay Tumangan, Sitio San Juan, Botolan, Zambales.

There are currently 77 families at the resettlement site, Chieftain Donald Sta. Maria bared. “Ang pinakamalaking problema namin dito ay pagkain at kabuhayan (Our biggest problems here are our sources of food and livelihood).”

As the leader of the Aetas there, it is Chieftain Sta. Maria’s duty to bring before the attention of provincial authorities the needs of his people, but he is very much aware that it is not a case of asking and automatically receiving.

“Alam namin na marami ring tao ang nangangailangan kaya kung ano man ang ibinibigay sa amin ay ipinagpapasalamat namin (We now that a lot of people out there also need help, that’s why we are thankful for whatever we are given).”

One look around Tumangan and one can see its sorry state – there are no cemented homes, just native huts; there are no livestock or beasts of burden. Thankfully, the Aetas there have access to potable water and working toilets, thanks to the generosity of some non-government organizations (NGOs).

Chieftain Sta. Maria said they built the huts themselves, usingindigenous materials that they came across from day to day.

Now, the tribal head said he is looking for other NGOs and groups that would provide them with seedlings, plows, carabaos and carts in order for them to go back to what they do best – farming.

“Mahirap ang buhay dito lalo na kung wala ka namang tinapos (Life here is tough especially when you have no education),” Merci Denito, 50, of Loob Bunga, an Aeta resettlement area in Botolan, chimed in.

“Kung mayroon lang kaming kalabaw ay aakyat ulit kami para magtanim, pero wala kaming tagahila. Wala rin kaming sariling lupa dito kaya nakiki-saka na lang (If only we had a carabao, we’d return to the highlands and plant crops but that is not the case. We till someone else’s soil here since we don’t have our own land),” she explained.

According to her, even farming tools such as plows and shovels have become highly prized by thieves as these are now considered “luxury items”.

MONEY MATTERS Over at the Baquilan resettlement (photo) site in the same municipality, 47-year-old Aeta farmer Hercules Badar can’t emphasize enough just how important money is in the lowlands.

“Mahirap gumalaw dito kung walang pera. Pera ang nagpapagalaw dito (You can barely do anything here without cash. Money makes things happen here),” he said.

Badar, who owns a carabao, said he prefers to stay in the mountains where one can “plant anything” on its fertile soil, although he still joins the daily exodus of beasts of burden and Aetas who haul their harvests from the highlands to be sold in the lowlands.

A back-and-forth trip on a strong carabao could still take half a day, the farmer added. As such, it is essential trips, draining for both man and beast, are used to the fullest.

“Siguraduhin mo lang na may ibaba ka. Kung wala kang ibinaba, hindi ka rin magkaka-pera (Make sure that you are bringing something over. Otherwise, you won’t gain any money),” said another Aeta farmer, Reynaldo Ortega, 37.

Ortega lost his 81-year-old grandfather, Dionisio, during the Pinatubo disaster after their hut caved in from the weight of the accumulated ash and debris on the roof. The octogenarian, who refused to flee despite the eruption, was crushed to death.

“Ayaw niyang iwan ang kubo namin maski anong pilit namin. Iyon ang kagustuhan niya (He refused to leave our hut despite all our pleas. That was his wish),” a misty-eyed Ortega recounted.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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