MANILA, Philippines – Okura Samporna Pacalundo-Maute bears the surname of two brothers who, inspired by the extremist Islamic State, led the attack on Marawi City on May 23, 2017. The 5-month siege set off a humanitarian crisis that displaced nearly half a million residents whose hometown now faces a long road to rehabilitation.
But in Barangay Pacalundo in the town of Balo-i, Lanao del Norte, 32-year-old Okura Samporna is the captain. She is also a mother of 10 children. Her late husband was the barangay chairman who was gunned down allegedly by political rivals more than a year ago. She agreed to take the place of her husband after village leaders led by the sultans asked her to lead.
The village chief’s constituents and work colleagues call her Captain Maute, but when they sensed that she opted to use her maiden name Pacalundo, from her great grandfather whose family were the first settlers in the village, they called her Cap. But she doesn’t mind if visitors address her formally as Captain Maute.
“It’s just a name,” Cap said an interview in August when this writer got to visit her village along with an international humanitarian organization. “Dahil tradisyon, tayong mga babae ang mga pangalan natin galing sa mga lalaki – sa tatay o asawa. Pero puwede namang hindi, puwede tayong mamili (Because of tradition, we women take the names of the men in our lives – our father or husband. But we can choose not to),” she said.
She said some names are associated with atrocities committed to mankind, but time eventually distinguishes persons with the same infamous names who did good to humanity. “My husband was a good man and public servant. I honor his name. But I will also strive to be a good human being, with or without that name attached to mine.”
Indeed, it might have taken two Mautes to destroy a city, but it would take another Maute to bring it back to life.
Model host to IDPs
From the start of the relief efforts, Barangay Pacalundo has the most frequent visitors among areas that accepted internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Marawi City because it is well-organized and coordinated, according to humanitarian aid, government, and private organizations. Cap has also become a household name to them.
There are 260,000 home-based IDPs, of which Pacalundo is only one of the host barangays, and 21,000 who are in 75 evacuation sites. They are part of the 360,000 IDPs recorded by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
In the first two months of the siege where IDPs evacuated to Iligan City and Lanao del Sur and del Norte, Cap accommodated more than 600 families. In September, 20 families from neighboring West Poblacion sought refuge as they couldn’t bear the tough conditions from sharing tents with other families and scarce water. As there were a few homes left to accommodate IDPs, she asked that tent dwellings be built on the vacant lot adjacent to the barangay hall, which her family owns.
Cap also administers to more than 2,000 constituents, the population of Pacalundo, but as their numbers are now lesser than the evacuees, she asked them to instead help the dislocated Maranaos. “We are sisters and brothers, so who else do we turn to in times like this?” By October, 105 more families asked to be transferred. More people are asking if there is still space in her community, and Cap continues to look for space even to neighboring villages. More tents were built in the vacant lots by the first week of October.
Evacuees in Pacalundo now tend to a fruit and vegetable garden. The area has ample water supply from pumps and deep wells. There is also basketball court beside the barangay hall and health center.
On October 17, when President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City liberated from local terrorists, Cap said many of the IDPs rejoiced, but immediately wept as they have no houses and livelihoods anymore to go back to. There were also no more schools for their children as these too were damaged.
“Nag-iyakan sila. Naiyak din ako (They wept; I cried too),” she said, noting that most of the evacuees in her village are from Marawi’s ground zero, consisting of at least 6 barangays that were hardest hit mostly by bombings. “These are the people who don’t have houses, schools, markets and businesses to go back to,” she said.
Test of leadership
When some barangay heads of Marawi City started visiting her village to look for their co-residents, she shared the residents’ anger at the apparent betrayal by their leaders. “I told the barangay captains, bakit ngayon lang kayo maghahanap ng constituents ninyo? Nasaan kayo noong nagkagulo (why are you only looking for your constituents now? Where were you when there was chaos)?”
She faulted some local leaders from Marawi who did not bother to help in the relief efforts. She claimed that some of them stayed in hotels in Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro City. “They’re comfortable but their displaced volunteers can’t even take a rest with work around the evacuation sites, even doing Sunday missions,” she said.
“Kung leader ka, kayanin mo (If you’re a leader, take it on),” she said. “You seek them out, ask them how they’re doing and do anything you can to at least make them feel better,” she said. She shared her own arduous learning curve in governance and leadership. One of her early lessons is to be transparent and to listen to people at all times. “This way, you prevent corruption and dishonesty.”
Mohammad Shiek Pandapatan, one of the young male volunteers, praised Cap’s graciousness and courage. “She is a very strong woman despite what happened to her husband last year. She is 32 with many kids and family problems but she does not forget her responsibility to her community.”
In a most recent phone interview, Cap said she is thankful for a cooperative group of volunteers who also tend to their own children and families. “Sabay-sabay kaming nilalagnat pero trabaho pa rin (We continue working even if were down with a fever at the same time),” she said.
One of the village’s transformers exploded, causing a power outage which she thought might have been due to the increase in the consumers of electricity. She asked neighboring barangays for help, and even the military stationed nearby.
Such difficulties are on top of to the still problematic food and relief distribution and the plight of evacuees who have to endure prolonged displacement. There is also the challenge of helping evacuees, who fled Marawi City empty-handed, earn money through jobs, however odd, to relieve them of poverty.
As Barangay Pacalundo now has tent dwellers, Cap said she has to provide better living conditions such as proper gender segregation in bathrooms and toilets to prevent harassment of women and girls.
By mid-October, a few families have been listed as eligible to go back to parts of Marawi City that were not totally damaged. Cap hopes that the gradual return will ease things out a bit.
Volunteer Pandapatan said a woman like Captain Maute who is on the frontline of humanitarian aid provides the critical need for the massive rehabilitation efforts that are about to begin, as well as the unique needs of women, children and the elderly.
“Men like me can learn a lot from Cap’s being a woman leader,” he said. “We see her brave the challenges and we try to keep up,” he said. “It helps that she’s also down to earth.”
In the phone conversation, Cap invited this writer to visit again. “When are you coming back to Pacalundo?” she asked. “The durian fruits are ripening.” She also offered to ship palapa, a Maranao food condiment and appetizer. “How do I send you palapa through LBC?” – Rappler.com
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