By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
Eleven years into his priesthood, Fr. Cesar Hilario has joined and led humanitarian missions. But he admits that last year – 2020 – has been the most challenging so far. With disasters happening one after the other, turning a blind eye to the sufferings of those who have least in life is as criminal as it can get.
“Responding to disasters last year was very challenging, particularly with our restricted mobility both due to the pandemic and the several government checkpoints that were put up even before the controversial Anti-Terror Law was passed,” Fr. Hilario, a Batangas-based priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, said in Filipino.
Faith-based organizations have a special place in humanitarian response, as they are long part of a community even before a disaster strikes. This key feature of faith-based organizations has been recognized locally and internationally, including the United Nations.
But for IFI priests – both those involved in humanitarian work for years and those who were thrown into this field of work in 2020 like the proverbial baptism of fire – humanitarian response is also a way to bring to life Christian teachings, and reach out to the marginalized and the oppressed.
“This is our responsibility,” said Rev. Jewel Tumaliuan, a priest based in Isabela.
The year 2020 opened with the eruption of Taal Volcano, which destroyed homes and livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos in its surrounding towns and villages. This displaced about 61,000 families, and were brought to some 497 evacuation areas.
Immediately after the Taal eruption, Fr. Hilario launched a data gathering drive, which he provided to key ecumenical institutions such as the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.
“There is still no proper housing program for those who lost their homes,” said Fr. Hilario, adding that most displaced residents are either still residing in evacuation areas or are staying with their relatives.
Some, he added, were moved to a housing project in Ibaan, Batangas, which was originally intended for soldiers. However, many residents did not accept this relocation as there was no source of livelihood.
Responding to a pandemic
Next month, March, marks the first year since the Philippines was put under a strict lockdown to supposedly curb the local transmission of the dreaded COVID-19. But instead of putting health protocols in place, prioritizing of mass testing, and providing much-needed social protection for the vulnerable, the government resorted to what many regard as a militaristic approach, with at least over 100,000 reportedly arrested for quarantine violations from March to September 2020.
Fr. Hilario said he witnessed the desperation of many workers, who were retrenched from work in beach resorts and hotels in Batangas and had no money to go back to their provinces. They went hungry and were very anxious over the uncertainties that the pandemic brought to their lives and sources of income.
To respond to the workers’ plea, Fr. Hilario, who is the governor of the South Central Luzon regional conference of the National Priest Organization, coordinated with other priests in the region to facilitate their safe return to their respective provinces – some as far as the Bicol region.
There were also IFI priests that led information dissemination, as they shared minimum health protocols and straightened out false information and beliefs on the dreaded pandemic. Rev. Tumaliuan said she included awareness raising in her sermons, especially in a time when information was very important and could literally save a life.
Apart from information dissemination, the Diocese of Romblon and Mindoros also raised funds for 80 Mangyan families, amounting to P35,000. This one-time financial assistance, no matter how small, was a relief to the hunger and uncertainties that the pandemic has brought them, said Deacon Fosana of the IFI’s Mission to the Mangyan.
Slow aid to typhoon survivors
In the last quarter of 2020, the Philippines was hit by at least three strong typhoons that left houses and livelihoods of many farming communities destroyed. This exacerbated the already dire living conditions that most Filipinos, particularly in the Bicol region, are subjected to even before the disastrous 2020 began.
Government data, for one, reveals that while the Bicol region is considered as the “fastest” in terms of improved agriculture and fishery services, economic opportunities, and delivery of social services, a third of their population is still lives below the government’s poverty line.
In 2020, the pandemic has forced most Bicol farmers and agricultural workers out of their farms due to the strict restrictions on mobility. And just when they were about to earn from their produce, they found their farms submerged in deep flood water when back-to-back Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses pummeled the country.
The Mangyans, too, have been suffering even before typhoons after typhoons hit their community, said Deacon Fosana, adding they depend on the root crops and trees they planted for food.
“Still, government aid was really slow,” said Fr. Hilario.
In response, Fr. Hilario raised funds and led three relief operations in typhoon-hit communities in Camarines Sur. They were able to pack at least 3 kilos of rice, canned goods, and dried fish for nearly 2,400 families who benefited from the relief operations. Rev. Tumaliuan, on the other hand, raised funds for over 150 families in two typhoon-hit communities in Isabela, a province north of Manila.
At risk of red-tagging and other forms of vilification
Raising funds and resources to launch these humanitarian efforts may seem daunting, but for these IFI priests, it was actually the least of their worries. For most of the time in 2020 and in the years before that, responding to the needs of the communities was not without dangers of being red-tagged.
In 2017, Fr. Hilario facilitated a humanitarian mission to a farming community in Mt. Banoi in Batangas, days after the military reportedly launched relentless aerial bombings. Government forces claimed to go after New People’s Army fighters but the priest said that the bombs instead fell on the farms and livestock animals, displacing residents from their livelihoods.
Along with humanitarian agencies and concerned grassroots organizations, Fr. Hilario joined a humanitarian mission, to look into the plight of the farming community and provide food for the displaced residents. But even this the military prevented.
A year later, President Duterte signed the Executive Order No. 32, which reinforced the number of soldiers deployed in the regions of Bicol, Samar, Negros Oriental, and Negros Occidental to supposedly “suppress lawless violence and acts of terror.” Amid the pandemic and highly-criticized poor response to the spread of the virus, the Philippine government also passed the controversial terror law.
In the past three years that Deacon Fosana has dedicated in the Mission to the Mangyans, he has also witnessed how this could lead to a humanitarian crisis. For one, the Mangyans were being summoned to military camps since December 2020, citing a supposed testimony of a purported rebel returnee that claimed their community is supporting NPA fighters.
“Others were held for a day. There were some who were questioned for two or three days. They were told that even giving water to NPA fighters passing by is already considered giving support to them,” Deacon Fosana said.
Despite the challenges, Rev. Tumaliuan saw the importance of humanitarian response, including setting it up in parishes. She said, “The Church is always where people seek for help. We cannot afford not to be ready.”