Philippines: the trekking delegate from the Visayas
Ophélie Deyrolles does a normal ICRC job: she brings protection and assistance to civilians affected by armed conflict. She works in the Visayas, a string of islands tucked away in the heart of the Philippines. What makes Ophélie’s job different is that she has to hike to reach remote communities. The ICRC's Iolanda Jaquemet reports on one of her arduous journeys.
“Cancaiyas,” explains Ophélie, “is like many villages on the island of Samar. Isolated because there is no proper road, and lacking most basic services.” This morning, the delegate has an appointment with the barangay captain, as a head of village is called in the Philippines, to assess progress on an ICRC-supported water system.
28-year-old Ophélie has come a long way from her native Paris. This is her first mission for the ICRC, but she has already acquired humanitarian experience in Afghanistan, Chad and Côte d'Ivoire. She attributes her wanderlust to a childhood shaped by regular travel to Morocco where her family had lived for several decades.
The man she has come to meet today is Mario Ciata Jr., better known to the villagers as Junjun. At 30, Junjun is young to be a barangay captain. At one point during the discussion over freshly picked green coconuts – the only delicacy the impoverished village can offer its guests – he reluctantly alludes to the reason behind his promotion. “I am replacing a lady who was elected in October 2007 but was kidnapped. We believe she is dead, even though we have never seen her body.”
Life here contrasts sharply with the striking beauty of the lush hil ls and coconut groves. People struggle to survive. “We can scarcely sell our rice and coconuts, because we don’t have a proper road,” says Junjun. Electricity arrived two years ago, but the midwife comes only once a month, and children who want to study beyond primary school have to walk an hour each way.
There is also the violence. “For years, Samar has been the theatre of fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (NPA). Humanitarian and development agencies rarely venture inland,” explains Ophélie. The ICRC has identified Cancaiyas as one of the worst-affected villages. In 2007, the inhabitants had to briefly take refuge in a nearby town because of the conflict.
Violence breeds fear, and it is difficult for Junjun and the other villagers to talk about what they have seen. They are caught in the crossfire, and feel that silence guarantees safety.
" The project is technically simple, partly because it would be impossible to bring in heavy equipment on that mud road,” says Marco Albertini, ICRC water and habitat coordinator in the Philippines. “And also because we made the choice, from the start, to involve the whole community in the water project”.
Transport constraints mean that progress is slow. Materials like sand, gravel and cement for making concrete, stones and 600 m of pipes had to be brought in either by water buffalo or on men’s backs from Cogon. “A very big effort,” says Albertini. “I have seen men carrying up to 50 kilos on their heads. Moreover, the seasonal calendar of planting and harvesting dictates when the villagers have time to work on the water system”.
“Our work in these remote communities exposed to ar med violence meets real humanitarian needs,” explains Felipe Donoso, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines. “We solve some of their material problems. And we can monitor the effect of the fighting on civilians. "
Ophélie and her colleague on Negros meet families whose members have been harassed and threatened, gone missing, or been found dead. She assembles the facts and then raises the case with the parties to the conflict, under the usual conditions of confidentiality.
On the way back from Cancaiyas, tropical rain transforms the road into a string of slippery potholes. But Ophélie does not complain. She is already thinking of her next mission, further into Samar, where she will have to make a five-hour trip on a tiny boat before walking for another three hours. By Samar standards, Cancaiyas is perhaps not that isolated after all.