Creating Sinag Within | The Model Evacuation Center

INSTEAD of earthshaking bombs and gunfire, Creating Sinag Within’s second mission is met by long lines of military trucks driving out of Marawi City. There’s no more sound of ear-splitting firearms. It’s been a week like this now, according to evacuees at three evacuation centers we visit. There’s talk the siege has ended; the news is propagated by nine barangay captains doing the rounds in all evacuation centers to inform their residents that it’s safe to return home. But the effect is not that of immediate rejoicing.

For many, it’s bittersweet. Finally they can leave the constricting, dirty evacuation centers where they just live off relief but where will they live in Marawi City and what kind of work can they do to feed their families? While some don’t mind living in shanties on top of the rubble, others would rather stay a bit longer in the evacuation centers. This is how uncertain evacuees are about staying or leaving.

Ambivalence over their impending return home is most palpable in the ‘tent city’ evacuation center, our last stop. Each family lives in a 4×4 meter wide tent with a fenced garden around it. Its pebbled main street has street lights and dug out canals. This temporary neighborhood is the cleanest halfway home so far. That’s because evacuees have been organized into teams and take turns cleaning assigned areas twice a day, at 6 a.m. and at 1 p.m. Needless to say, this is the most frequently visited evacuation center by senators, congressmen, foreign dignitaries, and overseas development agencies wanting to see how evacuees are doing.

Rohma, the 22 year old camp manager, shares that becoming a ‘model’ evacuation center didn’t happen overnight. When the siege first broke, evacuees were housed in a madrasa with each classroom accommodating 10 families. There was no other way. War shocked survivors had to live in super close proximity like this because they didn’t have homes, no work, no money anymore. There was one month left to find an alternative living arrangement because the madrasa’s students would be returning after the summer vacation and would be needing their classrooms back. Rohma had her work cut out for her.

She meticulously profiled the evacuees to make sure there were no double entries and no fake internally displaced persons (IDPs). This didn’t make her very popular with evacuees at all. Then there was the challenge of having many tents from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) but no land to place them on. Most of the land were privately owned and therefore off limits. The government-owned corn field was the best solution. But where would they get money to level the corn field and build gravelled roads? Or is there another way? Rohma got to work finding out about how to set up an ideal evacuation center. She went online and researched information about ideal sizes of tents, how far apart to space them, where to place the water, electricity, and so on.

One fateful day, Rohma had lunch at a local carenderia and confided her worries to a fellow customer who she didn’t know, was the head of the region’s Civil Defense Office. On the spot, he pledged to help finance developing the corn field into a proper evacuation center. Encouraged by this stroke of luck, Rohma then pursued the Department of Public Works and Highways to help build the roads. After many letters and personal follow ups, they agreed. With the help of evacuees, the tents were assembled and in the next weeks, electricity and water were installed as well. It sounds simple now but Rohma says it took a lot of persistence, patience, hard work, cooperation, and luck.

At the time of our visit, there are 109 families in the evacuation center sharing 19 toilets, 11 showers, seven sinks, a drinking water station that provides 10,000 liters of water a day, a well with electric pump for washing, and a communal cooking area. A sign at the entrance of the evacuation center shows a list of rules for everyone to follow: It’s forbidden to cook inside and outside the tents, to fight, to steal, to gamble, to be drunk, to go out after 8 p.m., to bring in firearms, to use illegal drugs, and to accept visitors without permission. Rohma shares, “I tell them we are family. We are one. Let’s help each other!”

There’s an open bamboo cottage for evacuees to meet and to watch television. A multipurpose building is being constructed for bigger gatherings. There’s a tent for informal classes for children who don’t want or are not ready to go to school. There’s a tent for women to hold their own meetings and seminars. Evacuees who underwent training in sewing set up a tailoring shop that sells clothes made with sewing machines donated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Some resourceful evacuees have also started sari-sari stores selling everything from food to piggy banks. There’s a small community garden that’s going to be expanded soon. There are evacuees who’ve brought their tricycles from Marawi City and are now earning a living driving people around. There are also evacuees who have received training in electronics and are now earning a living as certified electricians.


