From warrior to musician: The story of Ahmed

The kulintang, one of the Moro musical instruments that Ahmed plays. Photo courtesy of MARIAN PASTOR ROCES

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 06 January) – The sound of gunfire was the music of his jihad until Ahmed (not his real name), a former radical combatant, embraced the kulintang and other instruments in his journey to a life of peace through music.

Ahmed, 35, had fought for the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which is said to have aligned with the international terror group ISIS.

His father was among the top and trusted commanders of the late BIFF founder Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato, the former head of Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) 105th Base Command.

In 2010, Ahmed’s father joined Kato when they bolted the MILF, which was still negotiating peace with the government, and formed the BIFF to establish an independent Islamic State in Mindanao.

He used to study in a government school in Cotabato City but later decided to join his father and his cause.

Ahmed loves music, particularly the Moro musical instruments played at weddings and other special celebrations.

For years his family had been invited to play the kulintang, agong, gandingan, babendil and dabakan, among instruments. But he wasn’t able to do it after he joined the struggle.

His team moved from one place to another almost everyday to evade pursuing government troops, making it hard for him and for his family.

“It’s so hard, we had to go anywhere and we wouldn’t know if we’re going to wake up alive the next day, as a bomb might drop on us while we’re sleeping. It’s hard to sleep if the military was on an all-out offensive. We drank water from a source where wild pigs bathed themselves,” Ahmed recalled.

Muslims like Ahmed are forbidden to eat pork and even touch or drink water from the same source used by pigs. He and his comrades were just forced to violate this teaching to survive.

But what really changed his mind and made him convince his father to stop fighting the government is his family. He said his five children were born in different places in Maguindanao because they were always on the move even in those times that his wife was about to give birth.

Their first child was born in Rajah Buayan, the second in Buluan, the third in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, the fourth in Talayan, and the fifth in Cotabato City, after they left the BIFF.

Ahmed said that as time went by, they realized they had no clear direction except staying loyal to Kato while their former comrades in the MILF are now running the regional government.

He said they were hesitant at first but later decided to surrender after officials of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and former comrades in the MILF reached out to them, saying they are part of an inclusive governance.

He said they had to convince his father to embrace BARMM. “My father thought hard about it but his desire to see me and my children finish our studies prevailed.”

After surrendering to the military, Ahmed and his platoon of comrades were enrolled as beneficiaries of “Project TUGON” (Tulong ng Gobyernong Nagmamalasakit) of the Ministry of the Interior and Local Government, Ministry of Trade, Investment and Tourism and other BARMM agencies.

Project TUGON aims to bring the former combatants back to the mainstream in partnership with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police.

It provides socioeconomic opportunities like livelihood trainings and startup capitalization for preferred businesses or farming needs.

Ahmed said he realized he was fighting for a wrong cause that only gave him hardship and the constant risk of death.

He said he is now waging another “jihad,” one that values the future of his five young children and spreads peace through Moro music.

From lugging firearms in the marshland of Maguindanao, Ahmed now carries drumsticks and traditional Moro musical instruments. Every time he performs, the drumbeat brings joy and depicts the life, history, culture and tradition of his Maguindanaon tribe.

He showcased his multiple talents in cultural presentations during the Shariff Kabunsuan Festival ensemble competition last month commissioned by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. 

“What I now want, aside from playing instruments, is to have a music studio so I can pass on to the next generation this music that links us to our tradition and culture,” he said. (Ferdinandh B. Cabrera/MindaNews)