By Ali G. Macabalang
COTABATO CITY – Dozens of families are still unaware of the fate of loved ones who disappeared in the five-month armed conflict that started on 23 May 2017 siege by combined militants of Dawla Islamiya (Maute) and Abu Sayyaf groups, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
In a recent statement sent to the Philippine Muslim Today news, the ICRC revealed having made video documentary of some people still missing from the infamous siege and five-month armed clashes.
One of the ICRC documented missing persons was a construction worker, whose 26-year old son, Joel narrated his family’s misery aggravated by the fate of his father.
“Beyond the psychological pain of not knowing what has happened to loved ones, families of missing people have economic, legal, and psychosocial needs. Many have lost their breadwinners and face legal and administrative gaps that limit their access to social benefits and pensions,” the ICRC said in its statement.
The ICRC said it has conducted an assessment in 2019 to evaluate the needs of families with missing members.
After the assessment, the ICRC reportedly embarked in 2020 on a program to help meet these families’ needs, such as their anxiety in dealing with difficulties aggravated by the disappearance of members.
One of the interventions involved the training of people with missing relatives to set up peer-support groups of six to eight people from the same area, the ICRC said.
The groups met twice a month wearing masks in well-ventilated settings, with respect to COVID-19 protocols, in a span of six months. In these sessions, facilitators taught participants better ways of coping and managing stress. The participants shared their emotions, daily struggles, and positive memories of the missing loved ones, as well as their own roles and the changes they faced after the disappearance, the agency said.
“Having others experiencing this situation is important for healing. We are not promoting forgetting. We are helping them to learn to live with the ambiguity and create a new hope and meaning in life,” said Sherzod Musrifshoev, ICRC mental and psychosocial support delegate based in Iligan City.
The cycle of group sessions comprises ninepsychologicaland psychosocial supportsessions. When the cycle is completed, families also benefit from 2-3 information sessions that tackle health or legal matters. In its fifth session, families bring their missing relatives’ favorite food or items and share with the group the memories attached to them, the ICRC said.
This process preceded a group commemoration, an activity to represent their missing loved ones. Participants choose the project and design the implementation themselves, while the ICRC provides them monetary support for the needed materials, Musrifshoev said.
One group decided to plant 45 mahogany trees to symbolize their missing relatives’ presence, while families in Libertad, Misamis Oriental, built a waiting shed and a heart-shaped memorial signage to remember missing loved ones, the ICRC said.
“When the accompaniment program concludes, we plan to still gather during special occasions related to our missing loved ones such as birthdays. The heart (signage) symbolizes our love, care, and honor and our respect to our families who disappeared during the Marawi siege,” the ICRC quoted Melissa, a person with a missing relative, as saying.
The ICRC’s accompaniment program continues to date, expanding to the areas of Zamboanga and Cotabato cities in Mindanao where some families of missing persons live, the agency report said.
“For them, time does not heal, answers do. The active search for missing loved ones can continue for decades because the uncertainty of whether a loved one is alive or dead is unbearable and does not allow families to stop searching until they know,” the ICRC said.
The ICRC statement did not indicate any number of people still missing from the infamous Marawi siege, saying that disappearances in the war-torn community was an added figure to more than 145,000 persons missing around the world as a result of armed conflict, violence, migration and natural disasters. AGM