Philippines: Detainee reconnects with family through Red Cross messages, finds forgiveness and hope

Philippines: Detainee reconnects with family through Red Cross messages, finds forgiveness and hope

On a warm February morning, Riva* busies herself cleaning the yard at Rodriguez Municipal Jail, where she has been detained for almost two years. The 43-year-old mother of four has been patiently waiting for the day that she will be free and can be reunited with her family. But it will be a while before that happens. For now, she's keeping herself occupied with chores so that the days and nights pass quickly.
Article 04 March 2024 Philippines

Riva had been living a quiet life in a city north of Bacolod when her friends told her that they were planning to move to Manila to work as housekeepers. Looking for a better life, Riva decided to join her friends and left her four children in her mother's care. Her parents were unable to stop her. That was more than 14 years ago.

Instead of Manila, however, Riva and her friends ended up in Baguio. They were scammed and forced to work in a bar. "I just went with it because I had nowhere to go," she says. She contacted her mother to inform that she was in Baguio but decided to cut off all communication after that.

Riva has been detained in Rodriguez Municipal Jail for almost two years. Photo: L. Arada/ICRC.

In Baguio, one of Riva's clients promised to give her a better life. For a while, he did. He helped her establish her own business and even gave her a place to stay. But when Riva fell in love with another man her previous boyfriend got furious. "He threatened to kill us. We had to run away," she says.

Then on, Riva faced many other problems, including being accused of a crime and being detained. She began to miss her children and her parents, especially on the days when she was unwell.

In 2023, after meeting a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Riva finally decided to reach out to her mother. The staff visited the jail and told her about Red Cross messages, through which detainees who have lost contact with their loved ones can reconnect by sending letters containing family news. She was told that the Red Cross – through its wide network – helps find their families and reestablish contact.

"The ICRC staff came to our dormitory sometime before my birthday in December and said they would deliver our Red Cross messages no matter how far our family lived," she says. Though Riva was worried that her parents might reject her, she wrote a message and shared the location of her old house.

Finding her mother

The ICRC team in Manila sent Riva's message to Von Ryan Gustilo, ICRC staff member based in Negros. Gustilo says looking for Riva's family was relatively easy as people in her neighbourhood were extremely helpful. Finding Riva's mother Alona* in a narrow alleyway near her house as she was getting ready to go to work, Gustilo explained the reason for his visit.

"Alona couldn't believe that Riva had written her a letter after years of not reaching out. She started crying and couldn't even read the letter, so I read it out for her," says Gustilo.

Riva speaking with Victa Garde (left), a detention officer from the ICRC. Photo: L. Arada/ICRC.

Alona went on to exclaim: "I knew it! I had a feeling that Riva was in jail when she didn't communicate with us!" Alona also wrote a Red Cross message for Riva and promised to call her daughter at the Rodriguez Municipal Jail.


In January, Alona was finally able to call her daughter. "Around 5 January 2024, I got a phone call and I heard the caller say, 'It's mama'. I wept with joy knowing that my message had reached her and that she wasn't angry with me," says Riva.

The Red Cross message that Alona sent to her daughter Riva. Photo: L. Arada/ICRC

Riva was told that she had been forgiven and all that mattered to her family was that she was alive. She got to know that she has a grandchild too. "Whatever you've done, we don't hold it against you. What's important is that you come home to your children when you are freed, because your children need you and we need you," Alona told Riva on the phone.

Since then, mother and daughter have spoken several times on the phone. Though Alona has not been able to visit her daughter because of financial issues, their conversations have given Riva hope for the future. "I want to move back home when I am released and take care of my ageing mother. Life is hard in our hometown, but my mother has been working hard to provide for and take care of my children. I want to make it up to her," says Riva, adding, "My dream is to spend time with my entire family. I want us to eat together. I haven't experienced that for many years. I will look for work and I will find a way to provide for them."

*Names were changed to protect identities.