A family's struggle to find a missing loved one in post-Haiyan Philippines

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 February 2014 11:58 GMT

Poster asking for the whereabouts of Tarin Sustento, a three-year-old boy who's been diagnosed as mildly autistic and who was separated from his family on the morning of Nov. 8, 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban. Photo taken Jan 30, 2014. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Thin Lei Win

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With close to 1,800 people declared missing and over 2,500 bodies in Tacloban alone as yet unidentified, it’s been a struggle for those looking for their missing loved ones after Typhoon Haiyan . One family is refusing to give up.

PALO/TACLOBAN, Philippines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The poster shows two pictures of a smiling boy - one in a shirt, tie and trousers looking dapper, and the other in the arms of a family member. “Have you seen this boy?” the headline asks in thick black letters.  

Three-year-old Tarin Sustento has not been seen since the  morning of Nov. 8, 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan bore down on the central Philippines with tree-snapping winds and tsunami-like waves. Mildly autistic, Tarin cannot speak and does not know his name. 

The boy is one of the 1,785 people the government has declared as missing following the storm, which killed more than 6,000.

The bungalow in Tacloban that Tarin used to share with his parents and four other relatives is now an abandoned wreck.

 “Keep walking, nothing to see here,” ordered a message scrawled in capital letters on the white metal gate. Yet the remaining members of the family have not given up hope of finding him. 

“We’re hopeful somebody took him in because my brother placed a lifejacket on him,” said Joanna Sustento, Tarin’s aunt and one of two known survivors in the family, as she sat in the living room of a relatives’ house in Palo, a town next to Tacloban. 

Tacloban, a coastal city that bore the brunt of the storm, is slowly beginning the long and difficult task of rebuilding. For people whose loved ones remain missing, moving on is a challenge. Posters asking for information of their whereabouts still adorn the walls of churches and bus stops three months after the typhoon, locally known as Yolanda. 

“Even if we gave people food, shelter and water, the psychological trauma from being separated from their families is still a big problem for them,” said Beverly Kalingag, social services officer with the Philippines Red Cross (PRC), which has been tracing missing people with support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 


The posters of Tarin, whose father was a well-known tattoo artist, and a Facebook campaign set up by his other aunt, received many responses. Most were from people asking for money but that has not deterred Tarin’s relatives in tracking down each lead. 

“A friend of my brother’s said that a doctor he knows told him that another doctor brought a three-year-old child from Tacloban to Manila about two months ago”, Sustento said. 

“But we’re not sure if the child’s a boy or a girl,” added Sustento, who lost her parents, her eldest brother and his wife during a harrowing two-hour fight for survival.

On the day of the storm, strong winds woke up the whole family in the early hours. Around seven at the breakfast table they noticed water coming in through the kitchen door.

“Our house is near the coast but we have not experienced flooding before, and we never expected a storm surge,” Sustento  said. 

Within minutes, the water was at chest level. As they rushed out of the house, she saw a snake, she recalled. 

“I freaked out but I tried to stay calm as I didn’t want to worry my father. He had a heart surgery in August and the doctors told us one more attack and that would be it,” she said.

“I looked at Tarin and even though he didn’t say anything I could see he was worried and afraid,” she added. 

Her sister-in-law got bitten in her thumb as they were struggling to hold on to the window grill. She sucked the poison out of her but when Sustento looked again, after helping her parents, her sister-in-law had drifted away.

Only Sustento and an unmarried brother survived the typhoon. The body of their father is yet to be found. 


The Philippines Red Cross set up a welfare desk immediately after the disaster and informed survivors they could request for help to find missing loved ones.

The ICRC, which has decades of experience in restoring family links, says it has resolved 504 cases of missing persons in two of the worst-affected provinces, Samar and Leyte. 

This is done using rudimentary but effective methods such as making door-to-door enquiries and talking to neighbours and community leaders. 

More than 120 cases remain open in Tacloban, including that of Tarin, according to PRC’s Kalingag. This means they have not been able to determine whether the person is dead or alive. 

Sustento said Tarin’s family is exploring all options including waiting for the National Bureau of Investigations to process the dead bodies in Tacloban, of which 2,542 have yet to be identified. The government has warned it will be a costly and time-consuming task. 

Bodies are still being recovered too. On the day this correspondent visited Tarin’s former home, almost three months after the storm, four fresh body bags lie on the side of the road some 100 metres away from the house. 

“We are hoping that we will still find Tarin,” Joanna said. “Dead or alive. Just for closure. 



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