Hope over despair as fighting rages on in Marawi

UNHCR Advocate Atom Araullo meets families displaced by the ongoing crisis, and underscores the need to restore their hope and help them rebuild their lives.

UNHCR staff and UNHCR Advocate Atom Araullo greet 100-year-old Moreg Sarakan, who walked the 40-kilometer stretch between Marawi and Iligan cities. Babo (Grandmother) Moreg shares that even in her old age, she yearns for peace in Mindanao and for her grandchildren to no longer experience displacement. (© UNHCR/V. VILLAFRANCA)

“I cry every night wondering where my children are. One of them is just a 10-year-old boy, and sometimes I dream of him calling my name for help,” said Fatima Lumabao, one of the hundreds who found refuge at the Buru-un Evacuation Center in the outskirts of Iligan City.

Fatima, 49, sat in silence as she described life in the evacuation camp two months since pro-ISIS militants laid siege to Marawi City. Of her eight children, four have gone missing. To date, she is still seeking help from authorities in search of her lost children.

As of 24 July, more than 534,100 persons have been displaced by armed clashes in MarawiCity. Behind the numbers, however, are families whose lives hang in the balance and families who have been torn apart. Here, 49-year-old Fatima Lumabaoshares that four of her eight children went missing when they fled Marawitwo months ago. Every day, she tries to overcome despair with hope that her family will be reunited again. (© UNHCR/V. VILLAFRANCA)


While she waits for her family to be reunited, she tries to be resilient with the help of families she has met at the evacuation center. “A lot of people here care for me while I try to cope. I may be smiling now but at nightfall, when everyone is asleep, that’s when I yearn for my family to be complete again,” she said.

Fatima is among the mothers who shared with UNHCR Advocate Atom Araullo stories of their harrowing journey to safety, as well as challenges while living in displacement. As conflict in Marawi stretched past its second month, Araullo met with families residing in evacuation camps in Iligan City and the Lanao provinces to listen to their plight.

According to government estimates as of 31 July 2017, as many as 359,680 persons have been displaced as a result of the conflict. Of these, just four percent reside in government-managed evacuation centers in Iligan City and in neighboring municipalities. The majority are home-based or are in community-managed evacuation camps across seven regions.

Most displaced persons fled their homes with just the clothes on their back and the few belongings they could carry.

Among them is 100-year-old Moreg Sarakan, who walked by foot to reach Buru-un, which is approximately 40 kilometers away from home. Despite her age, Babo Moreg vividly recounted the long and tough slog away from the sound of airstrikes pummeling their homes.

“We’ve been here for two months, but we are still not used to living in an evacuation center. My grandchildren, for example, have gotten sick already. We still long for home, no matter how humble ours was. We wait for the day we will have peace in Marawi again,” shares 100-year-old Moreg Sarakan, who lives at the Buru-un Evacuation Center. (© UNHCR/V. VILLAFRANCA)


“Sometimes I can still hear the sound of gunfire, and I am overcome with fear again. With our houses destroyed, I wonder how we will rebuild when the fighting is over,” added the grandmother.


Atom Araullo visits evacuation camps

Through this visit, Araullo hoped to draw attention to the prevailing concerns resulting from more than two months of displacement.

“At this point, it’s really more of a day-to-day survival in evacuation centers. I hope the conflict does not drag on for years, and while families are temporarily displaced here, how are they going to live? They cannot rely on dole-outs all the time. When the crisis is over and when they return to their homes, how will they rebuild after they have lost all their belongings and their homes have been destroyed?” he pondered.

“Providing support goes beyond the basic needs like food, shelter, and emergency aid. It also entails assisting them when they go back to their respective communities,” Araullo added.

Araullo shared that meeting Fatima and Babo Moreg are some of the highlights of his visit, and that their strength to overcome despair with hope is what inspired him the most.

“I have covered displacement crises in the past, but it’s always different when you talk to the evacuees themselves. There are stories here about resilience and courage. They have all inspired me and I’m one with them in hoping that the conflict ends soon. But while it is ongoing, it is clear that we have to support them,” said Araullo.


Saving lives, restoring hopes, rebuilding futures

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, UNHCR has been on the ground supporting the government-led response and providing life-saving assistance to the displaced families and communities.

At the onset, UNHCR has provided tarpaulins, plastic sheets, blankets, and other core relief items to internally displaced persons (IDPs). Today, UNHCR actively advocates for the protection of the wellbeing of IDPs ensuring that their rights are safeguarded while they are displaced.

UNHCR remains committed to working with the Philippine government to create enabling conditions that will help the affected communities recover and rebuild their lives in dignity and safety.

Araullo concluded his mission with a visit to an evacuation center in Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur. Here, he met mothers whose families have been displaced multiple times since 2008. Though he expressed concern about the impact of protracted displacement to families, he underscored the need to restore hope among them.

“In this evacuation center alone, I met families who fled fighting in Maguindanao and who have relocated to Marawi. They rebuilt their lives there, only to be displaced once more by fighting. So just imagine living in those circumstances. How can you hope to have a better life if you’re always back to zero? In terms of aspiration, I think most of the displaced families here really want one simple thing: to live a life free from that kind of anxiety, from that fear that all the future holds is conflict,” said Araullo.

As a way of amplifying the voices of displaced families, Araullo encourages the public to take part in the conversation about Marawi City.

“There are a lot of ways that you can help, including making sure that you are engaged in the conversation not just with our leaders but also with our communities—making sure that everyone is aware of what’s going on here, and that we can count on these people and rally their support for displaced families, the people that are affected by the conflict in Mindanao, in Marawi,” he said.


Janisa, 24, resides with her family at an evacuation center in Balo-i municipality, Lanao del Norte. She wonders how she and her husband will be able to get back on their feet. “When we fled Marawi, we left everything behind. Back in Marawi, my husband earns our daily keep as laborer. Without any source of income here, we can only rely on the relief goods handed to us. Having jobs gives us dignity,” she shares. (© UNHCR/V. VILLAFRANCA)


Families taking refuge at the Buru-un Evacuation Centerpost handwritten notes addressed to President Rodrigo Duterte. They dream of peace, a safe place to call home, and a chance to rebuild their lives. (© UNHCR/V. VILLAFRANCA)


Learning never stops, even amidst displacement. These playmates step outside their tent in one of the evacuation camps in Balo-i, Lanao del Norte to go over their notes. The municipality hosts an estimated 7100 families who fled violence in Marawi--one of the larger displaced populations in Mindanao. (© UNHCR/V. VILLAFRANCA)


Notes to the Editor:

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, engaged broadcast journalist Atom Araullo as one of its supporters in 2017. He helps raise awareness on the work that UNHCR does for forcibly displaced populations and encourages support from the public for refugees, IDPs and other persons-of-concern to UNHCR.

As fighting persists in Marawi City, the level of vulnerability among hundreds of thousands of displaced families continues to rise. To give life-saving assistance, visit https://donate.unhcr.ph.