In front of the mansion that Imelda Marcos built to store the glittering keepsakes of her life, workmen were slowly clearing the debris and sweeping away mounds of mud.
The flamboyant former first lady built the salmon-coloured Santo Nino shrine and museum in the town in which she had grown up, to house the gifts and souvenirs accumulated during the two-decade rule of her late husband, Ferdinand Marcos.
Now, it stands locked and forlorn, badly damaged when Typhoon Haiyan tore through the eastern Philippines 10 days ago.
Reports suggest the 84-year-old – who was hospitalised earlier this month for exhaustion and diabetes – has not been told about the damage out of a concern that the news would further upset her.
The legacy of Mrs Marcos and her husband remains deeply controversial in the Philippines. Following a two-decade dictatorial rule that was marked by human rights abuses and corruption, a popular uprising forced the couple into exile in Hawaii in 1986, where the former president died three years later.
It was after they were forced out that Mrs Marcos’s infamous additions to the excesses of high fashion, and in particularly to footwear, became clear – with almost 3,000 pairs of shoes. In 1990, she was cleared by a New York court, along with Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi, of racketeering.
Remarkably, the following year she and her children returned to the Philippines, determined to re-enter to public life. In 1995 she was elected to the country’s parliament for the constituency of Leyte, of which Tacloban is the capital. She is currently a second-term parliamentarian from the area where her husband was born.
Despite her reputation, Mrs Marcos – who won a beauty contest at 18 and was crowned Rose of Tacloban – and her family remain a local power force. Her nephew, Alfred Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban, is struggling to deal with the aftermath of the storm that destroyed his aunt’s museum.
Meanwhile, her son Ferdinand Marcos Jr is halfway through a six-year term as a member of the upper house of the parliament and is being groomed to run for the presidency in 2016, while a daughter was elected three years ago to be governor of Ilocos Norte. Another nephew is also a parliamentarian.
Annabelle Arpon, who works as a tour guide at Marcos museum, was sitting on a plastic chair, the building having been locked following the storm. She estimated there were between 50 and 400 visitors a day.
“Maybe 80 per cent of the visitors love the Marcoses,” she said “Twenty per cent say they don’t like the building. Twenty per cent say it makes them feel like vomiting.”
Mrs Arpon, who has worked at the museum since 1989, said the building contained 21 rooms, containing gifts and souvenirs from around the world. Ming dynasty vases stood in one room, while in another was a brass-bed from Britain and from the roof of a third hung a chandelier from the Czech Republic.
One room was decorated with satin butterflies – Mrs Marcos’s nickname is ‘the steel butterfly’ – while in another part stood a statue of the Chinese pirate Limahong, a gift from Mao Zedong. At the back of the property was a huge swimming pool.
One thing the museum does not contain is shoes; Mrs Marcos’s jaw-dropping collection was moved to another museum on the outskirts of Manila, where people line up to pay to cast eyes on her footwear.
Ms Arpon refused to permit an unofficial visit of the museum and its chapel in Tacloban but she did produce a brochure with colourful photographs of the rooms and their high-end contents. She said the storm had damaged two jars and some pews in the church, while part of the roof had been wrecked.
“She brought the collections from different countries for those people who could not afford to go abroad and see things,” said Mrs Arpon.
Next to the museum was a public library, also built during the Marcos years. It is now being occupied by 84 families whose homes have been destroyed. The storm survivors had little to say about staying in a building set-up by the Marcoses; they were more concerned with getting food and water.
“They need food, water, medicine, clothes and bedding,” said Cecilia Louise Camino, a member of the local disaster response team.
It remains unclear just how serious Mrs Marcos’s illness is. One report quoted an anonymous niece who revealed the fact that family had shielded her from news about the damage to the museum and library. Her chief of staff could not be contacted yesterday.
However, according to the Rappler website, Mrs Marcos’s daughter’s office issued a statement saying that the former first lady was not only aware of the damage to the region but had been “dying” to visit.
Prevented from doing so by her family and doctors, it said the former first lady had issued a statement to the people of Tacloban: “Do not lose hope. We...will rise above this.”
Doctor’s diary: Richard Villar in Cebu
Last night as I drifted to sleep, I was confident that tomorrow, now today, would bring with it a great new adventure. All suddenly changed. The aim had been for our 12-strong team to head out on the Royal Navy’s HMS Daring to provide aid to the remoter islands that lie along the typhoon’s track.
Our leader then explains that four hours earlier he received a request from an Australian team in Tacloban. They are inundated with casualties, so can the Brits provide some surgical support?
“What are the injuries?” I ask. The team leader hands me his mobile where I read a list of mega-horrors: a young child with a depressed fracture of its skull, a patient with an incarcerated hernia, plenty of patients with gangrene, and numerous amputations awaiting further surgery. I wonder if there is anything to match the patient seen yesterday north of Cebu City. A nail had penetrated the victim’s eye as his house had come crashing down around him.
The end result is that the team has to split. Six will go with the Royal Navy and six will head to Tacloban.
All day, and in my dreams last night, my mind plays havoc as it sees flash images of little children in distress. Can we help them? I hope so. Do I know that for sure? Sadly not.Reuse content