Balo-i residents band together to help Marawi evacuees
MANILA, Philippines – It was late afternoon Tuesday, May 23, when Amer Riga and his family learned from close relatives in nearby Marawi City about the clashes between government troops and armed rebels. Later that night, he would learn from media that President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao.
The Rigas lived in Balo-i, Lanao del Norte – a town between Marawi in Lanao del Sur and Iligan City. They knew it would only be a matter of time when fleeing Marawi residents would pass by Balo-i en route to Iligan.
The Riga family did not think twice to help the evacues, and handed out food and cold water to those who passed by. They knew what it was like to be in their shoes.
In 2001, Amer and his family lost their home and source of livelihood due to the attacks of the faction of Nur Misuari in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in their area. (READ: List: MNLF’s 5 major attacks)
“Kung anong pinagdaanan nila ngayon, ganoon din po sa amin year 2001 kung saan sinunog po ng mga bandido 'yung mga bahay po namin, sinira po lahat ng aming paninda. Nagmistulang abo po ang nangyari sa lugar namin,” Amer said.
(We experienced what they're going through in 2001, when the bandits burned our homes and destroyed our goods. Our community was reduced to ashes.)
News of the Maute terror group's attack on Marawi revived that 2001 "trauma," said the 28-year-old nurse, and he and his family could not bear not to do anyting to help the evacuees, who were suffering from hunger and thirst.
“Nung makita po naming na umatake 'yung Maute group sa Marawi City, parang konsensiya na po namin pag 'di kame nakatulong. Nakakaawa din po kasi sila(When we learned about the attack of the Maute group in Marawi City, we thought that our conscience would haunt us if we don't help them. They're in a pitiful situation)," he said.
Amer cannot even begin to describe what they witnessed. Evacuees came in throngs with whatever they could bring with them from their crisis-hit hometown. Many of the Marawi residents, according to Riga, arrive in Balo-i on foot. (READ: Students walk 32 kilometers to flee Marawi)
Marawi City is 18 kilometers from Balo-i – a 4-hour trek. (READ: Timeline of Marawi clashes)
“Nakakaawa po – lalo na po 'yung matatanda at bata na naglalakad. Minsan po may nagko-collapse dahil sa sobrang uhaw at gutom (It's heartbreaking, especially in the case of the elderly and children who were walking. Some of them would suddenly collapse because of extreme thirst and hunger),” Amer said.
On day one of the Rigas' relief operations, they were only able to provide iced water due to lack of funds. But through social media, many netizens reached out to them and offered to donate other relief goods for their cause.
“Galing lang po sa family ko po bali plano po talaga ipamigay iced water kase 'yun lang po talaga 'yung kaya namin. So habang tumatagal po may dumaraan po nagbibigay ng konting donation 'yung mga neighbors po namin, 'yun po pinambibili namin ng tinapay pang-pair po doon sa tubig na binibigay," Amer said.
(What our family gave was only iced water at first because that is all that we could afford. But later on, strangers and some of our neighbors gave small donations. We used the donations to buy bread to go along with the water.)
It was like a silver lining amid the crisis. Many families from Balo-i chipped in. Young and old, town residents helped the Riga family in packing, preparing, and distributing food to be given out to the Marawi evacuees.
Their work started 8 am and ended at 12 midnight every day starting Wednesday, May 24. The heavy rain on Friday and Saturday did not stop the family's relief operations.
“Basang-basa po talaga po kami, even 'yung mga dumaraan po basa po talaga, wala po kaming choice kailangan po talaga nila ng tulong (We were soaked, as well as the evacuees, but we had no choice, we really had to help),” Amer recounted.
Aside from the heavy rains, the Riga family also had to overcome the challenges brought by the strict security.
In order to help more victims, they had to hike for an hour to reach the evacuees’ path to Iligan and meet them halfway. Riga even recalled how some of the evacuees would run towards them, competing with each other to get food and water.
Marawi before tragedy
Amer had known Marawi as a place full of hope and life. The Maute group, however, had snatched the light out of Marawi. (READ: Ahead of Ramadan, Marawi residents pray for lasting peace)
“Makulay, masaya, puno ng ligaya – makikita mo 'yung mga tao doon na nagtutulungan. Pero ngayon parang opposite na siya; parang biglang nabaliktad. Nakakalungkot, parang halos mawala na 'yung Marawi City dahil sa mga pangyayari,” he said.
(Marawi was full of life and happiness. You can see the people there helping each other. But now, it seems to be the opposite. It’s saddening. Marawi has nearly disappeared due to the developments.)
When will Mindanao experience peace? While Riga said he does not know the answer to the question, he would not stop hoping and praying for it.
“Tanging hiling lang po namin bilang isang Filipino Muslim, maging mapayapa at wala nang gulo sa Mindanao dahil baka hindi na po namin kayanin kung mauulit pa ito. Maraming buhay ang nawala ngunit kailangan namin manalig sa Diyos dahil ;yun lang ang meron kami,” Amer said.
(As a Filipino Muslim, we only wish for peace and an end to this chaos in Mindanao.. I am afraid we can no longer bear it if this continues. Many lives have been lost but we have to have faith in Got. That's the only thing we have left.)
Amer said they need more help. They still need trucks to transport the supplies to the victims. According to him, it would be difficult to continue bringing the food and water on foot.
The family is also looking for volunteers who can help them distribute relief goods. – Rappler.com
For donations and help, you can reach Amer Riga on Facebook or contact him at 09177740363.
Khrizel Aira Coronel is a Communications student at the Far Eastern University and a Rappler intern.