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Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Please don't turn away"

That was the appeal of Angelina Jolie as her public service advertisement on CNN began to unfold for the celebration of World Refugee Day today, June 20th. If it weren't for personal experience and had she not began with that line, I would have changed channels. After all, what do I have to do with those uprooted families is Pakistan or Iraq? What is it to us Filipinos if two million Pakistanis are displaced by the offensive of their armed forces versus the Taliban in the Swat Valley?
A child attempting to play or escape the noonday sun in the Batulawan evacuation center, Pikit, Cotabato.

We need not look far beyond our borders to know about internally displaced populations or IDP’s. The recent period of armed conflict in Mindanao and its aftermath (from August 2008 to May 2009) has resulted to the uprooting of 146,570 families or 703, 949 individuals from their homes and communities in 406 villages, 51 municipalities, 3 cities, and 11 provinces (Source: National Disaster Coordinating Council Situation Report 84, Those are 703,949 Filipinos whose lives are forever changed because of loss of communities to belong to; loss of land to till; loss of education opportunities; loss of dignity, peace, stability, comfort.

(Want to help already? Visit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees website and the Philippine National Red Cross website to see how you can be the change you want to see in the world around you.)

I got a glimpse of their lives first hand while undertaking a project with the Department of Health with regard to disasters this summer. We were in the town of Pikit, Cotabato, site of cyclical armed conflict that comes and goes roughly every two years. Our team arrived at the (hopefully) tale-end of this cycle; there were just about five military checkpoints between the town and the regional center of Cotabato City. A good sign.

We visited an evacuation center in the village of Batulawan where several hundred families have been staying since nine months prior to our visit. They pitched their homes on parcels of land that was being planned to be part of the town cemetery. Their shelters- supposedly temporary- were nothing more than erstwhile sacks of rice bound with wire, made sturdy by bamboo frames. They had to live their own villages and aggregate in this one because of the increased fighting between government forces and the other combatant forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. They are being “encouraged” to return to their village, this repatriation even made more enticing by new homes and seed money for starting anew. But sporadic fighting still punctuate the days and nights; it looked like they were staying put. There was no other choice.
A tricycle can hardly accommodate its passengers plus the more precious cargo of this month's ration for an evacuee family.

Before we left the local health office to visit Batulawan, trucks of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross was being swarmed by a huge crowd. Apparently, we were in town the same time the monthly ration for the evacuees were being given. Each family received one-half sack of rice was given by the WFP, another half sack was given by the ICRC; 6 liters of cooking oil, and; 24 pieces of canned goods. There was some semblance of order as the items were being handed out. Soon after, men and teen-age boys were hauling their supplies unto waiting tricycles. After the latter were loaded, they sped through the national highway back to the evacuation center where their families awaited their meager supplies for the month. These, plus what the local government can give, will be enough to tide them over to the next month. Hopefully.
The men of Batulawan unload their "harvest" for the day... for the month.

All in all, we didn’t stay for more than eight hours in that town. We went to other areas in Mindanao- a vast majority of which is peaceful, let me make that clear- but the plight of the IDP’s in and around those areas were uniformly dismal. Local government resources were stretched almost to the breaking point. Frontline workers were tired, energy sapped by the everyday toil of attending to the evacuees while they themselves are displaced by the senseless violence. And those displaced populations- some are rearing to go back to the fields, some have had their spirits so broken that they now relish in their plight as evacuees- what with all the free goodies they receive, among others.

We conducted focused group discussions and key informant interviews for our DOH project. At first, as our participants shared the hardships of an evacuee, I had to project an almost disconnected demeanor, else I would have broken down. There were prevailing feelings that they have been forgotten, as manifested by the supplies that were never enough, the salaries that were never sufficient, the appreciation that do not come. However, I am buoyed by the dedication of the frontline workers, the efforts they exert despite the unwillingness of their bodies to take another step, their ingenuity and resourcefulness in the face of lack and want and threats to their safety and security. Their uncanny ability to smile amidst the atrocities, I am certain, are a great source of comfort to those whom they serve.
Our project team with our local contacts and frontline service providers in Pikit.

It has been more than three months since we undertook this leg of the project but they are still with me- faces, stories, hopes and all. The project still has a long way to go. And with all the bureaucratic tangle and obstacle course it still has to go through, I am honestly worried about the magnitude of its impact, if it will help those displaced populations and the frontline workers in time.
"Homes" for relocated and repatriated families dot the highway between Cotabato City, through Maguindanao, and Sultan Kudarat.

I almost did not want to leave them there in Mindanao. Everything seems so petty and frivolous here. But I guess somebody has to tell their story, so that people in Imperial Manila will get to know the real score in a land that is just about 1,800 kilometers away and yet it could very well be in another planet…
The children of Batulawan.

World Refugee Day is a remembrance of those displaced by calamities and atrocities. It aims to re-focus the attention on those who were uprooted by armed conflict, natural disasters, and human-made catastrophes. Yet it is also a celebration of their resilient spirit, the generosity of those who care for them, and the need to support and nurture both. It is likewise a call for greater understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of our individual and collective difference. It is a timely reminder for all of us to be peacemakers and changemakers and be each other’s keepers.

Please don’t turn away. But if you really have to, look around instead and see how much opportunity we have to change the lives of the least, the last, and the lost. For all we know, we need not look too far away. We don't even have to be Angelina Jolie.

Please visit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees website and the Philippine National Red Cross website to know more about the plight of displaced populations and see how you can be of help to them. They are real people with real needs.

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