ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (ICRC / 17 July) -– Fatima gets to meet her husband *Abdul for only one week every year. While she is in Zamboanga, he is in Manila – both opposite ends of the country.
Abdul was detained in September 2013 in relation to his alleged involvement in the Zamboanga Siege. He was initially jailed near his hometown, before his transfer in December 2013 to a facility in Manila, taking him more than a thousand kilometers away from his family. Fatima could not visit him as they did not have enough money for the travel.
“I miss him,” Fatima says, “I miss dang.” Dang is short for danglay, which is Tausug for “my love.” In their 25-year marriage, this is the longest the two have been apart.
But starting May 2014, Fatima has been able to visit her husband for a week every year and can take one of their six children along.
Fatima is enrolled in the family visit program of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an independent humanitarian organization that assists and protects victims of armed conflict.
The ICRC visits detainees to ensure their humane treatment, regardless of the reasons for their arrest. Through the family visit program being run with the Philippine Red Cross, the ICRC helps maintain family ties between people detained in relation to the conflict and their loved ones.
This year, it was 14-year-old son *Kasim’s turn to join Fatima. “He was a young boy when they last met,” she says.
Before his detention, Abdul was a pedicab driver and a fish seller. With him gone, sustenance has become tough.
“I wake up at 4 a.m. to cook for my kids. After dressing them up and sending them to school, I finish the housework and then drop off my daughter, who has a disability, to school.”
A 30-minute walk takes Fatima to her employer’s house, where she cleans up and washes clothes. “When I get home, I cook and then run our sari-sari (variety) store till 10 pm. By the time I finish all work, it’s nearly 1am.”
She works every day and sells noodles for some extra income.
Her hands are dry and veins bulge along the bony fingers. At 42, Fatima remains strong, but admits she is good at hiding pain.
Three years ago, Fatima developed a medical condition and was advised rest. “But if I don’t work, my family won’t survive,” she says. After surgery, Fatima stayed in the hospital for over a week, leaving her kids struggling between work and school. “I felt sorry for them. Life has been hard but I have managed to raise all my kids alone,” she says.
Fatima’s family was torn apart during the 2013 Zamboanga siege, an armed conflict between government forces and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, which displaced around 120,000 people.
“My kids and I fled but my husband stayed behind as he wanted to protect our house. We didn’t expect the clashes to last more than a day,” she recalls.
Two months after the siege, Fatima returned to find their house burnt down.
Abdul was also gone. He was among those arrested for alleged involvement in the 19-day siege.
Fatima broke the news to her children, except for the youngest one who was a toddler then. She assured him that “Papa is working somewhere very far away.” When he finally visited his father, he asked: “Is that his house?”
Holding back tears, Fatima told him the truth but had no answer to when her husband would be set free.
A day before her flight to Manila, Fatima busies herself in the kitchen, preparing dried fish, chicken adobo and chicken curry, her husband’s favorite dishes.
She packs photos and graduation certificates to help him stay updated.
Once in Manila, the mother-son duo head for a relative’s house, where they will stay for the next seven days.
Detaining authorities allow visits to spread out to the facility’s basketball court. There, Fatima sets up a mat and lays out snacks.
Their weeklong reunion begins. Kasim hugs his father, noticing how different the hug felt – either the boy has grown taller or his father has withered. Fatima holds her husband’s hands.
Over the next couple of hours, they exchange stories and feast on the baon. They reminisce about family trips to Paseo del Mar, a beautiful seaside park in the heart of Zamboanga City.
“I’m sad that my family is having a hard time,” Abdul says in Filipino. “I miss cooking for them and walking the kids to school,” he adds.
Since 1985, the ICRC has been reuniting families separated by conflicts in the Philippines. Fatima, along with one child per year, has visited their detained relative six times since 2014.
These visits may be short, but for families like Fatima’s, they are essential in restoring a sense of normalcy. Knowing that she will see her husband again the next day, Fatima says she will sleep peacefully that night.
Fritzie Rodriguez worked as a communication officer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to the Philippines. The ICRC has offices in Zamboanga, Cotabato, Iligan, Davao and Manila.
*Name changed to protect identity