DATU PIANG, Maguindanao (MindaNews/03 Nov) — The Children’s Park here belongs to the children once again, smiling boys and girls going up and down the playground slide or running around the spacious plaza that was, for about a year from August 2008, home to thousands of bakwits (internally displaced persons).
They move around as carefree as children in the metropolis, unburdened by the images of tragedy that dominated this town during that period, too young to weave memories of a park transformed into a War Refugee Center.
Thousands of bakwits pitched tents and other makeshift dwellings on almost every square meter of the poblacion in 2008 and 2009 – at the park, the space above and under the playground slide, the gazebo, the covered court, the streets outside the fenced compound, the mosques, the fire department, the public library, the former Supreme Court’s Shariah Court-turned-multipurpose hall, the civil registrar’s office, the schools.
“This is worse than in the 1970s,” retired judge Felix Draper told MindaNews on October 5, 2008.
At its peak, 41,000 bakwits from Datu Piang’s conflict areas and neighboring towns, including Midsayap and Aleosan in North Cotabato, sought refuge in the poblacion from the outbreak of armed hostilities that greeted the botched signing on August 5, 2008 of the already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
On this Wednesday morning of October 24, 2012, the covered court and the gazebo are being spruced up with colorful pandala (decorative flags) for a wedding reception the next day.
The town hall is no longer a “ghost” hall as there’s a flurry of activities and Mayor Genuine Kamaong is up on the second floor in his office, receiving visitors, including Hadja Kadiguia Kasim, barangay captain of Liong.
Both officials have expressed optimism the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), signed in Malacanang on October 15, would bring peace.
“Maganda mabuhay nang tahimik. Wala nang gulo” (It’s nice to live in peace. No more trouble), Kasim said.
Indeed, the landscape from the poblacion to Barangay Alonganen three kilometers away has changed much. For while one still finds bullet-riddled abandoned structures along the road in this erstwhile battleground, one can now see Moro women harvesting rice in Barangay Liong, a rare scene in an area where planting and schooling and daily living are too often interrupted by little and big wars.
Kasim says the last mass evacuation was on August 22 last year (the same day the vernment peace panel handed over its proposed “three for one” peace plan to the MILF in Kuala Lumpur which the latter rejected the next day).
Unlike previous evacuations, though, this one was triggered by skirmishes between the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the breakaway group of former MILF commander Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato.In the 2008 war between government forces and the MILF, only a few dared travel the road beyond the Datu Gumbay Elementary School as residents of the villages there had sought shelter in the poblacion, including this school whose classrooms and grounds were taken over by bakwits.
During lulls in the firefight, farmers would risk the trip to their farms at daytime and on one occasion, MindaNews chanced upon a bakwit family walking the deserted road, the father carrying on both arms his child who died in the school-turned evacuation center, wrapped in a brown mat, for burial.
In the erstwhile battlegrounds – from Dapiawan in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town to Alonganen in Datu Piang – children on this particular Wednesday are playing on the roadside, bathing in the rivers or in the rain, even line fishing; the adults going about their daily routine, unmindful of the presence of uniformed MILF guerrillas from other areas but on assignment here, armed but relaxed, and yes, smiling, as well.
In two areas where MindaNews stopped to ask the MILF mujahideen what they feel about the recently signed Framework Agreement and how they define “normalization,” they would break into a smile, recalling their feelings while wathching the October 15 signing in Malacanang on TV, one group manning a detachment saying they watched it in an area in North Cotabato while the other group, resting near and under one of the many bridges along that long stretch to the Datu Piang poblacion, narrating how they and their comrades were teary-eyed as they watched the proceedings from the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.
Through a Maguindanaon interpreter, Rene, 37, father of four and a guerilla for two decades, says the signing means “wala nang bakbakan. Tahimik na” (there won’t be skirmishes anymore. It will be peaceful).
The FAB contains provisions on “normalization” including the gradual decommissioning of MILF forces. For Rene, “normalization” means never having to carry a gun anymore. Nholds, the interpreter, explains: “hindi na daw sila hahawak ng baril, maging normal na sila” (they say they won’t carry a gun anymore, that they will be normal).
“Normal” has an emerging new meaning now in an area where “normal” means war and bakwit.
Though not fully defined as yet, “normal” has taken on images of “wala nang bakbakan” and “no need for firearms.”
Zainuddin, 23, five years in military service, says he was “masaya at malungkot” (happy and sad) when they watched the Malacanang signing in Camp Darapanan. Happy because they have been told the FAB would bring peace, and sad because “maraming namatay na mga kasama” (many of our comrades died).
Zainuddin hopes he can go back to farming.
Twenty-year old Hamda, who joined the BIAF at 18, hopes the peace that the agreement would bring would allow him to go back to school or set up a small sari-sari store.
Norodin, 35, also hopes he can go back to farming and spending more time with his wife and four children, the eldest of whom is 9 and in Grade 2, and the youngest, 5.
“Yan ang gusto namin, yung peace dito” (that’s what we want. Peace here), says Norodin, who has been with the BIAF since he was 20. He dreams of going back to farming without having the weight of the gun on his shoulder.
“Mabigat ito sa balikat” (This is heavy on the shoulder), he admits, tapping on his M-14 rifle. “Ilang kilo din ito na kargahin sa malayo” (This weighs several kilos. It is heavy especially if you travel far).
An official of the Philippine Army told MindaNews an M-14 weapon weighs 4.4 kilos without ammunition and 5.12 kilos with full magazine. Norodin’s was fully loaded.
At Camp Darapanan on October 27, MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, told a press conference that they “look forward to a Bangsamoro family just like an ordinary family in other areas in the Philippines whose basic necessities are served… when there is security, when there is justice…”
“And once people feel that they no longer need to hold firearms because there is justice, there is security and everything is running well, then I think people will just voluntarily hand over their firearms and say ‘I do not need this firearm anymore, you can keep this for us,’” Murad said.
“That is logical because people aspire to have their firearm because they feel insecure, they do not get justice , they feel they are oppressed. So the tendency of people who feel oppressed, they cannot have justice, is to muster firearms in order to have justice,” he added.
A life of peace
Bapa Mamalinta, 56, father of 10 and a combatant in the last four decades, looks forward to a life of peace. He says he and his sons who also joined the MILF, want to go back to farming, too.
Under a concrete bridge where they set up a temporary base, Bapa Sampayan, father of eight and “almost 70,” says “kung peace na, siempre wala nang gulo.”
He smiles and waves back at civilians and MILF guerrillas on board a pumpboat passing under the bridge, the group smiling and waving at Bapa and his comrades.
“Magkaiba yung noon na walang pirmahan at ngayon na may pirmahan (It was different before (2008) when there was no signing and now when there is a signing), Sampayan explains, adding “kami sa field we’re very happy,”
But he is quick to add that their struggle continues “hangga’t hindi marating ang genuine peace” (until genuine peace is achieved).
Near him, an MILF guerrilla rests in a hammock, smiling. The others around him and at the multipurpose center near the riverbank – apparently intended for a passenger terminal — are smiling as well.
Bapa Sampayan explains the relaxed demeanor. “Kaming Bangsamoro naga-smile dahil may signing na,” (We, Bangsamoro, are smiling because of the signing), “hindi gaya noon na guerilla talaga kami, hindi kami makita ng hangin” (unlike before, as guerrillas, we were invisible, even the wind couldn’t see us). [Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews]