VOF Month 2 : Keeping Mindanao Whole Again
The Bakwits of My Childhood
My first inkling that there was trouble in my homeland Mindanao, began when I was only seven years old. In a pre-dawn, my sisters and I were hurriedly awakened by my father and mother who bundled us along to join a group of neighbors that was gathered outside our home.
Roused from my sleep and in my father's arms, I remember looking at the direction of their collective gaze: across a darkened sea, an outline of a land mass caught up in bloody red fire. Although a sea separated the smoldering land from where we were standing, fear clutched me and I asked my father: Will the fire spread and burn us too? It didn’t but it left in me a new feeling : a sense of unease that I could not understand.
The morning after, I heard a new word from by parents who were talking about the bakwits (local word for evacuees) in the plaza. Out of curiosity, my mother visited the plaza with me in tow. The “bakwits”, with swathed in their malongs, with frightened faces, and incomprehensible language, were all so strange and new to me. I picked up another word later that day: they are the Moros.
I didn’t know what it meant to be a Moro then but I remember that whenever we misbehave, the adults would then threaten to haul us to the Moros who will then “eat us”. It was this seemingly innocuous threat that planted the first seed of bias among us Christian children, that the Moros are to be feared and cannot be trusted.
Later on, in my college days, I came to learn more about the Moro people beyond the stereotype perpetuated by our culture. As Muslims of the South, the Moros are a major ethnic group living in the island since immemorial. As interested student of history, I learned how the Moro ferociously fought against the Spanish and later on, the American invaders even as other ethnic groups in the island have capitulated or surrendered to the mightier force of the invaders.
I also learned that the bakwits that I saw in my childhood were the Moro men, women and children who fled from their homes when their huts and crops were razed down by bolo-welding Ilagas upon the instigation of the Philippine government at the height of a counter-insurgency war waged against the Moro fighters in the early 70s.
The Moro armed conflict became more personal to me when my close friend in college , a Moro princess. You wouldn't expect such as vivacious, articulate and educated Moro woman like her hold a dark past.Except that she doesn't eat pork and prays to Allah three times a day, she in all respects acts and talks like ordinary Christian. But one day, she revealed to me the ordeal that her family went through. She shared to me in angry but trembling voice, how their houses were burned by the soldiers, and how her father was mauled on the suspicion that he is supporting the Moro fighters in the area. I saw in her eyes the fear that I saw in the eyes of the bakwits of my childhood.
Historically, Mindanao is home to many ethnic groups, including the Moro people. In search of land, Christian settlers from many parts of the country trickled in Mindanao. The Muslims slowly became a minority.
Tensions between the settlers and the indigenous peoples were managed by and large, until Ferdinand Marcos, came into power in 1965 .Under his rule, he began to provide arms to settler politicians as a way of getting rid of Muslim rivals. Not to be outdone, the Muslim politicians formed their own army.
My homeland then became the battleground in the intermittent Moro people’s fight for self determination. First, there was the Moro National Liberation Front in the 70s with their demand for independence . After it forged a peace agreement with the government, a break-away group formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is now largest Islamic rebel group waging war against the government. In the course of the Muslim insurgency 125,000 people have been killed.
People look at Mindanao as the richest island in my country. Our seas, mountains and plains teem of natural resources yet untapped. But my years spent living and working with the poor across different areas, as an NGO worker only made me a witness to the reality that the riches of my homeland are expropriated only by the elite and the powerful, while majority of the people lived in poverty and injustice. That six out of the 10 poorest provinces of the country are found in the region further attest to this.
Today, the spectre of militarization against the Moro people continue to swath paths of destruction and fear this time in a deadlier and costlier manner.
The Bakwits of Today
The bakwits that I encountered I my childhood years are no different from the bakwits today. Only today, the numbers are staggering and their conditions even more deplorable.
My friend, veteran photo journalist , Froilan Gallardo , who personally saw the new evacuation centers in Maguindanao and North Cotabato was horrified to see the “bakwits” living in so appalling conditions. In his 21 years of covering the armed conflicts in Mindanao, nothing prepared my friend for what he saw in the evacuation centers :
“Some were living in makeshift tents, and tents are swamped with flood waters. The babies sleep under the heat of the tents. The tents are unbelievably hot by midday and afternoon. They get water from dirty shallow wells they dug up beside the camp. They cook rice when they receive provisions, when there is none , they go on without food for days. They could not return to their farms and livelihood as the fighting continues. Evacuees live in that condition for almost a year.”
What makes their situation worse is that the military is accusing the evacuees of diverting the food to the rebels. Labeled as “reserved forces of the enemy”, the refugees are regarded with suspicion by the military.
Because of this perspective, the military refused to allow the entry of truck convoys bring food to the evacuees last May 2009.
