Mila and her mother last saw her younger brother Johnny when he was still detained in a Metro Cebu jail in 2006. Since then, the two women never heard from him again.
But after 10 years, Mila would board a plane for the first time and journey to a city she had never been to so that she could see her brother once more.
Following his transfer to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Metro Manila in 2011, Johnny thought he would never be able to see his family again. His family was poor and was only supported by relatives who lived in the same compound. Mila herself earned little from altering clothes. With limited finances and the fact that the family lived more than 800 kilometers away, Johnny believed that a visit from his family was close to impossible.
After a visit by an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team to the NBP in June 2016, Johnny learned that the humanitarian organization could help deliver handwritten messages between detainees and their families. At first, he was reluctant.
“I don’t think the Red Cross can find my family in Cebu. They live really far, and I’m not sure if they are still there. The address I have is not complete. I don’t even know if my mother is still alive,” Johnny told an ICRC colleague.
But after we shared with him stories of detainees who regained contact with their families through the ICRC, Johnny agreed and handed us his written message.
Johnny’s family lived in a mountainous village in central Cebu. Access was difficult due to the rough terrain and unpaved, narrow roads. As we stopped to ask local residents along the way how to find the remote barangay, most of them discouraged us from going further and told us that it was “too far.”
We passed by several barangays across mountains and two rivers, traveling a total of three hours by land from Cebu City, to finally locate Johnny’s home. Mila sat by her sewing machine outside the small hut. Inside the hut lay her ailing mother.
“We visited him regularly in Cebu, oftentimes with our niece Shirley,” Mila explained. “The jail was close to our home, so we visited every month. Mama always insisted.” But after Johnny was transferred to the NBP in Manila, it was impossible for the family to continue the visits.
“Mama was sick, and we didn’t have money to pay for the trip. We could not afford it,” she added. “
Mila shared that it was her mother that Johnny was closest to. “Since he didn’t marry, Johnny lived with Mama. I moved away after I married and had children.” Despite living far from each other, she described Johnny as a generous brother who often brought them harvest from the cornfield.
After Johnny was arrested in November 1994 in relation to the armed conflict in Talisay, Cebu, Mila was left to look after their mother.
Delivering the message
I then explained that we were there to deliver a message from Johnny. They were astonished that we found their humble home, and that there was an organization that took the time and effort to serve as “messengers” between those behind bars and their families outside.
“Nay, makabasa ba ka? (Mother, can you read?)” I asked her. I then explained that we were there to deliver a message from Johnny. She said she could not read, so I offered to read the letter to her. She happily agreed.
As I read Johnny’s Red Cross message, Mila and her mother could not help but shed tears of joy. I asked Mila if she wanted to write him back. She asked me to write down her message for Johnny since she didn’t know how to write.
Apart from delivering the Red Cross message, we also told her that we could facilitate her visit to Johnny upon our return to Manila and that we would contact her immediately once the request was approved. We explained the ICRC’s family visit program for people detained in relation to armed conflict, like Johnny. Through the program, Mila would be able to tell Johnny in person about family news over the last 10 years.
Unfortunately, a few weeks after they first received the letter from Johnny in August 2016, their ailing mother passed away. Worse, months before, Johnny’s brother had also died. “I don’t know how to tell him about these unfortunate events,” Mila said.
The ICRC managed to deliver Mila’s letter to Johnny at the NBP a month after their mother passed away. His sister’s letter moved Johnny to tears. He was also pleasantly surprised that he would be in contact with his family again.
An emotional visit
The day of the visit to the NBP was set for November 24, 2016. The trip had been long for Mila and her niece Shirley. “We woke up at 4 am for the airport. The flight was delayed and we waited four hours before boarding the plane,” Shirley explained. It was their first time to ride a plane and to see Manila. But despite their lack of sleep and their anxiety, they were visibly excited to see Johnny again.
At the NBP, Mila and Shirley waited in line for 4 hours before having their turn for the visit. The visitation area could accommodate visits for 50 inmates for only two hours.
As soon as Johnny walked into the room, they rushed toward him with big smiles. From afar, we noticed it was Shirley who immediately held Johnny’s hand, but he didn’t recognize her immediately. He looked at Mila, happy to see her but also curious who the young lady with her was. The last time Johnny saw Shirley was when she was still a young girl. Now she was a mother of two.
They chatted for two hours until the visiting period was over. It was a long conversation, and I imagine very emotional.
Every so often, I meet detainees like Johnny who long for news from home but, for one reason or another, can’t reach out. This heartwarming episode started with a single piece of paper, which was the beginning of an invaluable and lasting reunion for a family. – Rappler.com
Liwliwa Agbayani is from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). For decades, the ICRC has been visiting detention facilities in the Philippines to assess and monitor the treatment and living conditions of inmates, and to help alleviate overcrowding. Part of its detention work is to restore contact between vulnerable detainees and their families, be it through Red Cross messages or facilitated family visits.
All names have been changed to protect their identities.