Doctor digs for the roots of healing

A young Filipino doctor wins a prestigious award for his holistic work with children.

Dr. Ernest Guevarra thinks of healing people and healing violence in the same way. For either to be successful, he says, one must look beyond surface symptoms to a root cause.

On the southern island of Mindanao, a region of the Philippines racked by clashes between Muslim insurgents and government forces, Dr. Guevarra manages a program to help children cope with violence. For his work with these children and others caught in conflict zones, Guevarra recently received a Reebok Human Rights Award, one of five given this year to activists under the age of 30.

He moved to the town of Pikit on the southern island of Mindanao just six months after completing medical school at the University of the Philippines in his hometown of Manila. For the past15 months, Guevarra has run Balik Kalipay - "Return to Happiness" - a psycho-social rehabilitation program whose main tool is play therapy.

"The world of kids is play," says Guevarra. Though children may not be able to articulate their experiences of violence and war the way adults do - an important step in healing - games are a form of expression they all understand. Guevarra trains teachers to work with students during school hours, while youth volunteers - barely younger than Guevarra - pick up the play therapy after school.

The beliefs that guide Guevarra's practice were not taught in medical school. He holds that disease is just part of a larger picture that includes social conditions, politics, and economics. In order to treat the whole person, he says, doctors must find a way to improve these conditions.

This ideology has led Guevarra to trade his role as doctor for that of community organizer. He pulls out his stethoscope only when absolutely necessary, preferring instead to engage in the culture, traditions, and practices of a community where both Muslims and Christians live. He meets regularly with elders and leaders to better understand the needs of the people in Pikit.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Medical Action Group, a health and human rights organization, sent Guevarra on a fact-finding mission to Basilan, in southwest Mindanao, where hundreds of Muslims accused of having terrorists links had been rounded up by the military. While examining prisoners who were allegedly being tortured, Guevarra found himself at the end of a guard's M-16 rifle and was thrown into jail. Undeterred, he continued his examinations, insisting on proper treatment for the prisoners, and was eventually released.

Earlier this month, at a gathering here arranged by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a group Guevarra has been involved with since his medical-school days, he paused before a podium. His voice trembled as he thanked the group gathered to honor him - members of IPPNW, fellow recipients of the Reebok Human Rights Award, and keynote speaker Howard Zinn. After his brief remarks, Guevarra walked out of the restaurant to collect himself. When he returned, he sat at the edge of the room apart from the rest of the audience.

In the lobby of a Boston boutique hotel a few days later he explained: "I would always say, even to Reebok and to IPPNW, that much of the reason I came [to the US] was to be with friends. In some ways, the award was secondary. I wasn't really looking forward to it." He blinked self-consciously, indicating with the sweep of an arm that interviews and publicity are all undesired attention. "During that event," Guevarra continued, "I was with family, I was with friends, and just to see them there was very touching."

Though tearing himself away from Mindanao, where fresh conflict has recently erupted, to accept the Reebok award was extremely difficult for Guevarra, he says now that it might also have been what he needed. "The past two months, I thought that I was really breaking down. I needed to pull back and clear my head to see things more objectively. That night, it all just came together."

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