Youngblood: Proving unity

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This is my fifth Youngblood column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Thank you to the editors for letting me voice out what I believe is crucial in the recovery and rehabilitation of Marawi City. It’s not always about infrastructure, and the built-up environment. There are issues that require us to remove our biases and require fuller, sincere understanding of conflict to strategically address root problems.

The choir beautifully sings “Subhanallah,” followed by the Catholic hymn “His Majesty.” The ethereal music dies out, and is followed by a fast a cappella of the national anthem.

The prelude to yet another event for Marawi has just finished, and here come the opening remarks.

I’ve found myself in the evacuation camps and military quarters of Iligan and in meeting rooms of Cagayan de Oro, and now I’m in General Santos, learning about Maranaw commerce, Shari’ah-compliant financing, the role of Marawi in agriculture, and basically anything where my organization can help in business revival and utility restoration.

This is part of the prework in recovery and rehabilitation. Three years ago, I wore the hat of an international organization embedded in an ad hoc government entity. I spent months in the Visayas checking land stakes, borders, hollow blocks, and houses, because of “Yolanda.” Now, I face the war-torn, devastated city of Marawi. And while I fully expected this to be different and complex because the disaster is human-induced, the trauma infects, and the politics resonates.

To tell the truth, I’m tired. I shouldn’t be, because “official” planning hasn’t substantially started. Implementation of any project and program will come after this comprehensive plan. But I rarely sleep straight, I sometimes have tremors, and my mind goes back to the time when we visited a camp for the internally displaced Maranaw. The “bakwit” is how they are called. One to two square meters of floor space—that’s as big as it gets for everyone there. They’ve been living on mats for months now, in a gym with no insulation.

All those families are forced to share a few portable toilets. Kids eat rice on concrete. While some families are blessed with assistance from the government and foundations to make a living out of sari-sari goods, sewing machines, and the like, it is said that some women have been reduced to prostitution, a last resort to be able to live. A little girl—two years old—tells you how she doesn’t want to go back to school at all, and when you ask why, she tells you how scared she is of bombs, and you can’t say anything reassuring, you can’t lie. Some toddlers already show defensive—even violent—traits, or have difficulty in hearing because of bombing blasts.

The reality outside these camps is different. While there are kindred souls who sincerely want to see help get through by volunteerism, pledges, and personal doles of relief and emergency items, and while there are legitimate efforts by many of us to see the city get back on its feet, still there are the egos and mandates that lead to bureaucracy, lack of coordination, lack of collaboration, politics, a penchant for publicity, power, sensitivities and implications—the works.

This is sad. And to tell another gruelling, expected truth, it’s frustrating.

While we’ve learned some things, such as addressing recovery and rehabilitation with better urban management this time around, we also haven’t learned at all about other things, because of our ad hoc nature in addressing another disaster. We still scramble to make ourselves functional after the disaster hits, failing yet again to be prepared, let alone be resilient. This is despite the debates on and progress in putting policies in place, funding, so much training, and a reputation of the country being at high risk.

We also still haven’t been inclusive. There are physical perspectives thrown out to suggest that high-rise buildings, elite environments, and tourism activities in Lake Lanao are the future of Marawi. I wonder how the displaced citizens would take to this. The city looked entirely different before; we can see it in the ruins that flash through our phone screens and the TV reports.

Most importantly, more than the frameworks, the might of the military, the infrastructure, the food packs, and the funds, what have we done to understand the context of the conflict? Undertaking this long endeavor of rebuilding a city is beyond all of this. Planning basics and processes will tell us how looking at the root problem helps direct a vision, and constructs strategies to address the problem.

But in every engagement I get to learn more about Marawi, I find that there is more than one root problem, and that tracing them is complex and layered. Injustice results from the exclusion of voices that champion traditional customs. It also stems from debates on land possession, clan wars, and the deprivation that poverty brings. Or at least that’s how an outsider sees it, or how someone learns from all the conversations on the ground. Despite any strong educational background, practice in planning and rehabilitation, and the willingness to help, it takes courage to unlearn specific knowledge sets, eliminate biases, and gain a very open mindset in achieving any understanding of the local situation.

But we can’t explain all of that to a two-year-old, or her mother. No, not when they’re deprived of basic human needs.

This is what anyone in recovery and rehabilitation should look at, even before the data gathering and vetting, even before we place numbers, funds, architectural pegs, or maps into a comprehensive rehabilitation plan.

All of this, it seems, is a bad state to be in for the city, and our country. The way we address Marawi is what can make or break our country in our share of writing the history of humanity. While we are allowed the leeway of learning along the way, we also can’t say that we just keep learning from committed and repeated mistakes. Not when we’ve got, say, the best and brightest. And not when we know how so many of our brothers and sisters are forced to live outside decency.

The tragedy that befell the city was something we didn’t want to happen, but it has presented itself as an opportunity for us to prove we are united in working together. Unity is needed across our diversities and stature, religions, our positions and levels in government, beyond the press, and beyond our own reputations. Hopefully, understanding and humility can lead us to that.

The emotional burden is something that stays, I guess, in doing this kind of work. And physical exhaustion, too. But there’s no option of turning a blind eye, not when there’s such a crisis.

In one of the dialogues in General Santos, someone concluded an open forum perfectly. If I recall it right, he had been to Somalia, Iraq, and other countries, living a life addressing conflict. He said: “If we do not unite, then we will fail. Where there are people who lack hope, then there are less chances of success.”

Marawi is something that addresses all of us. Proving unity through our responsibility to every fellow Filipino matters.

After all, we sing to that in every event that honors the country, every time we face the flag and put a hand over our heart.

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