By CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS
1st of two parts
MARAWI City — Sixteen-year-old Noraimen Radia, her 23-year old sister Najmah and their eight siblings are appealing to authorities to help them find their parents and those who remain missing a year since the siege started on May 23, 2017.
In an evacuation site here, Fatimah Lumabao, mother of eight, continues to wait for four of her children to come home. She was in a grocery in Iligan when the fighting began and was reunited with only four of her children a few days later.
In a town in Zamboanga del Sur last Friday, a Subanen family celebrated the supposed 23rd birthday of Rinante, who was among those held hostage by the Maute Group. The fourth of seven children, Rinante worked as baker in a restaurant in Marawi for about two years.
His sister Rechel, based in a nearby city, said her parents are still looking forward to Rinante’s homecoming. On his birthday, she was told, they slaughtered four chickens and took out one of his clothes from the cabinet, to represent him in the celebration.
In Davao City on Saturday, Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub, Vicar General of the Prelature of Marawi and chaplain of the Mindanao State University before he was taken hostage on Day 1 of the siege, appealed to government to attend to relatives of the missing, as well as the dead whose remains have yet to be recovered.
He said many hostages, predominantly Christians, did not survive and were buried in the war zone. Meranaws who were trapped inside the war zone and did not survive, were likewise buried there..
Noraimen, a Grade 10 student and the ninth child of Albasher and Saada Grande Radia, is proposing that tarpaulins showing photographs of missing persons be displayed in strategic areas to help them in their search for their missing loved ones, the same way government did in their search for members of the Maute Group.
“Authorities are looking for Maute Group members, right? We want them to also look for the missing persons by putting their photographs on tarpaulin in checkpoints or especially in the areas near the lake, in the remote areas,” said Noraimen.
Since the siege broke out on May 23, 2017 and martial law was declared by President Duterte that night, tarpaulins showing photographs of suspected terrorists have been displayed in various checkpoints and other strategic areas across Mindanao.
Noraimen hopes tarpaulins of missing persons will also be displayed in checkpoints and other key areas across the lake in Lanao del Sur and neighboring towns.
The sisters said they believe their parents are still alive but may be suffering from trauma and are in a place where nobody knows them.
“For us, they are still very much alive. They may just be suffering from trauma and are in a place where nobody knows them,” said Najmah.
The Radias lived in Barangay Tuca Marinaut within Ground Zero, the 250-hectare main battle area between government forces and the IS-inspired Maute Group and its allies. The family got separated as they were fleeing the war in late May last year.
Najmah had arrived from Cotabato City on May 23 but in Pantar town, Lanao del Norte, was barred from proceeding to Marawi. Three of their siblings fled Marawi on May 24, taking the boat towards Wato.
Noraimen recalled that she and five other siblings, as well as their parents, made several attempts to evacuate but her parents did not want to leave behind at least 44 Christian and nine Meranaw workers. She said their father was afraid the Christians would be killed by the terrorists.
The workers survived.
Noraimen and her siblings, their parents and neighbors made yet another attempt at fleeing the war zone on Day 4, timing their movements during intervals in air strikes.
Along the way bombs fired from the ground exploded, injuring six, five of them Meranaws.
Afraid another bomb would explode, the Radia couple told their children, then already a few meters uphill, to go ahead and they will just follow.
It was the start of Ramadan. Their father assured them the gunfight would likely be over in five days.
Noraimen and his siblings sought refuge in the homes of relatives in neighboring Saguiaran town in Lanao del Sur then in Balo-i and Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte, in Cagayan de Oro and in faraway Tacloban where they stayed for six to seven months in the house of their paternal uncle who had earlier set up business there.
“We don’t have a permanent address. It’s difficult to have no house …. you know how difficult it is to be without a house, you feel ashamed you’re using someone else’s stove… it’s really better to have your own house,” said Najmah, adding they are seeking refuge in houses of relatives who are themselves victims of the siege. (to be concluded)