CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY – We fondly call him as “Bapa Butch.” Many NGO workers across Southwestern Mindanao would mourn his passing. He died this morning on November 16, 2011. Bapa Butch Gilman of Pikit, North Cotabato was our champion. Our peace champion.
Bapa Butch was an active worker in the Inter-Religious Dialogue Program of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, making sure that the conflict in Mindanao will not turn into a religious war. He was also a founding council member of the Mindanao People’s Caucus, an organization composed of the tri-people of Mindanao.
Many would fondly remember him in his work as provincial coordinator of Bantay Ceasefire, an all civilian group that monitors ceasefire violations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine military.
Bapa Butch would be the first to dash into villages and conflict zones to bring civilians out of harm’s way. He did it in 2003 and all the countless little wars in the region.
I have lost a friend and mentor. I first met Bapa Butch in the 2000 all-out war, but it was during the 2003 Buliok war that I realized what a man he really was.
A former mujahideen of the Moro National Liberation Front, Bapa Butch would give tips which roads to take while covering the raging battles around the town of Pikit.
At night, he would tell stories of his life as an MNLF fighter. Later, he laid down his FN rifle and embraced peace because, Bapa Butch’s words, “It is the moral way to live a life.”
In one of those nights during the 2003 Buliok War, as Bapa Butch, Fr. Bert Layson and I were exchanging stories, sitting in the small terrace of the convent of the Immaculate parish church in Pikit, electricity suddenly went off. Then we heard the loud booms of the 105mm and 155mm Howitzers crashing in the sky. It was like watching theatrics. We saw tracers on the sky above us.
As we sat there in silence, our thoughts were with the civilians that were living in villages in the direction of the guns.
We sat there for more than an hour, I guess, unable to move. There was a feeling that madness had descended on this part of the world. Fr. Bert, who sat beside me, was silent. I thought I saw some tears in the corner of his eyes.
Then Bapa Butch tapped my knee and said, “Bring your cameras. We will go out to the streets.” Just like that. Bapa Butch just knew what would happen next.
Out in the streets, I remember seeing so many shadows walking toward us. I turned on the light of my video camera and saw what the shadows were – hundreds of people fleeing their villages to escape the artillery bombardment. They brought their carabaos and every worldly possession they had, their children walking in the dark. Some stumbled and were helped by their elders. It was an exodus unfolding in front of me.
Bapa Butch and me would be so busy in the next few days that we barely had time to sit and chat. He was coordinating all the relief efforts to feed thousands of evacuees that poured into the town of Pikit. Father Bert had tasked Bapa Butch to be his assistant. Days later I would joke at him calling him “Archbishop of Pikit.” Bapa Butch just smiled at me, got up and drove away on his rusty motorbike.
I would miss you very much Bapa. Thank you for letting me understand.