Philippines: the journey Carina will always remember
In the far-flung Philippine archipelago, the ICRC is helping the families of security detainees visit their loved ones. The ICRC's Iolanda Jaquemet recently accompanied 9-year-old Carina and her mother on their journey to a penal colony close to Manila. For these members of an indigenous tribe, a half-day trip to the capital is an odyssey.
The poor hamlet where the family lives lies scarcely 15 km from the ocean. Carina will turn ten just before Christmas, but this is the first time she has seen it, let alone boarded a huge boat like the " Maria Zenaida " . Her mother, Felicia Salcedo, has a child-like face herself but believes she is “over 30”. She has left their island of Mindoro only once before, a long time ago.
" That's when my first-born son was very sick and we took him to hospital on the other side of the sea , " she said. The child eventually died. To these members of the Mangyan tribe, going to the other side of the big water is akin to leaving for the end of the world.
A little later, Carina has forgotten her fears. Fascinated, her bright eyes follow the waves the " Maria Zenaida " leaves in her wake. Sitting shyly at the end of a bench, her mother is lost in her own thoughts.
The day before, Felicia had told her story to Nimfa Vidar and Bayani Santos, the ICRC field officers who had come to facilitate her trip. Her husband was arrested in 1999 on security grounds, when Carina was barely a year old, " although he had done nothing wrong, " she insists adamantly. Since then, life has been a constant fight to eke out a living for her and her daughter. She has a few coconut trees and a tiny rice field, which she cultivates with the help of her mother. In 2005, they were displaced to another village, following an “encounter” between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the New People’s Army (NPA). They lost livestock and their new house “is not finished yet”.
Init ially, her Alberto was detained on Mindoro and the family could visit him. But in 2004 he was transferred to a suburb of the capital Manila, on the nearby island of Luzon. " I had no money for the trip, " says Felicia. She would receive a letter every now and then, which her sister would read to her because Felicia can neither read nor write, “and at least I knew he was doing well.”
Before Bayani and Nimfa left with a promise to pick her up early next morning, Felicia had one last anxious question: “Will my husband be able to be with Carina, talk to her, touch her?” She appeared relieved to hear that prisoners and visitors could mingle freely.
“The family visits programme dates back to the second half of the 1980s,” says Jean-Daniel Tauxe. Today, he heads the ICRC delegation in the Philippines, but as a young delegate he presided over the birth of the programme. “Some parts of the country are over 1,000 km apart, and many families cannot a fford the trip. We had noticed that estrangement from loved ones was creating serious psychological problems in detainees. We modelled the visits on an existing South African programme, and they have solved many of these problems.” Indeed, the Philippines family visits programme is just one of many that the ICRC runs in countries around the world.
“We pay for the boat trip, food and overnight accommodation at very basic rates,” explains Nimfa. “These are small amounts, but they make all the difference.” There are over 600 security detainees in the Philippines, of whom 406 are currently enrolled in the family visits programme. For each detainee, the ICRC will cover the expenses of four family members visiting every year. “The whole thing demands a lot of logistics, so the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) usually handles it,” adds Tauxe.
Felicia did not have the ID required to enter the jail, so the PNRC’s Western Mindoro branch provided her with an insurance card bearing her picture. This is sufficient to let her through, together with Carina who is more intimidated than ever and does not say a word. Felicia’s brother Steve waits outside.
An hour later, mother and daughter emerge, Carina carrying a Mickey Mouse bag with items for school, a present from “inside”. Felicia has red eyes. Bayani is deeply moved. “Felicia had to point Alberto out to Carina. She didn’t recognize him because it had been so long since she’d last seen him, but then she wouldn’t let go of his hand. And the other inmates were so happy, because they had all had regular visits but no one had come to see Alberto before.”
The family will stay three more days. Felicia and Carina will take advantage of the weekend “conjugal visits” to spend a night with Alberto in his cell. In the meantime, ICRC staff have found them cheap accommodation with a prison employee. Before leaving, they carefully explain to Steve how to get back to the ferry. Even so, they are a little worried. “I’ll make sure the PNRC in Mindoro calls on them Monday morning to check they are back safely,” says Bayani.
The names of the family have been changed to protect their identities.