The Philippines - Misrata
Jenny Gustafson - 13/04/2012
Maria Daisery Garcia and her friend Mariam Castel stand in front of the collection of photos of dead and injured people on display in Libya’s third largest town Misrata. The pictures are part of an exhibition to honour the memory of the months of fighting in the city. Maria and Mariam, migrant workers from the Philippines, know the names of almost every person in the photos. When the war began last spring, they chose to stay in Libya and volunteer at one of Misrata’s hospitals.
“I don’t like to see these photos. I know many of these people, they used to be our patients. This young girl, with her leg in a cast, is called Malaak. She was only eight years old when her whole family died in an attack last year. Many of the others in the pictures are dead now,” says Maria.
The exhibition is right on Tripoli Street, Misrata’s main thoroughfare where much of the fighting took place. Most buildings on both sides of the street are now devastated. Facing the exhibition are two apartment buildings with injured walls and windows gaping empty. One of the bottom floors used to house a lamp store; now, the whole interior is burned out. Only skeletons of scorched chandeliers hang like gangly spiders from the roof.
Just behind the exhibit is a big area where Misrata’s outdoors souq used to be. Today, no fruit and greens are on display. The grounds are empty bar a pile of wartime leftovers: destroyed tanks and military vehicles that bear witness to the fighting that took place. The roof above has been split open by NATO bombings. The light from the afternoon sun finds its way through the holes, providing unintentional spotlights on the metal rubbish.
“You can’t imagine how this place used to look. After the fighting ended, it was very dirty. It smelled bad and there were bullets everywhere. It was like a ghost street,” says Maria. She points to a house just next to the market. “My flat was right over there. It was hit during the fighting, so we had to evacuate. For two months, when the fighting was at its worst, I couldn’t go home. I stayed at the hospital, working 24/7 with the injured.”
Maria and Mariam are two of the around ten million Filipino citizens who work abroad in order to support their families. Maria has been in Libya for four years, working as a nursing teacher. Mariam, who is a statistics researcher, arrived right before the war started. At that time, some 25,000 people from the Philippines were working in Libya. The decision they had to make was difficult: stay, with fear for their lives, or go back home, without a job or income. Many chose to stay.
“Five of the teachers in Misrata went back to the Philippines. Sixteen were evacuated to Benghazi, and ten stayed to volunteer at the hospital. Most of us who decided to stay are nurses: we felt we had an obligation to stay. We wanted to help,” says Maria.
By March last year, Gaddafi’s forces had pushed the revolutionaries back and were in control of many cities in the west. Misrata, halfway between Tripoli and Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte, suffered hard.
“They cut communications and we couldn’t go outside. For us teachers, there was no way to know what happened to the others. But the Libyans were very supportive. When we couldn’t go out, they came to us with food and water,” says Maria. “The worst thing was when they said ‘We’re ready to die for our country’. Then we thought: what about us? We want to go home!”
Like many Filipino workers across the world, Maria and Mariam have families at home. Maria has five children, Mariam has four. For Maria, it has been two years since she last saw her family.
“I came to Libya because I had to. It’s impossible for me to support for my family through working in the Philippines. My children are at school, so I have to work hard,” says Maria. “Of course, my family was worried about me when the war started. But my oldest boy, who is 17, was joking when we spoke on the phone. ‘Mum, can you record the sound of the bombs and guns?’, he asked me.”
Mariam had only been in Misrata one month when the war started. Despite this, she decided to stay. “People asked me why I stayed instead of returning home. But most of them were grateful that I stayed. I felt that I was part of the community. And I hadn’t gotten to know Misrata. I didn’t have a chance to see how beautiful it was before.”
Back at the exhibition, Maria and Mariam mix with the families who have come to visit. Kids dressed in red-green-black – the colours of the free Libyan flag – pose for pictures in front of battlefield trophies on display: burned out cars; tanks covered in graffiti; the famous statue of a golden fist clutching a US jet, brought from Gaddafi’s Tripoli residence Bab Al-Aziziya. Inside, the faces of Misrata’s martyrs cover the walls; outside, caricatures portray the fallen dictator and his sons.
Both Maria and Mariam are happy in Misrata. They hope to go to the Philippines for a visit soon, to see their husbands and kids. Then, they want to return to Libya and continue working. “Inshallah,” says Maria with a smile.
This article is published with the courtesy of Mashallah News , Babelmed’s partner.