Philippines: relief for 2,800 families displaced by fighting
Armed clashes that erupted at the end of June between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and paramilitary forces have displaced close to 6,000 families in central Mindanao. The ICRC and the Philippine National Red Cross quickly organized an assistance operation – interview.
ICRC delegates Nadja Buser and Christophe Gillioz, and the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) Cotabato administrator Nenita Briones, talk about the conditions confronting the displaced civilians (IDPs) and what they were able to do to help.
What areas did you visit? How many families received assistance?
Gillioz/ICRC: We initially went to the temporary evacuation areas along the provincial highway between Cotabato City and Shariff Aguak town, and between two other towns. When the fighting stopped, we were able to go inside Shariff Aguak, Datu Unsay and Mamasapano.
Buser/ICRC: As of 12 July, almost 2,800 families received sets of assistance items from ICRC. We have also started reaching the displaced civilians, or " evacuees " , staying along the roads.
Were the evacuees satisfied with your help?
Briones/PNRC: The expectations of evacuees, when they are waiting for assistance, can be compared to hoping for light at the end of a tunnel... Of course, the government is on top of the response, but considering the number of IDPs with limited resources, not all the basic needs are met. Since the conflict in Mindanao started in the 1970s, people have always welcomed Red Cross assistance, because of the variety of food items that we give – it's nutritionally complete.
How were the relief operations carried out?
Gillioz/ICRC: The usual pattern is that the PNRC goes to the evacuation site first, evaluates the situation and distributes tickets (for the assistance sets) to the families. After that, usually a day later, the ICRC and the PNRC go back to the area to distribute goods identified as priority.
We have PNRC volunteers on standby at the chapter office to pack the goods. From the field, we contact the chapter to confirm the quantity of goods required for the families. We can be very quick in responding. The IDPs are mobile so if, for some reason, families are not in the area when we distribute, the team will return. I cannot say that we have a 100 percent success rate, but we try to get close to it.
What is the situation like in the evacuation sites?
Gillioz/ICRC: You have to realize that there are at least 57 different sites! In some areas, the evacuees have gone to pre-determined centres like schools and public buildings, where the infrastructure is usually good. But some stay in makeshift camps, under coconut trees, and so our assistance is very much needed. In some cases, we provide tarpaulins as emergency shelters.
Buser/ICRC: People are moving backwards and forwards. At night, they stay in the evacuation centres or with their resident relatives, who are in a safe place, and then in the morning, they go back to their fields.
Does ICRC have any longer-term plans for the displaced, considering that villagers flee their homes every time there are clashes?
Buser/ICRC: I just attended a coordination meeting with other agencies and we discussed plans relating to water and sanitation... There are two agencies active in water and sanitation issues, ourselves and Oxfam, and so we are coordinating with them.
Gillioz/ICRC: We are thinking of starting one or two small water and habitat projects in evacuation sites in this area. The projects won't help next week but if there are future displacements, the conditions will be better.
The tension in the region is very high. How can the Red Cross ensure that all sides trust it? Have there been any particular security issues?
Gillioz/ICRC: Our access to victims of conflict and displaced persons and our own security is of course linked to the relationships and contacts we maintain with the communities themselves, but also with the armed forces, the members of the International Monitoring team and other armed groups, such as the MILF. We make a point of discussing the importance of neutral and independent humanitarian action.
Briones/PNRC: So far, we have observed that the PNRC relief teams are accepted by all sides. The teams have not encountered any problems or harassment from either side, but we are always cautious of our actions and ensure that we act according to our mandate and fundamental principles, in particular independence and neutrality.
The awareness campaign through the dissemination of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles, and the constant presence of the Red Cross, has gained respect from the warring parties. Still, to ensure their safety, the staff and volunteers always wear marked clothing and use Red Cross vehicles for proper identification.
When the team was in Libutan, the Red Cross was approached by an armed fighter who inquired whether any of us came from Shariff Aguak. We concluded that there are real fears among the IDPs about the presence of people from neighbouring villages.
The armed groups have now concluded a truce; why aren't the evacuees going home?
Gillioz/ICRC: This is always the thing when there's a truce: the civilians are not really convinced it will last and so they're afraid to go back. They will usually wait for a couple of days to see if the truce holds before they go back. Remember that for some of the evacuees, this is not the first time they have had to evacuate and so after a while they get suspicious.
What will you do next?
Buser/ICRC: We're going into the interior areas to check on villages that were abandoned and to check on the humanitarian consequences of the burned houses we heard about. In some places around 30 per cent of the houses were burned. We will find out exactly what has happened and how we can best assist the people.
Are there any specific lessons you have learned from this operation?
Gillioz/ICRC: Coordination with the different actors remains important, especially with the local authorities who are also assisting the evacuees. Before the mission, we held coordination meetings with local NGOs, international bodies and the government's Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). We wanted to avoid duplication of work and so we divided the areas to be served by the Red Cross and the DSWD.
The ICRC and PNRC will fine-tune the humanitarian response to what has happened and to future displacements.
Briones/PNRC: This is not our first joint operation – we have had bigger relief operations with the ICRC over the past three decades – but it is always a challenge and a new learning experience for the staff and volunteers. We take this as an opportunity to improve and enhance our capacity to help people under duress.
At the end of the operation we have to debrief amongst ourselves; it contributes to operational improvements and it allows us to unload the personal stress...