WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Helping children heal

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 4 Aug) – Mid-year 2012, Government of the Philippines (GPH) peace panel chair Marvic Leonen optimistically reported that after the 18 October 2011 incident in Al-Barka, Basilan, there had been no more armed skirmishes between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). However, he also reported that there continued to be armed skirmishes in Mindanao between security forces and lawless elements.

In many pockets of Mindanao, law enforcement often involves military support in cases when the suspects are known to be armed and dangerous and have sought shelter in heavily fortified hideouts. In fact, the Al-Barka incident had been a joint law enforcement operation intended to serve warrants of arrest on suspected criminals.

The towns of Payao and Alicia lie on the southeastern tip of the crescent that encloses Dumanquilas Bay in Zamboanga Sibugay. From the paved highway in Imelda, the idyllic coastal center of Payao lies past 36 kilometers of rough mountain road passable in many places only on board the hardy habal-habal that serves as the only means of public land transport plying that route. While uncomfortable in places, the dirt road to Alicia, on the other hand, can be negotiated by any form of motorized vehicles.

The coastal barangays in this part of Zamboanga Sibugay are home to a tri-people population, with many coming from descendants of seafaring migrants who over the years have landed on the safe shores of the bay. No more is the harmony of the mixed ethnicity visible than in the daycare centers where one is likely to find preschool children and their mothers mingling everyday. Years of living together relatively untouched by the more turbulent politics and religious strife in Mindanao had lent to the locals’ easy tolerance of each other’s cultural differences. In the month of Ramadhan and religious abstinence in 2012, Muslim barangay officials graciously served repast for us Christian visitors as we sat down to talk about the villages’ respective experience of security operations in October 2011.

Trouble had loomed over the coast in the last quarter of last year when an armed group led by a former MILF commander took an islet in neighboring Barangay Labatan in Payao as staging area from which the band reportedly waged atrocities, kidnappings, bombings, piracy, and extortion. Warrants of arrest were filed by the local police on the suspects. However, locals reported that the lair was equipped with heavily fortified bunkers and accessible only through a narrow trail during low tide. The group had mounted a machine gun to guard this path. Attempts made by local leaders to persuade the armed group to depart the vicinity fell on deaf ears. Security forces decided to mount a joint law enforcement operation to clear the area and ensure the safety of the local populace.

In the week prior to offensives in Barangay Labatan, neighboring barangays were advised to evacuate out of harm’s way. Because of lack of resources, however, some residents chose to remain in their homes. From about three kilometers across the bay, they witnessed the bombing runs on the target and the movement of opposing forces through their villages. The final assault lasted for three days. Residents would report posttraumatic stress-like symptoms in the weeks that followed.

Months later, the stress symptoms of preschool children would persist, calling attention to need for interventions beyond psychological first aid. The provincial government of Zamboanga Sibugay partnered with a development NGO – the Integrated Resources Development for Tri-people (IRDT) – for the delivery of a feeding program that incorporated a six-session psychosocial intervention on the posttraumatic stress symptoms of preschoolers. The Department of Social Welfare and Development Services and the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services of the Ateneo de Davao University were tapped to capacitate daycare teachers and mothers.

It was a challenge to design a module to serve the psychological needs of preschoolers to be delivered in these remote barangays by daycare teachers and mothers who have very little background in psychology, much less in trauma work. What I would eventually train them for was what I hoped to be an age-appropriate parallel-processing play therapy approach designed to transform children’s negative emotional states and refocus their attention on pleasant stimuli with minimal risk of retraumatization, such as could happen when one tries to surface and reconstruct conscious memory of the trauma event.

With strategies that allowed service delivery using available resources, clarity of goals and measures, and simplified step-by-step instructions, I found that daycare teachers and mothers were able to execute the module with ease. It was a joy to see the kids and their mothers at my version of play baby therapy, designed for the young to communicate to their mothers how they wanted to be soothed when they were scared or startled. It touched my heart to see how the teachers took care of those few dolls in their daycare center. They had so few and these were still wrapped in plastic, but the kids did not mind.

At noon on a Sunday, we were gleefully flying paper planes and chasing after them all over the basketball court. Flying planes above should make preschoolers want to grow wings and fly, not run in terror and wet their pants.

Am I doing it right? I don’t really know. All I know is that children aged three to six should play and should do so safely, under the indulgent eyes of parents and caring adults in their home communities. One weekend this month, I had the pleasure to see that happening in remote barangays along the coast of Dumanquilas Bay.

It was the most satisfying weekend I’ve had in a long time.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail heads the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University, where she is also the editor of the university’s journal, Tambara. For comments, email her at gail@mindanews.com.)