MARAWI CITY (MindaNews /22 May) — Sixteen year old Noraimen Radia, her 23-year old sister Najmah and their eight siblings are appealing to authorities to help them find their parents and those who remain missing a year since the siege started on May 23, 2017.
In an evacuation site here, Fatimah Lumabao, mother of eight, continues to wait for four of her children to come home. She was in a grocery in Iligan when the fighting began and was reunited with only four of her children a few days later.
In a town in Zamboanga del Sur last Friday, a Subanen family celebrated the supposed 23rd birthday of Rinante, who was among those held hostage by the Maute Group. The fourth of seven children, Rinante worked as baker in a restaurant in Marawi for about two years.
His sister Rechel, based in a nearby city, told MindaNews that her parents are still looking forward to Rinante’s homecoming. On his birthday, she was told, they slaughtered four chickens and took out one of his clothes from the cabinet, to represent him in the celebration.
In Davao City on Saturday, Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub, Vicar General of the Prelature of Marawi and chaplain of the Mindanao State University before he was taken hostage on Day 1 of the siege, appealed to government to attend to relatives of the missing, as well as the dead whose remains have yet to be recovered.
He said many hostages, predominantly Christians, did not survive and were buried in the war zone. Meranaws who were trapped inside the war zone and did not survive, were likewise buried there.
Noraimen, a Grade 10 student and the ninth child of Albasher and Saada Grande Radia, is proposing that tarpaulins showing photographs of missing persons be displayed in strategic areas to help them in their search for their missing loved ones, the same way government did in their search for members of the Maute Group.
“Request lang namin, yung authorities ba, di ba yung mga Maute members pinaghahanap nila? Gusto namin hanapin din nila yung mga missing persons sa pamamagitan ng maglagay ng mga pictures nila sa mga checkpoints or especially sa mga gilid-gilid ng lake, sa gubat, remote areas” (Authorities are looking for Maute Group members, right? We want them to also look for the missing persons by putting their photographs on tarpaulin in checkpoints or especially in the areas near the lake, in the remote areas), said Noraimen.
Since the siege broke out on May 23, 2017 and martial law was declared by President Rodrigo Duterte that night, tarpaulins showing photographs of suspected terrorists have been displayed in various checkpoints and other strategic areas across Mindanao.
Noraimen hopes tarpaulins of missing persons will also be displayed in checkpoints and other key areas across the lake in Lanao del Sur and neighboring towns.
The sisters told MindaNews they believe their parents are still alive but may be suffering from trauma and are in a place where nobody knows them.
“Sa amin kasi, buhay na buhay pa sila. Malay natin na na trauma lang sila and then nasa area sila na walang nakakilala sa kanila” (For us, they are still very much alive. They may just be suffering from trauma and are in a place where nobody knows them), said Najmah.
The Radias lived in Barangay Tuca Marinaut within Ground Zero, the 250-hectare main battle area between government forces and the IS-inspired Maute Group and its allies. The family got separated as they were fleeing the war in late May last year.
Najmah had arrived from Cotabato City on May 23 but in Pantar town, Lanao del Norte, was barred from proceeding to Marawi. Three of their siblings fled Marawi on May 24, taking the boat towards Wato.
Noraimen recalled that she and five other siblings, as well as their parents, made several attempts to evacuate but her parents did not want to leave behind at least 44 Christian and nine Meranaw workers. She said their father was afraid the Christians would be killed by the terrorists.
The workers survived.
Noraimen and her siblings, their parents and neighbors made yet another attempt at fleeing the war zone on Day 4, timing their movements during intervals in air strikes.
Along the way bombs fired from the ground exploded, injuring six, five of them Meranaws.
Afraid another bomb would explode, the Radia couple told their children, then already a few meters uphill, to go ahead and they will just follow.
It was the start of Ramadan. Their father assured them the gunfight would likely be over in five days.
Noraimen and his siblings sought refuge in the homes of relatives in neighboring Saguiaran town in Lanao del Sur then in Balo-i and Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte, in Cagayan de Oro and in faraway Tacloban where they stayed for six to seven months in the house of their paternal uncle who had earlier set up business there.
