SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao (MindaNews/17 June) — It was almost noon and the heat inside the gym of the old Maguindanao capitol in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat was getting to be oppressive. With the program winding down, the Presidential Security Group personnel guarding the entrance were a lot more lax about people coming and going. They searched the table drawers for my pack of cigarettes and cheerfully handed it back to me as I made to walk out.
Coffee first. Glamour was catering; its personnel setting up lunch while guilelessly practicing how to guide foreign guests through the menu selection. They were about to move the coffee dispenser off the buffet table when I walked in.
Balancing the paper cup, I sought the shade of a lean mango tree, all set to finally indulge my chemical addiction. Earlier, several soldiers familiar with my smoking habit assured me I could smoke anywhere on the grounds.
As GPH-MILF ceremonies go, this historic turnover of 50 high powered firearms and 25 crew-served weapons along with the decommissioning of 145 MILF combatants was kind of low key. The OPAPP people were not too full of themselves today, thus the event was not at all circus-y. Well, except for the yellow caution tape that cordoned off the firearms and the combatants and a President that walked off the stage in the middle of GPH peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer’s speech.
I had time to read a text message from a former student who was now sitting with the combatants’ ladies. It said, “Ma’m, may pension ba ang mga decommissioned combatant?”
Gee. I don’t really know. I understand that with this show of faith on the part of the MILF, the government is expected to reciprocate with, at the very least, livelihood opportunities for the 145 decommissioning combatants. Today would be the start of the processing, with the first step requiring a comprehensive profile of the individual cases to assess their needs for government assistance. If we go by the experience of the Social Integration Program for former communist rebels, I figure this is going to take a while before all 145 MILF could be processed through the reintegration system.
Between now and then, I do have high hopes that each small step takes Mindanao a little further in the journey towards lasting peace.
I looked up to find His Eminence Cardinal Orlando B. Quevedo walking up the concrete steps towards my tree. I hastily smashed my cigarette into an ashtray someone had thoughtfully hammered to the trunk. The cardinal is the fastest moving target – the best way to catch him is to stand still till he catches up with you. In the last couple of months I’d get his email from wherever he was, mostly commenting on the latest draft of peace messages we were crafting for the Friends of Peace.
“My favorite psychologist!” he warmly greets me.
He stops for a picture with me under my tree. He was headed home for lunch and a nap.
Later, he would text Carol an invite that we took to mean that the ice cream shop would open. So at mid afternoon we all trooped to the cardinal’s palace – a humble cottage really. Freshly rested, he ushered us to his kitchen table and set about taking out sugared donuts, mugs, and bowls. We helped ourselves to ice cream and lots of laughter.
Off the kitchen door, bookshelves housed Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, John LeCarre, Ken Follett, Jack Higgins, an odd Nora Roberts, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I asked the cardinal why these were segregated from the books on the bigger bookshelf lining one wall of the kitchen.
“Those are violent books,” he said. “I like them.”
He was fiddling with the brown sugar that refused to leave the bowl.
“Too long in the fridge,” I said. That was so I didn’t have to admit I scraped off all of it that could be persuaded to part with the hardened mass. I had dumped the lot into my mug.
He took another bowl and dumped about as much sugar into his coffee. And his mug was bigger than mine.
“You still take sugar?” I marveled.
“Lots of sugar,” he said. “And salted fish for breakfast. I love bulad.”
Ah, no wonder he’s my favorite cardinal! Not that there’s too many of them to choose from. Still, he’s my favorite. Sugar and salt, coffee and donuts, ice cream and violent spy books. And he doesn’t bat an eyelash when I light up outside his kitchen door.
We stayed an hour during which he showed us the golden ring and cross necklace given by Pope Francis. I playfully stole the ring and he gamely pretended to be surprised it was gone before his very eyes.
“Pest control,” he said, as he laid down a stack of his installation pictures for us to bring home. It shows him at probably the only time he wore the ring and the cross necklace.
At goodbye time, he cautioned us not to steal his fruits. Outside, his dwarf mango trees were indeed bearing fruit so low, some touched the ground. I took a leaf from Rodge and got me a nap shot waiting for the mango to drop into my waiting mouth.
It’s great to have friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re 48 or 76. When you’re with friends, you do what friends do. You play. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan chairs the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. You may send comments to [email protected]. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)