Saturday, September 15, 2007

Life in Pikit refugee camps

TRY to picture moving in with four families having four children each cooped in a 10-by-15 foot government-donated tent, with the tents spaced barely three feet away from each other. Is the idea appealing?

This is the scene that will meet you if you visit one of the evacuation centers in Pikit, Cotabato. The tents were spread on a dry, parched land, away from the shelter of trees or any building.

The refugees became the direct recipient of the sun's infernal heat. (I experienced the heat firsthand, having toured the area in the heat of the 12:00 O'clock sun in my most unsuitable sleeveless shirt and hatless head).

Since the onset of the war between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government forces last February 8 which forced the civilians to flee from their homes, these refugees suffered living in the crude tents, spreading sacks and empty cartoons on the ground to sleep on. They have to bear falling in line to get the food rationed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development once every two days. The food ration consists of five kilos of rice, three cans of sardines and three packs of noodles.

If you've got a big family, it's your problem to budget that food to fit your family. They can't even gather vegetables to add to their food because the land all around them yields nothing but weeds. One can solve the shortage of rice by adding lots of water to make porridge when cooking, but that presents another problem.

Water is very scarce. This particular refugee camp housed more than 900 families. To meet the needs of these 900 families, a solitary water pump was installed and the local firetruck supplies only one firetruckful of water every morning but many refugees complained of stomach ache after drinking the water supplied by the firetruck. Water is never enough for these people.

You'd better not ask about the state of their comfort rooms. If there are six members in your family and you have to wait while someone else is using the comfort room, I'll leave you to imagine what a dozen toilet bowls can do to cater to the needs of more than 3,000 people.(not to mention the scarcity of water) They are fit to be renamed "discomfort rooms".

The evacuees continually battle with their own enemies - dust, flies, illnesses and heat during the day. Mercifully it hasn't rained yet. If it rains, we'll have thousands of "floating" evacuees in this center and that's a grim prospect.

At night, they fight the hordes of mosquitoes that attack them. Some said they just employ their palms to swat the mosquitoes. They have no electricity. They use candles and oil lamps, and pray that the tents will not catch fire one night.

The Pikit gymnasium housed another 192 families. The bleachers, stage and floor were littered with sacks and bundles of personal belongings, human bodies, hammocks and a lot of other things. The gym is one chaotic world of squealing and squirming kids. Unlike those in the tents, these refugees have the advantage of having a roof above their heads but they lack privacy.

A medical team is deployed in the centers to cater to the immediate medical needs of the evacuees. Topping the charts in illnesses is cough and cold, followed by fever, lose bowel movement, toothache, allergy and others. To keep the chidren busy, the daycare teachers in Pikit conduct afternoon classes where children are allowed free use of crayons, modeling clays, pencils and colored papers.

Asked what message they would like to extend to President Arroyo, the refugees said they are praying for this war to end because they want to end their suffering and go back to their homes. Some of them said they missed their coffee very much.

"Alam mo naman na nagkakape kami kahit tanghaling tapat. Wala namang kape sa ration namin (You know we drink coffee even at noontime. Coffee is not a part of our ration here)," one man said.

These evacuees may be able to go back to their homes and resume their normal way of life, but the bitter memories and scars left as a result of the war will stay with them forever.

(February 20, 2003 issue Sun.Star Davao)

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