Asia America Initiative
By : Albert Santoli
Invisible to most of the outside world, the world's largest new refugee population due to armed conflict is scattered across the marshlands of typhoon-flooded central Mindanao. During the first week of August 2009, I organized an emergency relief mission with my Asia America Initiative [AAI] Philippines Country Director, Ms. Rohaniza Sumndad. We were accompanied by a group of local NGO leaders and a truckload of AAI Catalyst for Peace college volunteers from surrounding Christian and Muslim communities.

We carried medical and other humanitarian supplies, including toys for traumatized refugee children, donated by partner organizations in the US and the Philippines. AAI has often been the only international private NGO conducting relief operations in the war zones of Mindanao. Although an outsider and a non-Muslim, I do not carry a weapon or have military guard. Instead, I choose to immerse myself within the local communities who provide for my security against violent criminals or extremists.

Over many years, I have been a witness and have been an aid provider to refugees in many wars across the Asia Pacific region, the Balkans, Africa, and Latin America. I had thought I had seen as much human suffering as human beings could endure in tragic places such as Afghanistan, or Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge genocide, during the Vietnamese military occupation, and more recently, on the mountainous Thai border where desolation angels like orphaned Burmese hill-tribe children grow up in survival camps.

However, my staff and I were not prepared for the massive numbers of displaced Filipino communities that we found in numerous shanty clusters along the flooded road between Cotabato and Datu Piang in Maguindanao. The most pervasive tragedy there is the lack of organized humanitarian assistance for this vast displaced population, many of whom have been out of their homes and afraid to return home for one year. They wait for peace to finally be restored.

According to the United Nations' agencies, more than 300,000 Filipinos -- Muslims and Christians -- seeking survival in blue plastic or thatched palm leaf huts surpass even Africa in the amount of human suffering caused by war and inter-ethnic violence. These Filipino refugees cope with little organized assistance for a variety of illnesses caused by unclean water and few sanitation facilities.

Local offices of respected international agencies such as the World Food Program, the Office of International Migration [OIM] and the Red Cross are under supplied and overwhelmed with daily emergencies. Our AAI delegation carried medicines, including anti-hypertension capsules for grandparents who are exposed to the hot sun, cold rain, and stormy winds. We also brought 50 kilograms of oral rehydration salts, which can save the lives of 3,000 infants and children dying from dehydration caused by water-borne diseases that are rampant in the camps.

For almost one year, since the breakdown of the peace process in August 2008, I have traveled on numerous occasions to provide emergency assistance and seek reconciliation between Filipinos of various cultures and religions in Mindanao armed conflict areas. Supported by local government officials and non-governmental groups, AAI's Rohaniza Sumndad has organized trauma counseling among Christian and Muslim community leaders to build a grassroots reconciliation process in a bid to end 40 years of communal violence.

Asia America Initiative has found that regardless of the Mindanao people's religions, they will choose peace if provided with the opportunity.
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