BULDON, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 29 October) — In 1998, a young man walked across the pitch-black night with nothing in sight but the flicker of blazing muzzles of guns firing. He lit his torch made of dried coconut leaves so that the warring families can recognize him. Though nervous, he got himself in their midst and called on both parties to cease firing and start a dialogue with him in the middle.
Then on his first term as mayor, Abolais Aratuc Manalao was both praised and criticized for laying down his own life to rid his town of rido or clan wars that have plagued the town for decades.
His courage to defend his constituents from bloodshed was put to test again during the 2000 all-out-war of President Joseph Estrada when government troops attacked the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) Camp Abubakar which straddles parts of Buldon town.
Knowing the devastation his town would suffer if the arena of war were to extend to Buldon, he gathered his constituents and marched between the positioned MILF guerillas and approaching government troops and negotiated with both parties that his town be spared.
As a result, not a single shot was fired in Buldon during the war. “There was really nowhere to evacuate to and my people would starve in evacuation centers as there was no food, some may even choose to fight the government if we did not act accordingly,” Manalao recalls.
His selfless and bold actions for his constituents’ welfare without fear for his own safety earned him the respect of his constituents who fondly call him “Ang Panday” in reference to a local film hero portrayed by action star Fernando Poe, Jr.
“Panday” in Iranun means healer, and the moniker matched Manalao’s vision of healing the wounds of conflict and the stigma of past uprisings, where Buldon took centerstage during the time of his grandfather, the late Hadji Bangon Aratuc, dubbed “the Grand Old Man of Central Mindanao.”
Aratuc also served as mayor of Buldon who led his constituents in 1968 to rise against corrupt government officials and land-grabbers, until the mid 1990s.
The constant exposure of Buldon to conflict and underdevelopment triggered anti-government sentiments and loose firearms proliferated in every household, resulting to a corrosive cycle of rido.
Breaking cycle of violence
When he was elected mayor in 1998, Manalao saw how this cycle of violence was plunging his beloved town into the brink of hopelessness. Opportunities for development were absent; education was inadequate; poverty was prevalent, basic government services were lacking, there were no infrastructure projects and development programs.
He probed deep into the root cause of all the ills his town was suffering and decided that peace and order would be his flagship program.
To date, Manalao has effectively resolved more or less 50 cases of long-term rido in his hometown, reconciling and reuniting more than 100 families who were at each other’s throats for decades. Today, every family can now freely work their fields and sell their produce in the now bustling local market. And they no longer carry firearms because the fear of attack from long-time foes is gone.
Leading by example, Manalao, now 49, goes around town without any firearm or armed escorts.
More to life than rido
Erstwhile enemies Ali Calucop, a village councilor and farmer Khalil Bantuas sat down and sipped coffee together with Mayor Manalao just before their basketball game on October 12, the feeling of relief and joy evident in their faces.
The game was the first activity of the Saduratan Festival 2017, a two-week festival named after an Iranun dance.
The Calucop clan of barangay Romidas and the Bantuas clan of barangay Mataya have been at each other’s throat for years until Manalao settled the rido of both families four months ago. By then, at least four persons had been killed on both sides, including women.
“This is my first time since we had a rido to set foot again here in the town’s center,” said Calucop. He recalled that the more than 100-member Calucop clan could not even go out of their residences and work on their farms for long for fear that their enemies might be lurking somewhere and snipe at them with long-range rifles.
He said he could not attend official meetings in the municipal hall for fear the Bantuas clan might ambush him.
“What’s worse is that we had to make all our children quit school to keep them safe because in rido, no one is exempted, even children or women,” he said.
“When we go to nearby Parang or Cotabato City we have to go around Barira to avoid passing by barangay Mataya where the Bantuas families are staying,” Calucop added.
Bantuas said they shared the same problem. “We can’t even stay long in our toilets outside our house for fear our enemies are watching and waiting for us to get outside.” Both laughed their hearts out.
“When we go out to buy something, we are like fugitives and we cannot stay long, and just like Ali, this is my first time also to set foot at the town center,” Khalil said.
“For years we cannot sleep well even inside our homes for fear that they will attack us while we’re asleep.”
“This is life. There is so much of life that we and our children missed because of rido,” Khalil said.
Calucop also explained that in Buldon, he is confident that no more families will go back to rido because everybody now has seen the difference in their lives, not just the relief from daily fear but also in opportunities like better education for their children which they can afford now as they can work comfortably in their farms all day and trade in the market freely.
