When the government is not concerned with human rights, where do Filipinos run for help?

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Raya* has been raising her six children alone since her husband has been incarcerated for 15 years for allegedly being involved in a bombing. After struggling to look for justice for her husband while still supporting her family, she found refuge in civil society organizations that have helped her rebuild her life. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — One afternoon in 2003, Saleh* went missing. He, being an imam, was supposed to be at a mosque in Palawan to deliver a sermon to a crowd of Muslims. Raya*, Saleh’s wife, instantly got worried when he didn’t show up that afternoon, and was still nowhere to be found when evening came.

“Meron isang Muslim na may katungkulan sa military … siya ‘yung nagbigay ng feedback sa amin na si Saleh nakakulong,” shares Raya.

In 2002, 14 people were killed and 55 were wounded after a bombing at Fit Mart, a department store in General Santos City. A man who claimed to be a member of Abu Sayyaf informed a radio station that a group affiliated with the Al Qaeda was behind the bombing.

Saleh was suspected to be one of the perpetrators of this incident. “Pinagbintangan lang siya,” Raya says.

After learning about her husband’s imprisonment, Raya, who had just given birth to their sixth child 20 days earlier, flew to Manila to visit Saleh at Camp Crame, leaving her children to neighbors in Palawan. When she got to Camp Crame, Saleh couldn’t recognize her.

“Hindi ko alam kung ano ang nangyari — kung sinaktan ba siya o hindi. Basta noong nakita ko ang asawa ko, malamig talaga ‘yung katawan niya, parang basa,” she says. During her first visit, he just stared at her blankly for 10 minutes and said nothing. Raya says it was only after several visits that Saleh was able to come back to his senses.

When she was finally able to properly talk to her husband, they decided that it would be better for the children to be with their family in Mindanao. Raya went back to Palawan, got her children, went to Mindanao, and flew back and forth between Mindanao and Manila to tend to her children as well as seek justice for her husband. She did this for three years.

As it became taxing and costly for her to be flying to and fro, she got all her children from Mindanao and started trying to make a life in Manila. But having an incarcerated husband, raising six children on her own, building anew in an unfamiliar place, and dealing with trauma are things that Raya couldn’t handle alone. And so she sought help.

Balay is a center that pioneered psychosocial rehabilitation specifically for victims of torture and displacement in the Philippines. The organization carries out programs and trainings that are aimed at helping people seek justice as well as find income-generating activities. Photo courtesy of BALAY

A refuge for victims

In 2007, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a nonprofit organization that provides support for political prisoners, held an activity for the families of inmates, and one of the attendees was Raya. After learning about her situation, the organization referred her to Balay, a center that pioneered psychosocial rehabilitation specifically for victims of torture and displacement in the Philippines.

She immediately started attending Balay’s programs and trainings that are aimed at helping people like her find jobs or start livelihoods. “Minomotivate nila ako. Parang empowerment,” Raya says. “Wala akong alam eh. Kahit mamalengke hindi ko alam noong nasa labas pa ‘yung asawa ko.”

Much like other human rights organizations in the country such as KARAPATAN and Medical Action Group, Balay started at the height of martial law to address the needs of torture victims and political prisoners during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial rule. These organizations essentially have the same aim: to uphold the rights of Filipinos and seek justice for any human rights violations.

The differences are on their expertise — KARAPATAN focuses on human rights education and advocacy; Medical Action Group specializes in medical assistance; and Balay centers on psychosocial rehab or the need to help victims and families to reintegrate back to society.

Joy Lascano, the executive director of Balay, shares that when a group of political prisoners were released at the end of martial law, Balay had to respond through psychosocial programs that would help these Filipinos regain a sense of normalcy.

“That was also the time when [we saw] the relevance of incorporating or including in the mandate of Balay ‘yung displacement,” she explains. “Merong help for torture victims and political prisoners and the other one is displaced communities and families. There's a strong connection kasi most of those who were incarcerated came from displaced communities as well. And until now, nangyayari ‘yun.”

Joy Lascano, executive director of Balay, says that the organization has been having difficulties with security and funding due to their human rights work under the current political climate. Photo by JL JAVIER

During the Marawi siege last year, Lascano says that the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Department of Health, and the Department of Education tapped Balay to complement their work with psychosocial rehab. “We've been doing this torture rehab for the longest time, so we have a role to help the government agencies,” she says.

Medical Action Group’s executive director, Eliza Hernandez, adds that when there are needs asked of them that they cannot address, they also look to other human rights organizations such as Balay.

“Nabibigay namin ‘yung health support, for example, susupplyan namin ng gamot para sa TB,” she says. “Pero [kung] sabi nila gusto nila ng income-generating [na] negosyo o pagkakakitaan, inilalapit namin sila o hinahanap namin ‘yung pwedeng magbigay sa kanila ng tulong na ganoon.”

In Raya’s case, while Balay was providing assistance to her family, the organization also held vocational workshops inside the Special Intensive Care Area jail in Bicutan, where Saleh was detained before he was transferred to New Bilibid Prison (NBP). Saleh would make dishwashing liquid, fabric conditioners, bags, wallets, and keychains that he would then sell inside the facility.

“Marami din kaming na-income doon,” says Raya. “Nakakapagdala siya sa akin monthly ng mga ₱5,000.”

However, when Saleh was transferred to Bilibid, Balay found the prison stricter and more difficult to arrange programs with. The organization also had internal operational issues that needed to be resolved, halting the livelihood activities they offered inmates.

Psychosocial programs

Psychosocial rehabilitation programs have become an increasing need in countries bombarded with humanitarian emergencies arising from armed conflicts and natural disasters. According to Dr. Jasmine Vergara, the National Professional Officer of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Manila, psychosocial rehabilitation is important for victims of extreme life experiences — such as violence, wars, displacement, and disaster, among others — as the mental health problems among these survivors can be incapacitating.

“Extreme adversity triggers mental health problems such as depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or prolonged grief disorder,” she explains over email. “All of which can severely undermine daily functioning.”

Vergara adds that these adversities may also exacerbate the conditions of those with pre-existing mental health problems. Through rehabilitation programs, Filipinos who are under high levels of anxiety and stress are trained and supported to build their resiliency as well as their resolve to lead a better life.

However, Vergara says that programs involving mental and neurological conditions need consistent and long term follow-ups and monitoring, and this becomes challenging when other factors — such as lack of funding, organizational issues, absence of government support, etc — come into play.

“In humanitarian settings, continuity of care may be difficult because mental health care is not consistently available or people have been or are about to be displaced,” she explains.

“This time mas delikado. Kasi kung before, the government in general are receptive, accepting their accountability, I think ngayon hindi ganoon. Talagang may impunity.” — Joy Lascano

The WHO has also devised the Mental Health Gap Action Programme that is working towards offering psychosocial service and medication particularly to low- and mid-income countries. But because initiatives such as this encompass people with any kind of mental health problem, it becomes crucial for local human rights organizations to provide psychosocial programs that will also let the victims understand that the injustices done to them by authorities within the Philippine system, shouldn’t happen to them.

In Balay’s experience, they have seen that these injustices are mostly perpetrated on Filipinos who are accused of being part of the New People’s Army or MILF or Abu Sayyaf. Lascano reiterates that, indeed, they are seeing a connection between tortured and displaced victims because of the continuing armed conflicts in the country.

“Minsan random na Muslim na nagkataon noong nag-bombing nandoon nahuli,” she shares.

Lascano recalls that they handled a case of a Muslim who was wrongly blamed for a bombing in Basilan in 2006. When he was caught by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he was set on fire and jailed for five years. He was eventually proven innocent, and Balay assisted in helping him recover as well as seek justice.

“No amount of counselling was needed at that time. Ang gusto lang [ng biktima], justice. Ikaw ba naman sinunog ka, ano ba gugustuhin mo?” she adds. “Justice is not only getting out of the jail. Justice is paano makukulong ‘yung person na nagpahirap sa kanya? Unfortunately, hindi ganon ngayon.”

Inmates at the Special Intensive Care Unit in Bicutan used to make these beaded wallets to earn extra income. Balay would also help them sell these products. Photo courtesy of BALAY

The current climate

With President Duterte in office, he has made it clear that his administration is not concerned about human rights, but about human lives. Because of this, there have also been an upswing of community initiatives like Baigani and Rise Up that support victims of the drug war. The economic, mental, and psychological impact this war has caused Filipinos also urged organizations like Medical Action Group to start a psychosocial program for EJK victims.

“This time, overwhelming ang demand ng pag-address … Mas marami ‘yung tumutulong ngayon pero ang laki ng problema,” says Hernandez.

“Halimbawa, 5,000 ‘yung rinerecognize ng government [na deaths] pero multiply it by three. Kunyari may isang anak o dalawang anak, at isang nanay na naiwan,” she explains. “So ‘yung 15,000 na ‘yun, hindi pwedeng ‘yung bata lang inaasikaso mo. Hindi lang din pwede ‘yung nanay lang ‘yung inaasikaso mo. Dapat ‘yung buong pamilya.”

Lascano also shares that Balay now supports EJK victims because of the growing number of casualties. However, she laments that because they are involved in human rights work, there are funders who are now hesitant to get involved with them because their programs are closely tied to advocating for human rights.

“This time mas delikado. Kasi kung before, the government in general are receptive, accepting their accountability, I think ngayon hindi ganoon. Talagang may impunity,” she says. “Tapos ngayon nga ‘pag engaged ka sa ganito baka mapagkamalan kang drug addict pa. So ‘yun ‘yung medyo nahihirapan kami at this point.”

Human rights and empowerment workshop at Pranjetto Hills, Tanay, Rizal led by Balay. Photo courtesy of BALAY

Raya also has the same concerns with the current administration. With Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa as head of the New Bilibid Prison’s Bureau of Corrections, she fears that her husband would be in an even worse condition.

“Kung pwede sana ayusin nila ang pamamalakad sa NBP ngayon. Kasi kahit maayos na tao si [Saleh], nadadamay po siya sa mga pamamalakad,” she says. “Ngayon, ‘pag may nahulihan ng shabu, isang tao lang, [pero] damay-damay po ang lahat [na pinaparusahan].”

Because of the drug issues inside Bilibid, families, including Raya’s, are then prohibited to visit or are only allowed to talk to their loved ones for half an hour to an hour. They are also only permitted to bring a limited amount of food.

Raya shares that she’s seen Saleh’s physical condition deteriorate over the past few months. “Hindi niya binabanggit sa akin pero alam kong may problema siya sa loob. Hindi siya makatulog gabi-gabi,” she says.

Saleh has been incarcerated for 15 years now, and while Raya continues to undergo psychosocial programs with Balay to move her family forward, she’s still hoping to see the day of her husband’s freedom.

“Sana mapalaya na ang asawa ko — ‘yun na talaga ang pinaka punto. Kailangan namin ng paghilom.”


*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.