Moving on: no more battles, no more gunshots, no more bloodshed

ALEOSAN, North Cotabato (MindaNews/17 October) —  From the highest point in Barangay Bagolibas, Mayor Loreto Cabaya pointed to our team the rice paddies which used to be “hot spots”  in the “all-out war” waged by the Esatrada administration against the Moro Isalmic Liberation Front in 2000.  “There used to be battles there, there and there,” he said.

Today, the once blood-drenched paddies are now green with rice stalks growing strongly.

No more battles. No more gun shots. No more bloodshed.

Pointing to another place near where he was standing, the mayor continued: “There used to be firearms here, a lot, and the CVO (Civilian Volunteer Organization) people were staying right here.”

Today, a house stands there, owned by a settler-family raising chicks, ducks and pigs.

No more guns. No more bullets. No more CVO.

Along the road at dusk, one sees tractors passing by from the farm, children riding on carabaos on their way home from the fields,  and workers driving bulldozers from the construction site.They are all smiling as they greet each other.

While passing through Barangay Nalapaan in Pikit,  MindaNews reporter Keith Bacongco said: “This road used to be the crossfire,” as he described the situation of the highway in 2000.

In the conflict-affected areas here and in neighboring provinces, nearly a million residents were  displaced by the “all-out war” in 2000, another 400,000 in 2003 and  about 600,000 in 2008.

Keith kept telling stories about the war that he witnessed himself because he was growing up in the area. “We were here when the war happened,” he said.

But now, along this stretch of the highway, a thriving community  lives.

“Every time there was war, that warehouse was the evacuation center,” I was told when we were taking some photos of the Buisan warehouse near the highway in Pikit.

The place is empty now.

I saw the mayor’s bodyguard carrying a long firearm. I met a former field commander of the MILF with the shiny 45 caliber tucked in his belt. I noticed people being cautious of strangers.

Children of peace

I also saw children swimming and playing joyfully in the river. We also spotted a group of beautiful little Muslim girls on their way to school the next day.

Keith and his wife, who is also a photographer, were trying so hard so take photos of them because the girls were very shy.

We passed by a place which, I think, is a small cooperative where farmers were working with their corn husker machine and drying their corn after the harvest.

In front and around every house, one sees flowers and cattle.

In Kidapawan City, there were banners saying “Congratulations” to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. The place was decorated beautifully with colorful flags and all.

In our brief visit, I saw people of North Cotabato ready to move on with their lives without fear.

Next time when I come back, hopefully, the mayor will again stand in Barangay Bagolibas and show me: “There used to be rice paddies, there, there and there but now, there are factories and thousands of jobs created.”

War is history

I come from a country where people have been living in peace, love and freedom for 37 years. I was born and grew up in one of the safest places in the world. I never experienced the feeling of waking up every morning and worrying if my family and I are safe.

In my country, “war” is the word referring to the past or the history which now only exists in the memories of the elderly.

Comprehending what I have been taught during our visit to these areas,  I can see now the effort that people have made, the desire that they thirst for toward a life free from evacuations

Most of the stories about this seemingly endless conflict were told in the past tense.

And from October 15, 2012, the signing of the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on Peace,  hopefully, they will forever remain in the past tense.

I know that every single one of us is praying for it.

(Bui Tran Nhu Phuong, 24, is a journalist from the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists who is on fellowship at MindaNews under the Fredskorpset Journalism Exchange Program.)