PUBLISHED ON November 19, 2008 AT 10:37 AM
By Rohaniza Sumndad
Philippines Country Director, Asia America Initiative
After the breakdown of the Mindanao peace process during August and September 2008, a new round of armed conflict began. The United Nations claims that around 500,000 persons — Christians and Muslims — including at least 300,000 infants and children were displaced from their homes without the basic necessities of life.
In urgent response, in mid-September Asia America Initiative conducted an emergency humanitarian relief mission. We visited refugee camps and war-torn communities in provinces such as Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Cotabato. In mid-October, AAI’s Philippines Country Director Rohaniza Sumndad traveled back to Mindanao to partner with Operation Blessing to conduct Post-Traumatic Stress Counselors Training for humanitarian workers in support of the refugees. Ms. Sumndad reflects:
Mindanao is my homeland. Its unsurpassable beauty of lush farm fields, mineral resources, crystal clear water and a wide spectrum of tribes, cultures and languages make it one of the most fascinating places in Southeast Asia. Tragically, poverty, corruption and violence have robbed our futures. It is the stunning wealth of this land that has led to decades of conflict, pitting family against family, clan against clan and Muslim versus Christian: It is my ties to this land and its people that have made me a peacemaker.
During the past few months, Hope for the normal life that we all dream of has been shattered once again by armed conflict. According to the United Nations some 500,000 people in Mindanao, especially children, have been displaced from their homes and live in the shadow of fear due to continued armed conflict. There is a great need to heal and rebuild communities that have been traumatized by violence. During thirty years of war in Muslim Mindanao this has never been done.
“Child warriors” fighting in guerrilla armies are as young as 12 and 13 years old. Government soldiers are as young as 18. Schools with no chairs, books or supplies for basic education are burned to the ground or turned into artillery fire bases or refugee camps. The healing process, which must begin in each person and family, whether Christian or Muslim, is essential to overcome the extreme distress, fear and even hatred that prolong the ongoing cycles of vengeful communal violence. I have been fortunate as a young Muslim woman from this impoverished area of conflict, to have the benefit of graduating from a respected college in the country’s capitol. Now, holding a leadership position in an international NGO specializing in community-based projects in areas of conflict, I have developed a commitment to building “Bridges of Peace.” My colleagues and I are utilizing the common humanity between my country’s Muslim and Christian peoples with full respect to our religious diversity.
In early September, shortly after the Philippine Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace process broke down, I was accompanied on a relief mission to the area of conflict by Asia America Initiative founder Albert Santoli who traveled from the United States to help me organize and carry medicines, nutritional supplies and toys for traumatized children. In Mindanao, we were assisted by our college student volunteers who are called AAI Catalysts for Peace headed by a medical student from MSU-IIT, Ralphtrin Hermosisima.
In each refugee or internally displaced person shelter we visited, we shared medicines, food supplements and toys — even forks and spoons and plastic to build tents. In each location, local officials, social workers and doctors expressed their concern about psychological and emotional trauma suffered by people who fled for their lives. They stated that without proper counseling interventions, the people’s trauma and fear of ongoing violence might cause their communities to fall apart.
In 2007 and early 2008, AAI had already begun doing healing activities in conflicted areas of Sulu and Basilan provinces, through our Kiddie Fun Day events as part of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process H.E.L.P. [Health Education Livelihood Programs] Caravans. Now, in Central Mindanao, as the threat of religious war is escalating, we - as an interfaith but secular organization — began partnering efforts with a faith-based NGO, Operation Blessing, Philippines, who specializes in Emergency Relief.
Our purpose is to conduct TRAUMA DEBRIEFING SEMINARS and COUNSELOR TRAINING WORKSHOPS for Christian and Muslim social workers, public officials and all sectors in the communities. We also traveled to refugee camps with AAI’s energetic local college student volunteers to conduct a program which we call, A FUN DAY: BRINGING HOPE AND CHEERS TO COMMUNITIES. We could not have done this without the partnership of the Provincial Governments of Iligan City, Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur.
The big-hearted staff of Operation Blessing (OB) Philippines developed a curriculum for healing traumatic stress through dialogue and sharing experiences. Some 90 professionals from the disciplines of social work, education, health, religious clergy, student leaders and even Christian soldiers who had been involved in armed confrontations against local Muslim guerrillas. To everyone’s surprise, religion and diverse culture was not a divisive factor. We all focused on our common humanity and addressed the suffering of the war victims. The training was aimed to give proper orientation and to provide different professional sectors with knowledge and skills in trauma healing sessions through the Self-Awareness — emphasizing on Healing and Peace should come from within. The most important attribute is to be a good listener. The Fun Day activities for children and their families instill hope and promote peace awareness through music, arts, games and laughter. The fun activities trigger a healing antidote to anger, trauma and distrust.
The Seminar and Workshop
The Trauma Debriefing Seminar and Workshop was conducted in the Provincial Capitol of Lanao del Sur in partnership with Operation Blessing and the Provincial Government of Lanao del Sur through Governor Mamintal Adiong Jr. It was attended by a diverse cross-section of professional people from Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte. Local government officials, Provincial Disaster Coordinating Council members, Muslim Ulama religious leaders, Youth and Women Group leaders, Social Workers, NGOs, Philippine military officers and Christian Faith Based groups all attended. We were educated in the psychological process of stress and trauma by professional counselors. Then we separated into group sessions to practice counseling and group discussions. After two days of training, all participants were encouraged to apply the techniques they learned in their home communities.
I was deeply touched during the training in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi. A middle-aged female social worker repeatedly expressed negative comments like, “peace is never possible,” and “groups like you cannot do anything about what’s going on.” She did not want the military to be present in the training. I became curious about her background and her negativity towards giving peace a chance.
Coming from Lanao del Sur, I was not afraid to ask local people who this woman was. Twenty years earlier, her husband had been killed by the military in fighting between the [non-terrorist] Moro National Liberation Front and government forces. For confidentiality, I will not mention her name but my conclusion was this: Her past still haunts her. She’s among the many persons who never received proper counseling to help her overcome her traumatic experiences — not to mention the extreme pain she suffered from because of death of her loved ones.
I gained respect for her because despite her many critical statements, she never left nor walked out of the training. I was trying to empathize and continually observed her. As the sessions went on, her negativity slowly diminished. She freely participated and cooperated with the rest of the group. Throughout the latter sessions, she sat silently and listened intently, very different from how she was acting at the start of the training.
Most of the participants said that it was their first time to undergo training on post-traumatic stress or Trauma Healing. They all realized the importance of incorporating it in their Disaster Management programs. The debriefing workshops acted as an icebreaker among professionals from different sectors. This was especially important because of the negative notion by local people against the military combatants. The practice exercises paved the way to for dialogue among different groups.
Compassion and Consistency are the Keys for Healing
As the training experiences were completed, participants discussed the next steps for instituting post-traumatic stress counseling among all cultural groups suffering from armed conflict. Ms. Grace Alag, the speaker from Operation Blessing, Philippines, encouraged the participants to network and create a support network. This can help facilitate consistent and continually improved trauma counseling in communities afflicted by conflict. Everyone, Christian and Muslim, left the Social Hall of the Provincial Capitol of Lanao del Sur with one goal in mind: To be instruments of Hope to facilitate healing in their communities.