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Philippines: a wet Ramadan and a tent for shelter

10-09-2008 Feature

On the southern island of Mindanao, thousands of civilians fleeing clashes between the Philippine army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front live precariously. The ICRC’s Iolanda Jaquemet talks to some of the civilians and reports on what the organization is doing to support them.

  Cotabato Province, Pikit municipality. A displaced family huddles in a tent.    

  Cotabato Province. ICRC putting in place a water distribution point for displaced people.    

  Cotabato Province. Philippine Red Cross volunteers helping distribute relief goods to displaced people.    

The rain is pouring. It turns the dirt road into a muddy swamp. It soaks the palm leaves covered with a tiny blue plastic, under which the 45-year-old woman huddles with two teenage daughters and a five-year-old granddaughter. It leaks into their makeshift shelter and wets their feet. The woman won’t give her name, because she thinks “it is not safe”. " At night”, she says, “it gets so cold because of the rain.”

Libungan Torreta, a village two hours’ drive south of Cotabato City, in Central Mindanao, is littered with similar, flimsy tents. Some are home to up to four families. “During the night of 22 August, we received over 3,800 people. Ordinarily the village has 3,000 inhabitants,” explains councillor Ibrahim Raman. In the dead of the night, the fighting that had started 12 days earlier between the Philippine army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had reached their village.

The newcomers arrived from beyond the marshes, “on foot and by boat, with no more than the clothes we were wearing”, says Fairudz Abdul, a mother of four. “Because of the rain,” she adds, “some parents had to wrap their babies in plastic when they fled”.

 ICRC continues to lend a helping hand  

From the start, the ICRC, together with the Philippine National Red Cross, distributed food, hygiene kits, blankets and other essential household items to the displaced. They installed a huge water bladder, providing clean water to everyone. This emergency operation complements the efforts of Philippine government agencies and other international organizations.

Given its long-standing experience in conflict-stricken Mindanao, the organization was not caught unawares. “During the past three years, we set up water and sanitation facilities all over the island, in locations that we thought likely to receive displaced people. Indeed, those are the areas affected now,” recalls Perry Proellochs, ICRC delegate in Central Mindanao. “Thus people had access to our assistance even before we got there, and these facilities will be used in the weeks, months, and possibly years to come.” 

Libungan Torreta was another village that received the displaced with open arms, as it had done previously, during two recent flash floods. But the villagers also had to go on with their lives.

“Some of our guests live in the school but, because of their prolonged stay, we asked them to vacate the place during school time. I know it is raining, but what can we do?” says Mr Raman, the councillor. Lack of space means that displaced children cannot attend school.

“This is the worst fighting in Mindanao since 2003, with the worst consequences in humanitarian terms,” says Felipe Donoso, head of ICRC delegation in Manila. “We were used to displaced people returning to their homes after three or four days. Now, however, the situation is persisting. Moreover, their coping mechanisms have been weakened by repeated displacements due to the conflict and natural disasters.”

Dominik Stillhart, ICRC deputy director of operations, who has come to assess the situation, is deeply concerned. " One woman told me it was the fourth time she has had to flee her village this year. Never before have I seen people displaced this frequently. This sort of thing takes a heavy toll on those affected.

  Making the best of a difficult situation   

The displaced in Libungan Torreta do not seem ready to go back yet. “We are not sure when we are re turning. I am worried about my house, and my animals, but what can I do? It is not safe yet,” says an elegant elderly lady, as the people around her nod in agreement.

“This very morning,” adds Mr Raman, the councillor, “20 families who had returned home came back here, saying their village is still too unsafe. We can hear the mortar shelling from here.”

The elderly lady is incongruously elegant in a green turban and orange blouse and sarong. She cooks the “buka puasa”, the meal for breaking the fast at sunset during Ramadan, on a fire made of coconut shells. Because of the humidity, there is an acrid smoke which makes the eyes water.

It should be a festive month, but for the people of Libungan Torreta and tens of thousands of others displaced across Mindanao, " this is a sad Ramadan " , says Fairudz Abdul, gently cradling her one-year-old daughter.

Not for everyone, though. Racma Usman, the energetic midwife who has single-handedly vaccinated 411 displaced children against measles, has a cheerful tale to tell. Among the displaced, she noticed a heavily pregnant woman, and diagnosed pre-eclampsia, a dangerous condition of high blood pressure.

“I immediately reported the case to the ICRC, who evacuated her to the nearest hospital,” she says. Her diagnosis was accurate and timely, even more so since the first-time mother was pregnant with twins. “She is now recovering with two healthy baby daughters,” says Racma Usman happily.