Published November 28, 2013
TACLOBAN, Philippines – The teenager with unruly hair in a ponytail wipes tears from her eyes as she holds her feverish 3-year-old brother, who clings to her and lets out a sob of his own now and then. They have been inseparable ever since they lost their parents to Typhoon Haiyan's tsunami-like storm surge.
"The water was so strong. Also the wind and the rain," 15-year-old Shylyny Therese Negru said. "Our house was cut into two."
She and her three surviving brothers, ages 3, 6 and 12, are among an unknown number of children in the eastern Philippines who lost their parents to the massive Nov. 8 storm. Zafrin Chowdry, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, said the agency is helping to rapidly trace the families of affected children and to connect them with relatives.
The death toll from Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons on record, has risen to 5,560 with 1,757 others missing, officials said Thursday. The United Nations said at least 14 million people have been affected, including 1.8 million displaced children.
The storm almost completely flattened the seaside neighborhood where Shylyny's family lived in Tacloban, a coastal city devastated by the typhoon. She and her brothers now live with their mother's aunt in Burauen, a farming town about 40 kilometers from Tacloban. Friends gave them the clothes they now wear.
"It doesn't matter if we lose everything, as long as we can have our parents here," said Shylyny, a high school student who dreams of becoming an accountant or a journalist. She accepts that her parents are dead; she only wishes to find their bodies, and the body of a brother who did not survive.
Shylyny said she climbed to the ceiling of the family's two-story home when the water suddenly rose. She and her brothers clutched wires and anything they could hold on to.
"The last time I looked, my mother was just beside me, but when I looked again she was gone," she sobbed.
Her 12-year-old brother, Richard Chris Negru, held on to their mother's hand, but she could not move because her legs were pinned under debris.
He said she told him to hold on to his younger brothers, to take care of his siblings and to be a good boy. Then she let go, and was swallowed by the rising water.
The children's father was able to carry the two younger boys to the ceiling, but he, too, disappeared in the water soon after. Richard Chris took the two boys and they managed to reach a neighbor's rooftop.
Shylyny tried to save her 10-year-old brother, Richard Lawrence Dacuno, who was mentally disabled. She held him but struggled as the water rose, and when she was hit by debris she lost her grip.
"I thought I would not survive because I really did not know how to swim and I was already feeling weak," she said.
She grabbed a neighbor by his shirt, and he helped her reach higher ground. She found her other brothers in the neighbor's rooftop.
Richard Lawrence's body was found in the stairs of a neighbor's house later that day. Rescuers placed his body by the roadside with other corpses. The siblings' grandfather Ricardo Negru Jr. left him there overnight to look for Shylyny's cousin. When he returned, the body had been collected. More than two weeks later, the family is still searching.
The grandfather said the boy was likely buried in one of the city's mass graves, but he did know where.
Negru, a frail 70-year-old, now lives in a church that has been turned into a shelter and spends his days trying to find Richard Lawrence's body, along with those of his son-in-law and his daughter, his only child.
With tears welling in his eyes, he said he only wants to give them a decent burial beside his wife's grave.
Negru's sister Rosie Aguila has taken in his orphaned grandchildren. A retired teacher with two grown children, she said she was close to their mother and will raise them as her own.
The children carry grim memories. Richard Chris, the 12-year-old, vividly recalls seeing the body of his younger brother in the neighbor's staircase. "He had blood in his eyes," he said.
When asked how he's doing, he simply mumbles, "I'm OK."