BURU-UN, Iligan City (MindaNews / 15 July) — Fatimah Lumabao, a food vendor from Markadz, Barangay Basak Malutlut in Marawi City, thinks she might end up in the mental hospital soon.
There are nights in the 2 x 3 meter space she shares with her four children and a nephew at the evacuation center here when she would be roused from sleep by the voices of her four other children, crying “Ome, nasaan ka? Ba’t di mo kami tinulungan? (Ma, where are you? Why did you not help us?”
Four of her eight children were reunited with her a few days after clashes between government forces and the Maute Group started on May 23.
The other four remain missing. She sees their images “nagbababay sa akin, nagsasambayang, nagpapasbi, nagbabasa ng Koran” (waving at me, praying, holding their prayer beads, reading the Koran). Recently however, “di ko na nakikita mga mukha nila” (I can no longer see their faces), Fatimah says, wiping her tears with her canary yellow kumbong.
“Siguro, sabi ko, madala ako sa mental hospital …” (Maybe, I said, I will be brought to the mental hospital).
She prays she can still find her children alive. But she has also prepared for the worst.
Fatimah laments “di ko man lang nakita kahit mga bangkay nila … di ko sila nahawakan” (I did not even see their corpses … I could not even touch them), the 49-year old Fatimah, widowed some ten years ago, told MindaNews on Wednesday afternoon, Day 51 of the Marawi Crisis.
It was also Day 51 of Fatimah’s agony. Aside from her four children, the wife and two children of her nephew, Salem Derwanin, who lived in the same house with them, are also missing.
The war in Marawi has taken its toll on Fatimah’s health not only emotionally but also physically. She spent five days in the hospital last month, her blood pressure shot up from 90/60 to 190/110.
Salem, a carpenter who was working in a construction site seven Tuesdays earlier, was busy preparing their next meal under the trees behind the covered court-turned-evacuation center. He spoke no word. Fatimah says he has kept mum since his family went missing, speaking only to her.
First night of terror
On the first night of terror on May 23, Fatimah could not find all her eight children: Norhoda, 21; Rashida, 20; Arracma, 19; Abdulgapar Hamod, 17; Abdujamil, 15; Prences Allaihana, 14; Farhana, 12; and Mohamad Kanapi, 10.
She left for Iligan City that morning to buy ingredients for pater which she sells at P15 pesos each on the street outside schools and offices in Marawi.
Pater is a Maranao meal of rice with small chunks of either fish, chicken or beef, wrapped usually in a banana leaf and best eaten by hand. On the average, she earns 350 to 400 pesos a day from street vending.
On the side, she also does laundry for 150 pesos a day.
A frantic Arracma, who was in school, informed her by mobile phone that something terrible was happening in Marawi.
Fatimah, then 40 kilometers away in Iligan, told her to calm down and go home. But her daughter responded she could not because there were armed men around. “ISIS daw.”
Their village, Barangay Basak Malutlut, was the site of the first clash between government forces and the ISIS-inspired Maute Group and its allied terrorist groups. Elements of the 103rd Infantry Brigade went to their village to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Ispilon Hapilon but were met with armed resistance.
Fatimah rushed to Marawi some 40 kilometers away but the road was blocked at Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur, the town before Marawi, when she arrived around 3:30 p.m. Some of those who also rushed to Marawi upon hearing the news waited but turned back to Iligan. Fatimah insisted on going to Marawi to be with her children.
She waited for five hours. By then she could no longer reach them by phone as the signal had been cut off. She hitched a ride on a dumptruck (“nagmakaawa ako sa kanila”) and upon reaching Marawi, immediately began her search.
Fatimah lost her husband some ten years ago to an accident at the fishport in General Santos City where they lived for 11 years.
After his death, she returned to Marawi, bought a house from the compensation she received and worked hard as a single parent to keep her family together.
Until May 23, 2017 tore them apart.
Men in black
Fatimah remembers the first checkpoint in Marawi was manned by the men in black who demanded to know if there were Christians on board the dumptruck.
Since the road to Basak Malutlut and Sarimanok were also blocked, Fatimah spent the night in the home of her daughter Arracma’s classmate in Banggolo, but only after looking for her children in a city then lit only by the raging flames from the City Jail, St. Mary’s Church and Dansalan College and other buildings that the men in black set on fire.
The next morning, she set out early, moving towards Basak Malutlut even as the people she met along the way were all moving out and warning her they only had five hours to flee Marawi.
She refused to evacuate. When she reached their village, she saw dead bodies — “two Christians” in the hardware.
She can’t remember how many dead bodies she passed by on the road but she did stop to check if her eight children were among them.
She went in and out of Basak Malutlut several times that day “siguro mga tatlo or limang beses” (maybe three or five times) but no one was home. She tried to figure out which direction her children would have taken.
She met men in black along the way, one even attempting to fire at her, but she repeatedly told them she was looking for her children.
Neighbors and friends who were fleeing warned her she should evacuate or she might be killed and if she were, who would look after her children?
The staccato of gunfire finally convinced Fatimah to seek refuge at the Provincial Capitol but they were later advised to evacuate to Iligan as the Capitol might be attacked.
A friend saw her at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology and brought her to the evacuation center here.
She narrated how she begged employees of the Department of Social Welfare and Development several times to give her 200 pesos so she could look for her children in evacuation centers or even funeral parlors. Muslims don’t go for embalming as they bury their dead within 24 hours but she would go search the funeral parlors, too.
She said her appeal was not granted.
Thanks to mobile phones, she was reunited with Arracma, Abdulgapar Hamod, Abdujamil and Prences Allaihana, who were also separated from each other but went with adult evacuees.
Fatimah can’t remember the details of how she was reunited with her four children. Maybe it was on May 26 or much later. Arracma had phoned her they were in the market in Palao, Iligan City.
When she got there, her children were still trembling in fear. They went to a masjid, thanked Allah and prayed they would be reunited soon with Norhoda, Rashida, Farhana, and Mohamad Kanapi.
When President Rodrigo Duterte visited this evacuation center on June 20, Fatimah was recuperating in a hospital. She spent the PhP 1,000 Ramadan cash gift on medicines and food.
She hasn’t cooked pater in a long time. “Wala din namang bibili kasi walang pera mga tao dito” (No one will buy anyway, because people here have no money).
She keeps herself busy by cleaning up her surroundings or going to the masjid to pray “na sana magkita na kami ng mga anak ko (that we will be reunited).
She worries over reports that the remains of slain civilians have been eaten by dogs and equally worries over reports that skeletal remains were put in a sack and dumped into the Agus River.
She continues to pray she would find Norhoda, Rashida, Farhana, and Mohamad Kanapi alive. Or at least find their remains if they did not survive.
Fatimah says she has reported to various government and humanitarian groups about her missing children but all they could tell her is to wait.
“Di ko sinisisi sarili ko” (I am not blaming myself), Fatimah declared, because “ginawa ko po lahat” (I did everything) to find them. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)