BARANGAY LAYOG, Pagalungan, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 19 Feb) — At the height of the wars between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2000 and 2003, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced and languished in evacuation centers.
For months, they endured cramped evacuation centers where they built temporary shelters made of light materials and tarpaulins.
When the smoke cleared, many returned to their respective villages despite the uncertainty of the situation. But some decided to stay where they evacuated because they feared that war may still erupt anytime.
In this evacuation area in a compound owned by the Mamugkat family, over a dozen families decided not to return to their places of origin.
The compound, smaller than a football field, sheltered 687 families when the war broke out in Barangay Buliok in the neighboring town of Pikit in 2003.
The week-long offensive displaced at least 40,000 residents from the villages of Pikit and from the remote barangays of this town, among them Zaida Abubakar, mother of six, who fled Buliok when government forces launched an assault against the MILF.
Abubakar recounted that they evacuated to her parents’ house in Barangay Dungguan of this town at the height of war. But a few days later, they moved to this barangay.
Fourteen years later, Abubakar and her family are still living in the Mamugkat compound.
She recalled that they lost everything during the bombardment. “We also can’t go home there because our children aren’t there anymore. It’s just both of us and our youngest child,” she added.
Aside from the uncertainty in the peace process, Abubakar is also worried that clashes would erupt due to rido or family feud. “What will happen to our belongings should rido erupt again and we’ll be forced to evacuate once more? Our things will be left behind,” she lamented.
Back in Buliok, they used to till a small piece of land planted to corn and coconut. Today, her family depends on a meager income from a sari-sari store.
Florendo Abubakar, a relative of Zaida, recounted that since the 1990s, Layog has always been an evacuation center whenever war erupts.
“Even during the 1970s, our elders were offering this area as evacuation center because many of the Moro people were afraid of the vigilantes,” he added.
During the government’s offensive against MILF forces in Camp Rajamuda in Pikit in 1997, thousands of civilians sought refuge in this village.
When the guns fell silent, Florendo said some of them decided to stay.
The Mamugkat family, a clan with royal lineage long known for helping people in need, offered the compound to the displaced villagers.
At the periphery
In a village in the periphery of the Ligawasan Marsh in Kabacan, North Cotabato, dozens of families have also decided opted to stay where they evacuated, instead of returning to their places of origin in Pagalungan and Pikit.
Noriha Mangiging, a mother of nine, fled Barangay Bulod in Pagalungan when the war erupted in the neighboring village of Buliok in the Pagalungan side. Both Pagalungan and Pikit have barangays named Buliok, which are separated by the Pulangi River.
“I left Pagalungan and evacuated here when President Erap (Estrada) launched the all-out war” against the MILF in 2000, said Mangiging, who weaves traditional sleeping mats for a living.
She recalled how they were forced to build shanties made of tarpaulins when they arrived in Cuyapon. “Our house was way better back in Bulod but when we evacuated, we had no choice but to sleep in a house made of tarpaulins.”
Peace still uncertain
Florendo believes that even if President Rodrigo Duterte hails from Mindanao, peace is still uncertain in the region.
He cited the Mamasapano Tragedy that led to the non-passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.
The clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25, 2015 left 66 persons dead: 44 members of elite police commandos under the Special Action Force (SAF), 18 MILF guerrillas and five civilians. The SAF launched a clandestine operation to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir aka Marwan without coordinating with the military and MILF, as agreed upon.
“The government was aware they should coordinate when going inside MILF territory. But why did the generals not coordinate?” asked Florendo, who works for a grassroots Moro organization.
Florendo believes that the clandestine operation was designed to sabotage the peace process.
“Even if Duterte is from Mindanao, I doubt if he could bring peace here. He’s not the only one making the decision. We have a Congress, many lawmakers do not understand the real situation on the ground,” he said.
Hopeful under Duterte
Fourteen years after they were displaced, Mangiging says they are still hopeful that they could return to their places of origin.
“Under this administration we are hoping that something good will happen to the Bangsamoro. It’s good that we have a new President because we will have a chance to go home,” she added.
Duterte, the first President from Mindanao, has promised to bring peace to Mindanao.
“We will ask the President to help us return to our homes,” pleaded Mangiging.
Laiba Anan, in her 50s, still wishes to return to Barangay Dalgan in Pikit. Like Mangiging, Anan fled their village when the war broke out in the nearby village of Buliok.
But Anan stayed for four months at the town proper here before moving to Cuyapon four months later.
“I want to go home because my siblings are still there. But I visit them sometimes. Once things settle and peace will reign, I will go back to our village because Dalgan is my home,” the mother of five said.
Zaida is hopeful that President Duterte will give what is due the Bangsamoro “so that there will be no more wars and no more evacuations. Because it is very difficult when we are frequently evacuating. Sometimes we have nothing to eat.” (Keith Bacongco / MindaNews)