Ordeal of relief operation strengthens conviction to stand for voiceless
By Sister Derby M. in Philippines
Last April, I joined the Relief Goods and Services Operation and Humanitarian Fact Finding Mission for the victims of Typhoon Pablo in Sitio Limot, Brgy. Binondo, Baganga, Davao Oriental. The group was composed of 17 non-government organizations and church groups.
It is a six- to seven-hour trip by bus to reach Baganga proper, and we planned to proceed directly to Sitio Limot on that same day. There, we would take a Saddam (cargo) truck for four hours and walk another two hours. But on our way, we encountered several traps and harassment by the military.
First, we were held at a military checkpoint for an inspection. They found nothing, but we were delayed. They tried to make many alibis just to delay our trip and finally ‒ after an hour and 20 minutes of negotiations ‒ they allowed us to pass through.
About 100 meters from that checkpoint, there were about 150 logs that blocked our way and there was another dump truck full of gravel in the middle of the road. The group patiently placed the logs along the side of the road.
As we continued, another dump truck blocked the road. About 15 minutes after we were on our way, more logs were placed in our path. Later, three large rocks were placed on the road to delay us. Two wheels of our bus were flattened by something sharp placed on the road.
Once on our way again, we came to a halt because of a newly destroyed road that only a motor bike could pass through. We saw the backhoe that was used in the road destruction, but not the persons doing it. The group again tried to pave the way so as to allow our three buses to pass through.
Again, another checkpoint held us for more than two hours. They used the same tactics as at the first checkpoint and even asked us to sign a log book or to leave our identification cards. These military men were in uniform, but they did not wear nametags so we could not get their names.
Finally, we reached Baganga Center around four o’clock in the afternoon. It took us almost 12 hours of travel time instead of six. We had hoped to arrive by 11 a.m. The group decided not to proceed anymore to Sitio Limot, because it was already too late. So, we decided to stay overnight at St. Mary’s School run by RVM sisters.
Early the next morning, we proceeded to the main area by Saddam truck and walked in the rain along the way. Finally, we reached Sitio Limot and gave the people goods and services. The SAMIN members provided school supplies for children, food for about 300 persons, seeds for their farms, clothing, and of course the psycho-social therapy for the young victims of Typhoon Pablo.
The Sisters of Mercy contributed financial assistance (P 50,000 or $1,215 in U.S. dollars) for these purposes. The other sisters’ groups, like the medical team, conducted check-ups, tooth extractions and dispensed medicines. Some groups distributed clothing, canned goods, noodles and rice. Others visited families and just talked and listened to them.
The community expressed their heartfelt gratitude of what we did because they said that it was the first time a large group like ours visited their area to provide such free services and goods.
They revealed that after the typhoon, they only received relief twice and had to first pay 200 pesos ($4.86 in U.S. dollars) for only five kilos of rice, three canned goods and three packets of noodles. Those who brought the relief goods said they had to charge for goods because they had no transportation budget. It cost 300 hundred pesos ($7.29 in U.S. dollars) during a second relief visit. The next day we were scheduled to go home. After two hours of walking, we reached the Saddam trucks, but learned that the two drivers left because they were threatened and told that the Saddam trucks could not leave. Even the motor drivers were warned by the military not to fetch our things.
In short, they held all possible vehicles that could take us back to the town. So, again we walked for an hour just to reach an inhabited place where a community could help us, where it was safe and at the same time we could get a signal to communicate.
It was about five o’clock in the afternoon and still the military checkpoint didn’t allow any vehicle to transport us. The group became tense because we did not have food and were stranded. We were already panicked, so we looked for ways just to inform anybody with whom we could communicate that we needed help.
We were really scared the whole night because we were again threatened that nobody could go home alive! We were rescued the next day by the Quick Response Force (QRF) from Davao City. When we reached Baganga Town we proceeded directly to the police station to tell officials what happened to us. It was my first time to encounter this kind of tension and harassment with the military. I was shocked, because I didn’t expect that the men in uniform, whom we believed would help us, became a hindrance to our mission.
On the other hand, I feel that our team really had the genuine spirit to pursue our goal to extend the relief and services to underserved victims and ‒ despite the harassment and life- threatening experiences ‒ we were still able to finish our mission.
I was also deeply touched by the convictions of our lay partners. Their sense of mission is very alive. Even with the hardships we encountered they did not lose hope in doing it.
As a young religious, this experience has strengthened me to stand against the wicked ways of those who are in authority and to stand for the voiceless people in spite of difficulties.