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All Mine to Grieve ...

Internal displacement and mass evacuation have been hounding my homeland for about half a century now. The armed conflict in Mindanao, the second biggest island in the Philippine Archipelago of 7,106 islands, is known to be the second oldest internal conflict in the world – next only to North and South Sudan.

In the mid-seventies, shortly after Martial Law was declared by then President Marcos, the firefights between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) caused the exodus of illegal Muslim migrants to the neighboring state of Sabah, Malaysia, which resulted to en-masse deportation during the crackdown by the Malaysian authorities as part of their anti-terrorist campaign in 2002.

The World Bank estimated 120,000 casualties and an undetermined number of injuries in the two decades of the rise of the Bangsamoro struggle in the Southern Philippines in the early seventies led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). By 2001, internal displacement was pegged at two (2) million, with half a million rendered homeless in April 2000 by the “all-out-war” policy of then President Estrada to “crush the Moro Islamic Liberation Front” (MILF), the MNLF break-away group which became the bigger force to contend with.

While President Arroyo, in contrast, declared an “all-out-peace policy” toward the MILF, the same policy was temporarily abandoned when the military launched another assault of MILF-controlled territories in February 2003, in pursuit of “criminal elements” operating in the area. And again, this drove residents in the conflict zones into massive evacuations.

The collapse of the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) by both the Philippine Government and the MILF in August 2008 ignited warfare, with the rampage of “renegade” MILF commanders who expressed anger and disillusionment on the government’s “insincerity” in the peace talks. The armed conflict caused the displacement of about 69,000 families (approx. 350, 000 persons) in Central Mindanao, most of whom took refuge in almost a hundred evacuation centers. It likewise caused deaths and injuries and damage to properties (dwellings, schools, health centers, crops and livestock) pegged at about Php64 Million.

And yet the situation on the ground is more complex than what is often viewed from the outside. There are complicating factors that include clan wars, land disputes, widespread banditry and natural calamities, amidst confusing socio-political dynamics, varying economic interests and unique cultural dimensions. More directly relevant to the violence in the area are the chronic conflict among different “clans” (rido) and land disputes within the Muslim population, that become more visible during elections (i.e. Ampatuan massacre), and which generates sporadic flare-ups—often drawing in military reaction. There is also this ordinary but widespread banditry which all the more confuses the origin of violent attacks, and often drags the military into alleged “indiscriminate response”. Thus, mass evacuation and displacement in certain communities has almost become a way of life.

Even at the early stages of the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF, the negative impact of the El Niño phenomenon in 1997 to 1998 had already taken its toll on the conflict areas like the Liguasan Marsh, where communities thrive largely on agriculture (farming and livestock), so that displacement was inevitable. Another compelling factor that has aggravated and prolonged the most recent internal displacement is the occurrence of natural calamities like flooding during heavy rains. Most of the IDPs come from the Liguasan Marshland, the country’s biggest swamp straddling three regions and three provinces, which consists the conflict-affected areas. Frequent flooding prevents repatriation, even if the IDPs are willing or ready to normalize their lives in their places of origin.

Recent raw estimates on the ground pegged the total number of IDPs at a quarter of a million. But the figures can not be qualified in any easy manner since some of the IDPs have settled for good with friends and relatives and prefer to merge into the host communities than stay at the evacuation centers.

The Philippine government has been confronting this challenge of addressing the armed struggle spanning many centuries – the Bangsamoro struggle on their claim for ancestral domain. The Tausugs, Maguindanaoans and Maranaos, three of the biggest tribal groups of the island that embraced Islam long before my country was colonized by Spain in the 14th century, have fought for the longest time to preserve their faith, identity, culture and traditions and re-claim their “homeland”.

I have been with the peace talks between the government and the Muslim rebels since 2003. In August of 2008 in Putrajaya, Malaysia, I was there when both peace panels were on the verge of sealing the MOA-AD, set to be witnessed by the international community, when the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order. What could have been the most awaited and painstakingly crafted breakthrough burst into a painful embarrassment and disillusionment. We knew then we rammed into a dead end. And now we’re confronted with close to half-a-million IDPs.

Armed government troops hovered around as I made my way to the boat landing, a battalion of Philippine Marines as escorts. This was how I do my rounds as a state peace worker! Ironic and absurd as it may seem, my field work in conflict-affected areas have always been carried out this way, with “security measures”. I was in one of the biggest “bakwit centers” (IDPs evacuation camp) to see how the IDPs are faring.

I helped myself to one of the boats anchored on the landing, if only to pose for a souvenir in my country’s biggest marshland … and to my amazement I was cruising! The boatman let go of the anchor and off we went! As I plunged headlong into God’s boundless embrace, my heart marveled at the beauty of my homeland and the goodness of my people. Inside “enemy lair”, amidst rebels, crocodiles and deadly mosquitoes, I knew I have conquered my greatest fears in the joy and pride of knowing I belong here.

