Peace, the Rambo generation and stories from the frontlines, away from the frontlines

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/21 October) – I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed and documented the most historic event for Mindanao, the signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro at the Malacañan Palace a week ago.

Along with my colleagues – Carolyn Arguillas and Froilan Gallardo – the event is important for me not just as a journalist but more importantly as a probinsyano stakeholder.

May this colorful buntings in Pikit's town plaza remain there instead of those makeshift tents filled with evacuees. MindaNews Photo by Ruby Thursday More
May this colorful buntings in Pikit’s town plaza remain there instead of those makeshift tents filled with evacuees. MindaNews Photo by Ruby Thursday More

As a young boy, I have been a witness to the animosity in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato, one of the  gateways to the former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) main headquarters – the Camp Abubakar Assidique that straddled  Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and North Cotabato.

During my high school years, I could vaguely remember how intense the war was in the nearby town of Buldon, Maguindanao but I could remember vividly truckloads of government troops and tanks passing by the national highway either going to Buldon or going to Carmen town, also in North Cotabato.

In those years when the people in our barrio were not yet videoke-crazy, it was really dead silence at night. At around 7 p.m., we could already hear the thud of mortars or howitzers. And we would say: “Umpisa na naman” (There they go again). Sometimes this would happen for a few consecutive nights.

The following day, I would usually turn on the radio to listen to music. These were the phenomenal years of Pinoy rock music.

But my late Uncle Nilo would get mad because he would insist on monitoring the AM station, particularly dxMS, for the update on where the shelling was last night. He would say: “Stop listening to music this time because you would not know if the rebels have already attacked Pigcawayan.”

Remember, there were no cellphones during those days. Your only source of quick information was the radio. I had no choice but to heed my uncle’s request.

It was only then when we learned that a firefight had erupted again between the 39th Infantry Battalion and the MILF. We knew it’s 39th IB because a lot of soldiers from our place belonged to this unit. One of them was my uncle’s close friend.

Whenever there were clashes, these became the “talk of the barrio.” Almost everyone in our barrio was always curious whenever clashes erupted. Everyone was like a firearms expert and  they would debate on what would be the best weapon to use to crush the MILF.

Everyone would cite some weapons used by Sylvester Stallone in the movie “Rambo.” I would also ask if the weapon exists, particularly the bow and arrow that was fashioned with an explosive on the tip of the arrow. I didn’t get a clear answer.

On some occasions, some friends of my uncle would visit our house in full battle gear. Sometimes it was his friend from the 39th IB, then Cpl. Panzo Mirañez (if I remember his rank right.) I was so curious listening to his stories I would ask him how far they were from the MILF position and how many got killed in the clash.

As a young boy, I had no idea why they fought although I would sometimes hear it was because of land. But there was cause for concern because there were government soldiers, some of them our neighbors, who were willing to die just to defend Pigcawayan.

I’m always amazed how my uncle’s friends (sometimes a policeman would come to tell a story) would share their stories from the frontlines in Aleosan, Carmen, Pikit and even in some barangays of Pigcawayan.

Sometime in 1996 or 1997, when I was still in high school, war erupted in Barangay Cabpangi and I think also in some parts of Aleosan. During lunch break, we would turn on our radio to listen to the live reports right from the combat zones. Everyone seemed ecstatic hearing the gunfire broadcast on the radio.

We could hear the shelling even at daytime. We could also see the Huey and MG-520 hovering around. Some of our neighbors rushed near the combat zone just to see for themselves what was  happening over there.

It was like everyone was amazed at these mighty military machines. Some would even argue on the figures as to how many were killed or injured on both sides.

I always asked how it was like to be in the war. Was it really like the ones I had seen in dozens of Vietnam war movies? Do we also have a Pinoy Rambo? I was always curious.

My Lolo’s bedtime story

My grandfather, a retired teacher, also shared with me their experiences in the 1970s in Pigcawayan. Sometimes over dinner, he would tell us that when they would hear gunfire from Barangay Cabpangi, some five kilometers from Barangay Balogo, they would be up and alert. Their bags were packed, ready to evacuate if the war would escalate. This happened several times, according to my lolo.

The war stories continued until we were lying on our bed. It seems that it would never end because I kept on asking questions. My lolo would not hesitate to answer my questions, too. Though he would also tell me folk tales, if I’d request.

My other uncle would also say that whenever an encounter happens in the marshy villages, many people would come to watch as the soldiers fired their mortars and howitzers. It was literally  a theater of war.

“It’s because the Muslims wanted to take back their land,” my lolo would say. He said this is one of the reasons of conflict. Sometimes I would hear from our neighbors that the Muslims wanted to separate Mindanao from Philippines. I didn’t mind it. I was not interested in those stories.

I was not interested why they fought. Though I always wondered why was it always in Aleosan, Carmen, Pigcawayan and Pikit? Why not in Kidapawan or Makilala?

And we suffered too

Fast forward in college, while studying at University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, sporadic clashes happened in some barangays and in nearby towns of Carmen and Pikit. By this time, I was already part of a community paper based in Cotabato City in 1998.

There were times when the 105mm howitzers were mounted pretty close to our boarding house and it became our alarm clock every morning for several days. There were times  they would start shelling as early as 2am or 3am. They were targeting the MILF in the marshy villages. Our kitchen utensils and glass windows would tremble whenever the shelling started.

For a time, we seemed to enjoy this situation because we were just simply amazed at this big gun. We had no idea what was going on where the shells landed.

Until the time came when we, too,  suffered a little. There were occasions when  the national highway connecting Kabacan and Midsayap was closed to traffic because of heavy gunbattle in Pikit and Aleosan.

This was also the time when I had already slowly established my rapport with the people in the Diocese of Kidapawan. They were the ones who led me to some villages affected by the sporadic clashes. It was then that I slowly understood why the government and Moro rebels fight.

When there were sporadic clashes in Aleosan and Pikit, we could not go home on weekends; we could not get our food and allowances. At this point, I slowly understood how tough life is in times of war. I came to realize that if we are suffering even if we were far away from the frontlines, how much more those living in the combat zones?

The all-out war

I was already in my second year in college in 2000 when then President Joseph Estrada waged an all-out war against the MILF.

When war raged in Barangay Pagangan and Nalapaan, the national highway was closed again. We could not go home again. We had no choice but to borrow money from friends and relatives, enough for a week, assuming that we could go home the following week. Sadly, sometimes we could not go home to Pigcawayan.

And when the highway was opened days later, it also bared the devastation wrought by the war. I saw burning houses, bullet-riddled schools and of course, the evacuees in the tent city in Pikit.

I had been to several evacuation centers prior to Pikit but this was one was the worst living condition I had ever seen.

I must admit that I felt so bad because when I was little younger, I seemed to have enjoyed the stories from the frontlines. I never thought war also devastates civilians like us.

This has motivated to visit and interview the bakwits at the evacuation centers. Sometimes I would skip boring classes and rush to Pikit or Pagalungan to interview evacuees. I wanted to listen to their stories.  I knew I couldn’t write them all but I wanted to listen to their feelings. I’ve had enough stories from those in the frontlines. Now I wanted a story from those running away from the frontlines.

Eventually, I was introduced to Fr. Bert Layson and the people at the Pikit parish. The parish was like our “satellite post” because this was where I and other MindaNews reporters stayed when we covered the war in 2003.

In my younger days, I had never seen any evacuee in Pigcawayan because they never sought refuge in a town like Pigcawayan where hatred reigns between Christians and Muslims. But that’s another story.

No more curiosity

With the signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro, I hope that the Buisan warehouse in Pikit will never be filled with languishing elderly, women and children again. I hope there will always be colorful buntings in the town plaza of Pikit.  I hope that the people in Pigcawayan will wake up in the middle of the night because of off-pitch videoke sound and not because of the shellings and gunfire.

I’m also hoping that this agreement will put an end to the curiosity of children on what is it like to be on the frontlines. I hope they will not be curious as to what type of guns and bullets  the warring groups employ.

What I’m hoping is that the children now will be curious on how this decades-old of conflict was put to an end in a peaceful way. Finally, I hope that before the children sleep, they will ask their parents or grandparents to tell the story of “The Turtle and the Rabbit” instead of the Army and MILF.

( Keith Bacongco, now 31, grew up with his grandparents in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato. He joined the now defunct Headliner weekly in Cotabato City in 1998 and MindaNews in 2001).