Yet the military forgets that under the international humanitarian law, food assistance should be given to both civilians and rebels.
Only the NGOs like International Committee on Red Cross, World Food Program and the Philippine National Red Cross are assisting them.
Which is more staggering: the numbers or the apathy?
The estimated 300,000 persons languishing in evacuation centers in Maguindanao and North Cotabato are regarded by relief organizations as an “impending humanitarian crisis” larger than Rwanda and Kenya.
The sheer number of refugees is staggering. But what is even more staggering is the lack of regard for their situation by the local and the Manila government.
My journalist friend thinks no government can survive this if it happened in the western countries or in Africa. But here in the Philippines, the government choose to downplay this humanitarian crisis.
The mainstream media based in Manila have also put low priority on this crisis. Manila- based media is so detached from the real conditions in Mindanao. Moved by what he saw, Froilan Gallardo spoke to some editors in Manila and all they said is that “they need a fresh angle to the story”.
“But do we still need fresh angle when humanity is suffering?”, Froilan asked me. My friend has grown weary of reporting the armed conflict for years and finding no solutions in sight.
Resolving the problem of bakwits
The refugees have demanded both sides to stop fighting so that they can return home and lead normal lives again.
Today, the solution to the massive refugee problem lies in the resolution of the decades’ old conflict.
Last August 2008, our hopes were raised for the resolution of Moro conflict in Mindanao when the government and the Bangsa Moro came up the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Doman (MOA-AD) which would have sealed the final agreement. However, our hopes were crushed when the Philippine Supreme Court struck down the MOA-AD as “unconstitutional”.
The Supreme Court decision may have sounded off the death knell of the peace negotiation. But the opposite happened , it has galvanized actions among the civil society, communities and churches across Mindanao to let their voices be heard.
Taking a leap forward
To break the impasse between government and the rebel groups, the NGOs and the rest of the civil society in Mindanao have stepped forward with their own peace initiatives.
One is the Bishops Ulama Conference (BUC) which in May started an island-wide consultation on peace. An inter-religious body, they tapped the researchers from premier universities in Mindanao to listen to the people’s pulse on peace and development in Mindanao.
Based on initial report from Kalinaw Mindanaw, Fr. Albert Alejo S.J. head of the research project shared that in the many consultations they held, “you can feel the people’s deep hunger for sincerity from both government and the MILF, but most especially from the government.” This hunger resonates in the heart of Muslims, Christian and Indigenous People , urban poor, fisherfolk they came across Mindanao.
The local leaders of the cooperative movement have also voiced their plan to let the cooperatives play an active role in the peace building process. An advocate of cooperativism, Orlando Ravanera, believes that “the coops, being politically and ideologically neutral, are in a unique position to unify all warring forces since cooperatives democratize wealth and power and therefore lessen economic and social disparities”.
In a recent forum that Panaw Mindanaw, an advocacy movement , held among civil society, church workers and political groups in Davao City a month ago, many of the participants called on the political leaders in Mindanao to prioritize the peaceful resolution of the Mindanao conflict. As part of the movement, we vowed to press our agenda for peace and development to national leaders running for next year’s election.
The various efforts of the NGOs in peace-building work are crucial. These create a pressure for both sides to set aside their arms and come to the negotiating table. These form a peace environment, thereby preventing the hardliners of both parties from dominating the course of war.
To the hearts that have grow tired of the conflicts, it is heartening to know that many other groups aside from the warring parties are seeking peace.
We want keep Mindanao whole again.
But how do we keep Mindanao whole again when now, it is a social fabric torn apart by armed conflicts, poverty and mistrust?
For the present generation of Mindanaoans, the memory of the armed conflicts may be too fresh that it is difficult to know how to move forward.
But let us trust in the goddess of history to teach us how conflicts were resolved then. I believe that the history of peaceful coexistence among the many ethnic groups in Mindanao is longer than the history of the armed conflicts.
I also share in the belief that peace is too important to be left in the hands of the peace negotiators. We all have a stake in attaining an enduring peace and our voices on how to attain peace and development must therefore be heard.
We must raise our understanding on the Ancestral Domain struggles of the Bangsa Moro and the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao to deepen understanding among the people of the roots of the conflicts. When we have a common understanding of the roots of the Moro conflict, it gives us a common ground to move forward.
My enduring friendship with my Moro classmate lead me to believe that despite our cultural and religious divide, we share similar dreams which is for us and our children to peacefully live in our land, respect our diversity and be able to contribute meaningfully to its progress.
Only then can we generate more support for the peace process in Mindanao from Mindanao itself, Luzon and Visayas and ultimately empower the Filipino people to coexist peacefully.
I look forward to a new dawn when my children will no longer see bakwits in our homeland.(the photo is courtesy of Froilan Gallardo).
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.