Our National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, had this to say more than a century ago: “My people have always been poor. Our only possessions are our lands and our families.” Unfortunately today, even our lands are no longer ours … and our families are wounded and shattered with so much strife.

At the background my escorts were overwhelmed and furious … with all the apprehensions on the perils that my “irresponsible behavior and improper judgment” could result to – that I could get killed or abducted … or worse, it could trigger an armed confrontation between my “protectors” and the rebels and cause more casualties and damages.

But home is where my heart is … and there is no safer place than being right there where you belong. Our lands may lie beyond our reach now… but even through the strife and amidst our grief we are blessed with the certainty of belonging. For lack of any chance spontaneity became our way of life; for lack of any choice durability became our tradition; for lack of security we hold on and hold fast to each other’s embrace. My soul is grieving … but I am not alone.

Comments

tocssfoundation's picture

In partnership with you.

Certainly you are not alone.
Continue to stand bold and be strong.
In partnership with all your efforts.

Loads of love
Temi

Shalom.

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks Temi!

Right, sister ... and I'm growing into worldwide proportions as I read similar stories from our sisters! Really nice to be here at World Pulse! All the best to us...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

agwairimu's picture

God is with us.

Continue sister, your work is not in vain. God will reward each one of us for what we have done for humanity. Please remember you are not alone. I am happy to be a member of World Pulse.

Love
Agnes

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks Agnes!

Sister!!! If not for the heart-warming and encouraging voices around here, my WP journey could not have been this meaningful! I know you're there ...All the best for us ..

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Amei's picture

Emie yet another ...

informative touching story. I am too enjoying the WP journey. I have been too silent for too long. I am learning to come out form the cucoon strong and focused. I am with you.

Have a goos weekend

Cheers, Amei

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks a lot!

Hi Amei! We all enjoy being here because we read testimonies of real people ... each of us has her/his own story. The truth, when expressed with sincerity, touches listeners because we relate with the same emotions and sentiments ... all the best, sister...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Fungai Machirori's picture

Powerful!

Thank you for sharing a little history - and present - with us. Keep writing away the darkness sister.

from today i live out of my imagination
i am more than my yesterday
tomorrow i plant a new seed
nothing that lies behind easy
nothing that is ahead real
my within is all i have today
*Napo Masheane*

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks a lot!

Real nice to have a venue for sharing, Fungai ... I'm trying to expound my sharing in my previous write-ups, because I feel I need to share more on the way the armed conflict that we have to live with and survive happens, as well as its roots and how we go about it... It's a pleasant relief to know someone listens and cares. Amazing WP!

Always,

Emie Zozobrado

Jado's picture

Yes You are not alone Sister

Dear Emie,

Keep your good work. In the field of peace and conflict sometime one feels as if she has not done enough! But my Sister I am telling you are doing a great job and keep it up. God will always guide you and give you wisdom. I would like to know how yong people take this situation? Are they being used like to the way I see this from our end?

it is unfortunate that in the pursuit of Power by selfish leaders, we end up in such endless conflicts that destroy our society. There is hope and you are not alone.

Thank you for the good work.

Jado

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks a lot!

Hi Sister Dado!
Nice of you to read through our predicament. Yes, the conflict is going on and the situation is very volatile and fragile. Like I said, so many factors have complicated the centuries-old problem. Of course, we are holding on because we are hoping things will come right again, but at times it just gets worse! I know we are not alone ... I realize right here at World Pulse that many are suffering the same piteous plight all over the world. It really pays to speak out and exchange views. There's much to do and we need each other!

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Rosebill's picture

With you too

Dear Emie,
I have just come back from a six month stay in Cebu - I was working on a rehousing project with JPIC for scavengers living on the Umapad dumpsite in Mandaue and moving the to Compostela. The Philippines is such a wonderful country with beautiful resources that are not being used properly and the rich who are also the ones prominent in politics become richer and the poor poorer. All i can say is more and more people are interested in helping your country and I know the newer pinoy generation are just as interested in liberating their country.
All the best!

Rosebill Satha
Chairperson
Self Advancement for Youth in Malawi (SAYOM)
P O Box 30621, LILONGWE, Malawi

Hi Sister Rose! So you were here in my country?!!! Cebu is my father's homeland. In fact, I spent the first 4 years of my career in Cebu City. Thanks a lot for the appreciation! And, oh yes, the presence of the international community is widely seen and felt in my country, particularly down south - Mindanao (my homeland), where assistance is badly needed in terms of funds, capability-building and basic services. But in such a delicate situation like the conflict-prone and calamity-prone areas, what is really necessary is self-sufficiency. We just have to help ourselves! The idea of dole-outs is doing more harm than good!!!! We are a rich country in term of resources, you are right, but the rich become richer while the poor become poorer ... that's how politics really sucks!

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

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