Understandably, those evacuees who have found ways to earn a living prefer to stay for good in the evacuation center if that’s possible. But there are also those with no jobs who would still rather go back to Marawi City. A group of them have gathered in the bamboo cottage and do not mince words asking the social worker, “Will we be safe? Martial Law needs to end! The military should leave and let the Barangay Patrol secure Marawi instead.” Somebody else wonders, “Where will we work? The government’s P5,000 capital assistance is not enough to help us get settled.” The social worker notes down their concerns on the blackboard and tells them she’ll bring them to her bosses who will be the ones to decide what to do. How long will it take for them to respond? For now there’s nothing left to do but wait.

I learn that in this particular evacuation center, three camp managers are taking shifts in being with the evacuees at all times. Rohma explains, “It’s hard to leave the evacuees behind especially when someone gets sick or is about to give birth. They always turn to us for help with transportation and we ask the military’s help because the municipality’s ambulance is always not available.” One of our volunteer doctors takes this opportunity to tell Rohma that the sick are actually suffering from a very bad diet. “Gastrointestinal problems, urinary tract infection, kidney problems, arthritis, high blood, and high uric acid are very likely caused by the salty canned food. The best way to revert this is to make fruits and vegetables the staple.” Rohma falls silent and then admits there’s been only one time donation of fruits and vegetables since the evacuation center opened up five months now. “We have gardening tools and seeds but not enough land yet,” she laments.

Evacuees are so sick of canned food but they have nothing else to eat. Some readily admit to selling their canned food to buy milk and sugar and fish. Never mind if it’s forbidden; the evacuees are desperate. I didn’t realize how desperate they were until one of the evacuation center’s team leaders visits the therapy room that we’ve set up and tells us that evacuees are struggling with prostitution and drug addiction as well. This information is verified by other evacuees but I have no more time to investigate how prevalent these problems are and what’s being done about it.

What’s easier to find out through our therapists is that some children are so severely traumatized that they’ve stopped speaking and withdraw from the world. Their parents are themselves dealing with their own trauma and lash out in irritation at each other and their children. It’s not uncommon for a child to be isolated and kept at home or left with the other children during a “fun day” where they are made to dance to loud music, compete in rough games, and drink and eat sweets. But these only succeed in exciting the children more instead of calming them down.

The few interactions we have with sick evacuees though show that they are longing to get better. “What should I do to get better? Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” A man can barely move his joints but tries his best to follow the movements of one volunteer therapist and loosens up his body significantly. A woman returns after a wonderful sleep from the previous day’s foot bath and wants to be taught how it’s done. Many evacuees are afraid at first of acupuncture needles but are so stiff and cold and in pain that they give it a try and are overjoyed to feel instantly relieved. If the holes and wrecked buildings of Marawi can be repaired, there are so many ways humans destroyed and stripped of their joy, their dignity and their community, can be helped to make themselves whole again. It’s time we really listen to evacuees and relief workers on the ground and take a look at how evacuees live and what they eat. The answers are there.

Author’s note: A major focus of Creating Sinag Within’s Mission 1 in August 2017 and Mission 2 in October 2017 was providing holistic and integrative healing modalities such as Emergency Pedagogy, Traditional Filipino Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Anthroposophic Medicine. Taking the lead were health workers from various community managed primary health programs in Digos, Kidapawan, and Arakan. They provided natural therapies utilizing warm water, kalamansi, ginger, herbal ointments and concoctions to soothe and warm evacuees through foot baths, acupuncture, acupressure, compresses, and more. At the end of CSW’s second mission, its volunteers saw the importance of meeting with other humanitarian organizations and help each other be more mindful in using appropriate approaches in rehabilitating Marawi. For more information about how to support the next activities of Creating Sinag Within, visit or contact the Founder and Director, Rosan Aliya Agbon at

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