Vice Mayor Cairoden Pangunotan said that under Manalao’s leadership rido settlement has been the priority program since 2013 and has been gaining headway since, with only two cases of rido still unresolved but still on the process of settlement.
The municipal government has established an Alternative Dispute Resolution Team tasked to address and facilitate the settlement of rido in Buldon with the help of the 37th Infantry Battallion of the Philippine Army and the local police as well as the religious leaders and elders.
From a gun-toting populace to a gun-free society might be an impossible dream in Buldon but Manalao is proud to say that he lived to see that day.
The predominantly Christian settlers of barangays Edcor and Dinganen are also grateful that the misunderstanding with Moro neighbors since the early 1950s, is over and they can now freely tend their farms and sell their harvest in the market without fear of assault of reprisal.
Rufo Capada, president of the Association of Barangay Captains (ABC) in Buldon, recalled that in the past, no one dared cross the Simuay River which served as the boundary for Moro and settlers in barangays Dinganen and Edcor.
He said that in the farms along boundaries, the Moro and settlers fought each other.
There were vigilantes — the Christian “Ilagas” and the Moro “Blackshirts” — hunting down each other and the cycle of violence and killings seemed never-ending as both parties and their siblings all wanted to exact revenge. Both sides accumulated firearms and ammunitions to sustain the war for a lifetime. Incomes from harvest were invested on firepower than education and wellbeing.
It was only in the 1980s during the term of Manalao’s father, when the conflict between the Moro and the settlers was settled.
“There are no boundaries now. We are one Buldon now,” Capada said.
“We can even go now to Buldon’s town center even at midnight without fear, and also our Muslim brothers pass by our Christian barangays anytime towards nearby towns of Pigacawayan and Alamada in North Cotabato” he added.
Manalao visits their communities alone and even sleeps there sometimes.
“Believe it or not, we have 15 Christian churches in Buldon. Six of them are Catholic churches so we also have patronal fiestas in Buldon,” he said.
“In Buldon, everyone is treated well and fair. We are one, may you be a Christian or a Muslim,” said Capada, the lone Christian in Buldon’s legislative body.
With armed conflicts now a thing of the past, Manalao, who was mayor from 1998 to 2007, vice mayor from 2010 to 2013 and mayor again from 2013, invited investors to Buldon.
Unifrutti, which came in through the Al Sahar Agri-Ventures, Inc. with the help of the Iranun Premiere Development Cooperative, established a banana plantation of over a hundred hectares in the same village that used to witness bloodshed.
Today, the plantation employs 334 Iranuns and exports at least 1,000 boxes of bananas a day to countries such as South Korea, Japan, and some countries in the Middle East. Unifrutti officials also revealed during their visit in early October that their bananas are the sweetest among all Unifruitti plantations in the country. The employees received increases in their salaries after the announcement.
The management is now processing the expansion of the plantation to 200 hectares more as more Iranun families offer their lands for rent.
Even as it is adjacent and bounded by Butig, Lanao del Sur, the hometown of the Maute Brothers who led the infamous Marawi siege, there has been no recorded spillover of the ISIS-inspired terrorist groups in Buldon.
Since the Maute Group started clashing with government forces in Butig, the municipal government of Buldon immediately conducted its own anti-terrorism drive among its barangays especially the youth with the help of the Ulama, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in their area, the police and military, to prevent violent extremism and to protect the gains of peace the town has achieved over the years.
“Now that we have gained back the confidence of the people in our government we cannot afford to go back to where we were before,” Manalao said.
He said residents of Buldon — both Muslims and Christians = are united to keep the gains of peace and will not allow terrorists to disrupt the progress and development as well as the harmony the Buldon people are enjoying nowadays.
Manalao is focusing on education and is ensuring the children of Buldon are in classrooms.
“If the youth are educated, none of them would hold a gun, there won’t be violence,” he said.
In 2014, the local government launched the Support to Education Program (SEP) which provides up to 100,000 pesos worth of cash assistance to all public schools in the municipality in support of their self-initiated projects. To institutionalize the project, the local government arranged SEP to be included in the annual Municipal Budget Ordinance.
In 2016, the program was expanded to include in the budget all madaris (plural of madrasah or Islamic schools).
Buldon also awards best-performing schools in the annual Saduratan Festival to encourage principals to perform better each year.
Manalao envisions Buldon to be a first-class municipality in the future.
“I would know that my time investment bore fruit if in the future when I’m older, I see my constituents leading our town as I did,” he said. (Marlon Peter F. Dedumo has been writing about peace-related stories in conflict-affected areas in Mindanao. He is the former head of the Mindanao Communications Bureau of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process).