“At the age of eight, I witnessed a massacre which I barely escaped from and where we lost three uncles and an aunt. Vividly, I could still recall the smoking end of that armalite barrel that was pointed at me in that fateful Friday afternoon of March 16, 1984. To this day I still do not know why my life was spared, but all I know is that a part of me was killed on that day.”
Alber Husin, a fellow anthropologist and development worker, wrote the passage above for a thesis that seeks to know the political and socio-cultural dynamics behind gun violence that troubled his ancestral community in Sulu for generations. Nearly twenty-eight years later on Valentine’s Day, he himself would fall from an assailant’s bullet.
This passage that Alber wrote in his “Kalis and Armalite: Symbols of Weapons and Meanings of Violence in Tausug Society” left us sleepless and listless in a house on Apitong Street at Green Meadows in Davao where we both shared a home while writing our respective thesis for our masters. Soon after writing the passage, Alber dropped his keyboard, went out of his room, and paced around the little space our small and cluttered living area offered. In deeply personal terms, he shared that all his life he tried mighty hard not to recount the details of that horrid day but the demands of scholarship compelled him to set them down into prose. He hoped that doing so would help him understand the events of March 16 and many other murders that his and other families in Sulu had to contend with.
Alber went on writing: “Experiences like these are not normal, not easy to recount or even to forget. If it were only possible, I would have long erased them from my memory. The simple and happy life that I had opened my eyes to as a child was forever gone. We had to arm ourselves as if we were back to where it all began. By the age of twelve, I was already given my first gun and was soon exposed to a variety of weapons that I believed were not common among typical non-Tausug households in our community.”
Alber stood for the right of his family and community to bear arms as the means of seeking redress under a condition where the wheels of justice grind painfully slow, if at all. He had come to believe of the necessity of guns in a socio-political environment where state authorities utterly failed in reigning gun violence and protecting powerless communities. He would write: “Arms in relation to prevention of greater violence can bring about peace.”
But then, he also raised inconvenient questions: “Were we in any way different from that person who murdered my uncles and aunt? Is it wrong to have guns that could take life, but in the process protect life as well? What are the common experiences among us Tausug that could explain our need to have weapons? Are we violent?”
He answered the questions he raised by presenting the overarching social and political malaise that bred the violence in their midst. But writing Kalis also compelled Alber to come to terms with who he was and what happened to him, his murdered family, and their community on March 16. Kalis marked his difficult break from a painful and horrific past. His heart bled while writing it but in the process set himself free from the burden of evil that he had witnessed long ago, in his young life.
Breaking from the dark spell of March 16, he went on answering his questions way beyond his thesis, through the trajectory of his life and the career path he had taken.
Instead of arming himself and serving as a warrior to his family as he was taught to do, he aligned himself with peace advocacy groups, joined researches that helped unravel the many unknown dimensions of armed conflict events that a string of communities in Mindanao faced. He actively pursued programs that bridged young Muslims, Christians and indigenous people. He lectured on peace, culture, and Moro history before the Philippine military. He, a Muslim, discussed the future of Jesuit social engagement with Islamic communities around the world, in a conference in Rome. The final job he held was serving as area head of a development project that works toward the elevation of indigenous people education in Muslim communities. His passion was inspiring. He worked on these involvements tirelessly and energetically as an aggressive warrior would.
In the practice of everyday life, he broke free from the parochialism of gun violence in Sulu and came to engage with many so he, they, and we may value our common humanity.
Alber may have fallen from a gun that once took away his childhood and killed his innocence. But he stood larger than life by fighting the condition that bred the violence in our midst through the way of a gun-less warrior. (Jowel Canuday of MindaNews, is a close friend of Alber. He is currently completing his doctorate in social and cultural anthropology at Oxford University in England).