One of the more frequently-pronounced words among development workers is the term ‘unpack’ as in “we need to unpack the human rights normative framework” or “we need to unpack the right to development for various groups”. The term came to mind as I spoke to more and more displaced persons of Marawi City. I had put my research work on hold for a few days in order to help my host organization, needing all the extra hands it can get, in emergency response work. My task was to document the whole humanitarian response activities. This entailed doing a sample of interviews with beneficiaries.
Listening to their stories, women and older children especially, I realized that the label ‘IDP’ or ‘evacuee’ bakwit is a very much generalized description much like saying ‘human’ which supposes that what is said of one human or what is true for one, whatever the gender and circumstance, is true for all (hence prompting for the one-size-fits-all solution). This is a hugely mistaken view.
What image do most people see on hearing ‘evacuee’ or ‘IDP’? I would guess fleeing persons. Yes, that. What about the image of family members getting separated as they are fleeing? That I don’t suppose is something readily-perceived by most people. Most people only see in their minds say a boat full of people on the run, after all that’s what most people see on telly, each person in the boat subsumed into only one face: refugee, IDP, evacuee, bakwit. Collective terms like ‘victims’, ‘survivors’, and ‘IDPs’ do not latch on to human imagination as instantly or deeply perhaps because since these are groups they’re perceived as relatively strong down to individual members. Only when effort is taken to get individual stories or experiences of victimhood or displacement that we see the gaping wounds of pain and loss that got squashed beneath the weight and mass of the collective.
I learned that many children that fled Marawi City in May got separated from their parents but managed to cling to one of their grandparents usually the grandmother who also left together with them. Many children who fled with their primary families ended up with only one of their parents, the mother in most cases. And many women escaped the City with very young children in tow, one of them usually an infant or newly-born.
Part of the documentation task was to get photos (with their consent after I’d informed them of the implications of course, and I got jittery every time I approached afraid I’d get acid on my face, but I was surprised and grateful every body said yes. I guess they knew how these things go), to be taken in a positive frame, of beneficiaries. The human story is also one of hope, after all. That is what we want to hold on to and for donors to contribute toward. In one village, the children who’d immediately become my friends helped me with this task. They went and called their mothers and grandmothers who had already gone inside the center after having lined up long in order to get the goods. “Come,” one boy called to me, “we’ve already gathered them. They’re waiting for you.” I’d not anticipated the gesture and was very happy about it. I immediately went after him. Half-way down, the other children came to meet us. I praised each of them. Then they walked with me and introduced me to the waiting women.
“Do I need my husband with me? Do I need to call him?” asked one of the women.
“No need. What do we need men for?” I joked, and then shit did I just say that? Did I offend? I waited for, maybe, boulders landing on my face. Then I recalled the Muslim community is in fact matriarchal.
The women burst out in laughter. I relaxed. Their expressions said damn right. Right there was their positive moment. So, click, click, click.
I was chatting with the women, my children-friends in a protective circle around us, when one of the village leaders found me. In my haste, earlier, I didn’t tell them where I’d be.
As we walked back to the main area, I realized then the limitations of humanitarian aid. Response has been standardized in the form of food, shelter, water, psychosocial activities of drawing, playing, etc. — essentially physical and visible things — but a lot of human needs in times of crises or disasters remain intangible, occuring within each heart and mind, personal reactions to personal pain and loss that could only be healed by allowing oneself and others to grieve. What is it that’s said about grief? It’s as individual as an individual’s fingerprints, and that it’s one of those walks that individuals need to take alone. I look at psychosocial activities done to children and women and I can’t help wonder if everybody’s just willingly playing a game of pretend.
Grief is like living two lives: one is where you pretend everything is alright; the other is where your heart silently screams in pain.
While it helps to talk about or deal with pain and loss together with others, responders need to be sensitive to the fact that not everybody is experiencing it in the same way at the same time. Grieving people especially require solitude or time alone to figure things out on their own and deal with powerful and often conflicting emotions. It’s the only way for individuals, and then, families, and ultimately communities to truly move on.
So, yes, unpack needs. There is so much more to displacement, conflict, emergency, or disaster than what’s captured on current needs assessment forms and reports.