Wives wait in limbo for fishermen of sunken vessel to come home

OCCIDENTAL MINDORO, Philippines – They know that their husbands are alive, but they speak as if they have lost a loved one.

Under the heat of the sun at the new port of San Jose town here, the wives of the crewmen of Fishing Boat Gem-Ver wait. Some have been camping out in the area under a palm tree for days. Some have only been sweltering for hours after coming from their island barangay.

On June 9, the Gem-Ver sank after it was rammed from the rear by a Chinese vessel while anchored near the Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea. The errant vessel sped away, leaving behind the distressed 22 crewmen of the sinking fishing boat. The Filipinos were rescued later by a passing Vietnamese fishing boat.

Now the men are just a sail away, heading home onboard  the Philippine Navy’s BRP Alcaraz. Despite the comfort of knowing their husbands are safe, the wives are far from celebratory. Information about when the men would return has so far only come in trickles. But what they know for sure is that they are alive.

The women tell similar stories: Their husbands are safe, but how about the future of their livelihoods.

Wala po kaming pwedeng mapagkunan ng trabaho. Doon lang po kami umaasa. Kaya malaking kawalan po sa amin yung bangka na ‘yun,” said Jacqueline Torres, one of the wives in waiting.

(We have no other livelihood.  We only rely on the boat. That’s why losing the boat is a big blow to us.)

Ilang araw na itong pangangawil nila, akala ko po uuwi na sila. ‘Yun pala yun na ang nabalitaan po namin yun nga daw po nalubog po ang bangka nila. (They spend time at the sea for days, I thought they would come home. Instead, we heard that their boat had sunk),” said 21-year-old Isidora Roldan, whose husband was also part of the crew.

Swimming in debt

Once their husbands come home, the women’s first worry are their financial debts. Most of them have only been surviving by advancing salaries from their bosses, or what is known as bale.

They ask for salary advances of around P3,000 to P3,500 every month and then repay these with their husbands’ work as fishermen. While the husbands are at sea, the women take care of their children at home.

The fishermen of Gem-Ver go out at sea and stay there least 15 days at a time. When they return, they earn by selling their catch to their bosses and to markets. Sometimes they bring the fish home to their families.

“‘Pag umuuwi po sa amin kasi, two weeks nasa laot, 3 days sir babalik na sila, may trabaho na naman sila. Sa isang buwan 6 days lang sila makikita,” said Cecille Gregorio.

(When they return home, they had just spent 2 weeks at sea. Then after 3 days, they leave, they have work again. In one month, we only see them for 6 days.)

Their last trip was on May 29. After12 days at sea, the Chinese vessel rammed the Gem-Ver, aborting their expedition early, and losing all their catch. For the women and their families, this also meant losing all their finances for next month.

Hindi nga namin alam sa ngayon kung ano [ang gagawin] namin dahil ang hanapbuhay ng asawa namin kaskasan, sa laot talaga sila,” said Lenelyn Gregorio.

(We really don’t know what we will do next. Because our husbands only work in boats, the sea is their livelihood.)

Some of the women know how to work with land, farming corn and rice. But for most of the men of Gem-Ver all they know is working  at sea.

Calling for help, justice

While the local government of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro has promised continued livelihood for the fishermen, the wives said that it won’t be that easy.

Mahirap po maghanap ng ibang bangka na mapupuntahan,” said Cecille Gregorio.

Like Gem-Ver, other fishermen work with families with bigger boats to help them go further into the sea. Once they are at the fishing waters, they pull out their kayak-sized small boats then fish with their hooks. And not all boats easily open up slots for more fishermen.

Dapat matulungan kami ng presidente sa nangyari, dapat bigyan din ng hustisya sa nangyari sa kanila, baka maulit pa yung nangyari sa kanila (The President should help us after what had happened. There should be justice),” said Lenelyn Gregorio.

For Jacqueline Torres, help alone wouldn’t be enough anymore. She called on the President to confront China about the incident. So far, Malacañang has promised action, but the President himself has not mentioned the incident in his last 3 speeches.

Sana po unang-una 'wag po kayong basta-bastang magpapadala sa anumang sasabihin ng China sa inyo. Timbangin niyo po kung ano ang katotohanan, panigan niyo po 'yung tama dahil kami pong mahihirap ang nagiging kawawa,” Torres said. 

(You should not just believe what China tells you. Find out what the truth is. Side with what is right because we, the poor, are the losers here.) 

She then addressed the crewmen of the Chinese vessel that rammed into Gem-Ver to spare FIlipino fishermen in their dispute.

Maawa po kayo sa amin. kami po ay nagtatrabaho nang marangal, kaya po sana po respetuhin niyo po kami. Kapatas niyo rin po kami, tao rin po kami, kailangan din po naming mabuhay,” said Torres said.

(Have pity on us. We are working honorably, so I hope that you respect us. We are also your equal, we are also human, we also need to live.) – Rappler.com

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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