Being human and humanitarian
An imam (mosque leader) wailing in prayer and the city mayor weeping during his turn to speak before an assembly of civil society organizations was my first long look at the crisis in Marawi City in early August.
I was asked by an international humanitarian organization to help in the media and advocacy tasks of its Marawi conflict response team deployed in Iligan City. As I had stints like this in the past, I said yes to a month-long work engagement. I thought the team was huge. It turned out there were only two women. I became the third one.
I stayed in a windowless room in a small hotel in a quiet neighborhood that becomes noisy with people conversing, banging doors or kids running around, not to mention a handful of other humanitarian responders from international organizations also staying in the hotel.
There was one night when a male guest taking a phone call started crying. The hotel is small so one can hear phone rings and conversations along the hallway. The man wailed the entire night. When I asked the receptionist the following day about what it was about, he said the male guest was a displaced Maranao whose relative who went missing after the siege was reported dead.
For the first two weeks, the cry and wail of Marawi became pervasive as I met evacuees during the conduct of a survey where I helped in asking them questions about where they lived in Marawi City, their property, livelihood, how they manage their cash, how they are doing in the evacuation camps and what they want.
Women and girls cried as they inadvertently recounted their suffering during the firefight and how they escaped. The men couldn't hide their tears as well even to strangers. The stories were overwhelming. I wondered if this is the cry of the whole of Mindanao or parts of it that have never seen peace.
It's been two decades since I was in Marawi City. I can't recall the news coverage back then, but female journalists were required to cover their heads. I remember the beauty and laidback life of the city, its cool weather and the distinct physical features of the Maranaos.
Now many years later, as I traveled to evacuation camps in Lanao del Sur and del Norte, I saw a different Marawi. I transformed my shawl into a veil, first out of respect and second, so that I can blend with the women in all types of Muslim garb including the ones they playfully call "ninjas" or those wearing all-black abaya (cloak worn over clothing to cover the entire body), hijab (head scarf) and niqab (a face veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered).
It was their first time to experience a crisis this big and to be dislocated from their homes, so the evacuees asked me questions that I didn't have answers to: until when are they staying temporarily in tents and in host families; when are they going home?
My headscarf didn't do much as I spoke in Tagalog and English. I asked help from the Maranao-speaking humanitarian workers to give a semblance of an explanation to the situation.
This is what struck me the most – the humanitarian workers. There are two kinds – the ones who travel to the conflict area, usually from Manila-based international organizations or based in Mindanao who are deployed to any conflict area facing a crisis, and those from local and community organizations who know the terrain, language, history, culture and politics of the area.
The organizations run the gamut of development, advocacy, humanitarian aid, peace, gender, youth, health, environment and human rights themes. For weeks, our lives were intertwined in evacuation site visits, meetings, psychosocial sessions, passing through checkpoints in and out of Iligan City and eating any available food with the evacuees or on the roadside.
My work included anything that has to be done for the day, including starting a security briefing for legal investigators because the training officer who was supposedly 45 minutes away by plane was delayed. My teammates attended to multiple meetings and did sitreps (situation reports) containing detailed information about what really was going on. When I read the sitreps, I realized that media reports are only barely scratching the underneath of the surface.
Stress, an occupational hazard, stays in the cycle of work. Our team leader panic eats at the end of the day then returns to what she's working on back in the hotel. The other teammate goes out with new friends and plays her ukulele or participates in an open mic bar, but heads back to the hotel to beat the martial law curfew.
I have been terrified, not by guns or bombs, but by the sheer reality of people's lives that are convoluted and unbearable. I've been into this act before both in journalism and in short-term jobs documenting experiences of people for international development organizations. The only difference is that I didn’t bring large amounts of empathy as I parachuted to places. The empathy in journalism is fleeting compared with humanitarian work. I have wept many times because of what I've encountered.
In journalism, they say that no story is worth dying for. The unspoken but universal rule of journalists to be cynical, or to be "honest and unmerciful" (to borrow from a film) still works, but I think the need to empathize is important.
Humanitarian workers leave their loved ones to listen to people with disrupted lives and to put some direction to the best of their efforts, even if government does not respond with the same pace. An official of the government task force talked about installing large TV screens in evacuation centers "so that the evacuees can listen to the President's words" when all they needed were more reasonable provisions of food and basic needs.
In a world that is not equal and is increasingly challenged by conflict, humanitarian workers face death defying missions and the highest levels of risks and threats to fight the battles that people cannot fight on their own.
Their tireless determination to make a difference, to make the world a better place, or to save it outright, is greater than their fear. There is no other way I can put it but their self-sacrifice is sublime.
I once told the two women in the team not to forget to leave something to themselves. But on my 3rd week, we all got sick of fever and respiratory infections, and noticed it too in other humanitarian workers as we were coughing together.
A doctor asked me to pull out as I needed to recuperate. I left the two teammates a few days before my end of deployment date as they had to stay -- there was no plan B.
I left Iligan City with its roadsides displaying congratulatory ads of a new nurse or a lawyer passing the bar, alongside slogans of "Bangon, Marawi." I left the city's bustle with its increased population and the fully armed soldiers walking the streets. I already miss the turmeric rice and the varieties of fried chicken.
In Manila, I continue to receive text messages from young Muslims saying they are college graduates and they need a job very badly and if I could recommend them. I connect them to people and organizations I know, wish them good luck and that God or Allah bless them always. They thank me and respond with happy emojis. – Rappler.com
Diana G. Mendoza is a freelance journalist.