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Philippines: Nurmina's long journey to visit her husband in prison

13-02-2004 Feature

The ICRC has visited security detainees in the Philippines since the 1980s and has helped their families get to see them – not an easy task, given the size of the country. In 2003 alone 182 such visits were organized. Roland Sidler reports on an emotional journey.


Eric during an ICRC visit
Ref. PH-E-00001 


Eric is suspected of belonging to an extremist group from the south of the country and has been held since July 2002 in a prison near the capital, Manila. He is confined with 130 other security detainees on the ground floor of a three-story building. Above them, some 400 ordinary prisoners share around 50 cells.

Until recently, Eric had received letters from his wife and children but had not seen them since his incarceration. Some days before his first family visit was due to take place, he told the ICRC: “Seeing them again still seems like a dream to me. I hardly dare believe it will actually happen. It’s as if my imagination were playing tricks on me.”

Meanwhile, a thirty-hour boat trip away from Manila, Eric’s wife Nurmina, their two children Abdurakman and Alamina and his sister-in-law Ester were preparing for a long journey. First they had to catch the ferry from the island of Basilan to Zamboanga, one of the main towns in Mindanao.

 Local Red Cross volunteers make the contacts  

For security reasons expatriate ICRC personnel can't go t o the area where Eric’s family live. Volunteers from the local Red Cross branch had made the necessary contacts and informed the family of the preparations for their visit to the prison.


Nurmina and the children
Ref. PH-E-00002 

After a two-hour ferry crossing, the two women and children arrived in Zamboanga where they were taken care of by the Muslim community. ICRC delegates met Eric’s family in an area of town they rarely visited, again for security reasons.

Although Nurmina and Ester were very reserved in conversation, others were more talkative. For instance Aïma, who had been on the last trip, invited the delegates into her tidy, sparsely furnished little house. Surrounded by her five children, she described the difficulties involved in trying to make ends meet while her husband was absent. Tears came to her eyes when she mentioned her visit to him some weeks earlier.

Nurmina, meanwhile, was preparing for her first visit. After collecting the boat tickets and financial assistance from the Red Cross office in Zamboanga, she bought some provisions and small presents for her husband. The boat for Manila was due to leave at 11 o'clock on Thursday evening, just a few hours away.

 As if guided by an invisible hand  

At 9 a.m. on Saturday, Eric’s family was standing at the prison gate, together with 20 or so other relatives of detainees. The prison staff, strict but courteous, completed identity checks and searched the bags of provisions, after which the families finally entered the place they had pictured in their minds a thousand times with a mixture of excitement and dread.

As if guided by an invisible hand, Nurmina and her family headed without a moment’s hesitation for Eric’s cell. Even before the guard opened the cell door, Eric stretched his arms and hands out through the bars to touch his children.

The first minutes of this long-awaited meeting were very emotional. All present – guards, cellmates, ICRC delegates – looked away, partly to give the family some privacy, but above all to hide their own feelings.

Later Eric said: “I can still hardly believe this is happening, but now I know what the Red Cross can do.” Just a few words, but they made all the hard work done in organizing the visit worthwhile.

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