“Will we ever return home?”
This was the repeated question of evacuees displaced by the fighting between the government and the terrorist Maute group in Marawi City during Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s visit to the Balo-i evacuation site in Lanao del Norte on Monday.
“The evacuees were really anxious; they keep on asking when will this end? Their prayer is for them to be able to go home. They are very worried that they won’t have anything to go home to. So the sooner this [war]ends, then that would be best for them,” Robredo said in an interview.
“I was here less than a week after clashes between government forces and Maute happened, and they (evacuees) asked me the same question: When will this end?” she added.
She also noted cases of families being separated, such as children who lost touch with their parents when they fled Marawi, as well as a husband who had no idea where his wife was.
“The biggest burden for them is the uncertainty of the situation. It is really hard to answer their questions because we really don’t know how to respond. All of us are just hoping that the fighting will soon end, so the people can go back to their respective homes,” Robredo said.
The vice president underscored the importance of rallying behind the government in crushing the terrorists and pursuing peace talks with Moro rebels.
“Ako, gusto ko maniwala na lahat ginagawa. [I would like to believe that the government is doing everything it could]. It would be hard for us if we don’t have a united front. More than any other time, we need to be united and contribute to peace efforts,” Robredo said.
“I believe that we should take the peace process seriously because pursuing a peace agreement is showing that we are looking at a permanent solution to the armed conflict,” she added.
Aside from visiting the Balo-i evacuation center at the Al Markazie Islamic Institute in Lanao del Norte, the vice president also visited the Dayawan Community at 4th East Rosario Heights in Barangay Tubod, Iligan City, and had a lunch meeting with local government and military officials.
Robredo also had a dialogue with Bangsamoro women and the Mindanao Alliance for Reforms and Empowerment group.
Hontiveros appeals vs discrimination
Also on Monday, Sen. Risa Hontiveros appealed to residents of Iligan City and nearby areas not to discriminate against Marawi refugees, saying some Maranao evacuees were forced to “hide” their identities to be able to rent homes.
“I appeal to the public not to stoke the flames of Islamophobia. Discrimination breeds hate. It builds walls. It sustains unjust wars,” she said in a statement.
Hontiveros told The Manila Times she personally met an evacuee who experienced such discrimination in Iligan.
“As narrated by a woman Marawi evacuee, she and her family (which included a child with special needs) tried to rent an apartment in Iligan. Through phone calls they were able to secure a place and close the deal,” Hontiveros said in a text message.
“But the owner, upon seeing them in person wearing their traditional Maranao garb and introducing themselves as coming from Marawi, made excuses by saying that the place had already been rented out to another family,” she told The Manila Times.
“Realizing the discrimination they faced, they decided to hide their identity by asking Christian friends to negotiate with apartment owners. They also had to remove their hijab and don ‘ordinary’ clothes to hide their identity as Maranaos,” she said.
“They were finally able to move into an apartment, but when the owner later on discovered that the child spoke in the local Maranao language, they were made to admit that they are Maranao and were asked to leave,” she said.
Hontiveros, however, failed to get the evacuee’s name.
The senator visited evacuees at the Moneerah Integrated School in Iligan, where she distributed relief items.
Hontiveros said that while she understood the public’s security concerns, she urged them not to mistake discrimination for vigilance.
“This is the time for unity and solidarity. Amid these challenging times, we should not give in to our fears and prejudice. Let us not play into the script of the Maute terrorists, who want to sow fear and hate between Christians and Muslims,” she said.
She also urged government agencies to look into alleged cases of discrimination against people displaced by the Marawi crisis.
“The Duterte government must ensure that the well-being of all internally displaced persons are taken care of, including their protection from all forms of discrimination. They have suffered so much. Let us not add to their pain,” she said.
With BERNADETTE E. TAMAYO