World Mental Health Day: families find comfort in gathering to commemorate missing kin

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Four years after the armed conflict in Marawi City in Mindanao island, families whose relatives disappeared in the fighting and who remain unaccounted for are still in limbo over their loved ones’ fate. The uncertainty caused by the lack of answers about the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives makes their distress specific, compared with other conflict victims.

“It never came to a point where I thought of stopping. I will look for him for as long I am breathing. I won’t lose hope,” said 31-year-old Mariam* whose brother went missing two days after the hostilities broke out. “I feel envious of those who know where their deceased loved ones are buried. People like me are torn between hope and despair. We don’t know when the longing will end,” she said.

Mariam and several other families of missing persons (FoMs) from Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte provinces recently gathered to commemorate their missing loved ones at Maqbara cemetery in Marawi, where unidentified human remains from the siege were buried. They came up with the idea of visiting the cemetery and writing messages on a blank tarpaulin addressed to their missing relatives. Following COVID-19 health protocols, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been supporting FoMs since 2017, facilitated the gatherings.

For Mariam, meeting with her fellow families on this significant day is a source of comfort.

“Gatherings like this is an opportunity for us to feel that we are not alone. To some, this also serves as a reminder to resume their search if they stopped. Knowing that there are organizations that help us, like the ICRC and other governmental agencies, gives us hope that we can still find whom we are looking for – whether they’re dead or alive,” she said.

On the same day, other FoMs gathered at a farm in Marawi and a residence in Iligan City. They paid tribute to the disappeared and reminisced good memories they hold of them.

Sittie Jamerah Mohammad, ICRC mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) field officer, said that in the Philippines, there were no established mechanisms to commemorate the missing, so, as an alternative, the ICRC organizes activities where these families can openly remember their missing relatives.

“In the absence of burial rites, these activities serve as an opportunity for them to pay tribute to the disappeared—to somehow free themselves of potential guilt that they are forgetting their missing loved ones. In fact, part of the peer-support sessions is building a tangible commemorative project, such as waiting sheds and memorials, where these families can go to honor their missing and offer prayers for them,” she said.

Mariam represents one of thousands of families around the world whose quest for answers continues to this day. When asked what her hopes are in the future – she spoke of what every FoM could hope for – “For my brother to come out alive. If not, at least we can find his remains so my family and I can finally have the closure we long hoped for. For now, our search continues,” she said.

The ICRC, a humanitarian organization that assists victims of armed conflict, has been accompanying families of persons who went missing in the Marawi conflict in their search for answers. Results of the Family Needs Assessment (FNA) that the ICRC conducted in 2019 show that these families’ main priorities are knowing the fate of their missing loved ones, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) and economic assistance. To help address these needs, the ICRC designed the accompaniment program that was launched in June 2020.

The accompaniment program aims to support FoMs by 1) providing answers to their legal and administrative concerns; 2) providing MHPSS through peer-support groups; and 3) giving economic or livelihood support for the most vulnerable FoMs.

*not her real name

For further information, please contact:

Amer Hassan Sanggacala (in Iligan), mobile: +63 917 321 5787

Allison Lopez (in Manila), mobile: +63 908 868 6884

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