“Wala kaming permanent address. Mahirap talaga ang walang bahay… alam mo naman ang pakiramdam ng walang bahay, nakakahiya gagamit ka nang may lulutuin ka na … mas maganda talaga na may sariling bahay” (We don’t have a permanent address. It’s difficult to have no house … you know how difficult it is to be without a house, you feel ashamed you’re using someone else’s stove… it’s really better to have your own house), said Najmah, adding they are seeking refuge in houses of relatives who are themselves victims of the siege.
May 27, 2017 was the last time they saw their parents. They looked for them in evacuation centers and in hospitals but did not find them.
From a very comfortable life before the war — their parents were into rice milling and had a 38-door apartment for rent at 3,500 pesos per door — the Radia children — the eldest at 32 and the youngest at 8, joined thousands of other displaced Meranaws who have been, in the words of Dr. Macapado Muslim, former President of the Mindanao State University, “pauperized.”
“The devastation and dislocations affected not only the great majority of poor families in Marawi City but also the rich ones comprising of M’ranaw businessmen based in Marawi and other areas outside Lanao del Sur including Metro Manila, professionals and government officials and workers, etc. In other words, the war has pauperized many of the growing number of M’ranaw middle-class families, and impoverished further the great majority who are poor,” Muslim said in a policy paper sent to President Rodrigo Duterte in early November.
The Radia siblings visited their village during the “Kambisita sa MAA” (Most Affected Area) on April 24, 25 and 26, and found their two-story house destroyed by fire. They found their father’s motorcycle, also burnt, but no trace of their parents.
Contacting their parents via mobile phone was not possible, they said, because by Day 2, “low batt na, wala nang ilaw.. wala nang signal” (phones had low battery levels as there was no electricity, no signal).
“Hanggang ngayon, kinikontak namin ang number ng papa namin. Wala. Sunog na ata ang SIM card nya” (Until now we still contact our father’s number. No response. His SIM card may have been burned already), Najmah said.
The sisters hope they would be assisted in their search for their missing parents.
Noraimen said three of their siblings had to stop school to allow their sister Nor-ain to finish her nursing course.
Message to President Duterte
If she had the chance to meet with President Rodrigo Duterte, Noraimen said she would ask him for employment for her elder siblings, scholarship for her and three other siblings so they can return to school, that they be given a permanent shelter because they’ve been moving from one relative’s house to another.
Noraimen also hopes they can also be given an allowance “kahit kaunti” (no matter how small) for projects in school especially when classes begin in June, as well as capital to start a business.
She reiterated her proposal to have tarpaulins showing photographs of missing persons, and hopes somebody helps them raise 16,000 pesos so her sister who graduated from her nursing course last May 13, can pay off that debt, inclusive of graduation fees, that she owes her school in Iligan. Its payment will allow her to get her transcript of records and apply for the board exams.
Noiramen says their parents are missing but she also feels that giving attention to relatives who have missing loved ones is “missing” in the government’s recovery program.
Looking for the missing
Jane Marygold Perez of the Ranao Rescue Team, a teacher and mother of four, has taken on looking for the missing as her group’s and her personal crusade.
She borrowed — and continues to borrow — money for transporation, goes around evacuation centers, posts on social media and in the communities she visits, asks who have relatives who remain missing. Recently she teamed up with the SOCO (scene of the crime operatives) and brought them to evacuation centers and other communities to conduct DNA testing in case the test results match with those taken from skeletal remains retrieved from Ground Zero.
Perez told MindaNews she compiled a list of over 100 but is now down to 50 as some missing persons have been reunited with their loved ones.
Rinante’s parents in Zamboanga del Sur had been informed by hostage survivors that he was killed in the war zone but Rechel says her parents continue to believe he is still alive. Rechel wants her parents to undergo DNA testing but says the test is very expensive and they cannot afford it.
Perez says DNA testing for relatives of the missing in Marawi is free. But Rechel says her parents have no money for transportation to avail of the free testing.
Rinante earned 3,000 pesos a month in Marawi, and sent 1,500 to 2,000 pesos to his parents to help in the expenses at home and the education of his siblings.
Fatimah says she has not gone through a DNA testing.
Najmah recently had their DNA test, facilitated by Perez. The sisters carry with them printouts of a photograph of their parents, taken during the Ramadan. It is their second Ramadan without them.
“Nagpi-pray kami nakaalis sila ng Marawi, nandoon sila sa maliblib na lugar… pero na trauma daw …. sana ganon ang nangyari” (We pray they were able to leave Marawi, that they found their way to a remote village and are in trauma,” the sisters said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)