WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Two men, two days before Christmas  

SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 24 Dec) —  We did not have a car pass. The Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces elements doing sentry duty at the Simuay entrance to Camp Darapanan were polite, but firm. No car pass, no entry. No exception. In the light drizzle, a few Philippine National Police elements stood right next to them, silently echoing rules of ingress.

It was a most remarkable sight. If one lives long enough, one lives to see something like this. I sent out a prayer to all those who never lived to see this. Perhaps, I prayed, your dream did not die with you. Perhaps, you did plant a seed and we can watch it grow. Thank you.

Forty-five minutes later, three motorcycles came to lead us in. The sentries readily parted and waved us through.

I had never seen Camp Darapanan the way it was two days before Christmas. December 23, 2014 was the first day for registering volunteers for the creation of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP). On this day, about 26,000 Mindanao residents made a pilgrimage to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s main camp in Maguindanao. Some came from as far as Jolo and Lanao. Most of them did not have a car pass. For three kilometers inside the camp, they walked on both sides of the road, coming in and going out.

The last time I was here in August 2008, there were 30-caliber machine guns mounted at each junction. In the wake of the MOA-AD debacle, the guns were a show of force, indicating to the world that the MILF could then go to war again if that were an option. BIAF troops in full battle gear were lined up the road posted three meters apart.

This time, there were no machine guns. The BIAF were lightly armed, and they were just doing road security, politely and patiently keeping the pedestrians from taking over the road so that the few vehicles allowed in could pass. This, I thought, was another version of show of force. If one person here was allowed one vote, the MILF did indeed have the numbers. And we’re not even counting those who are yet to come in the second and third days.

There was no projection of anger or resentment from the pedestrians as our car went by, our escorts up ahead clearing the way for us. No waving or smiling either.  The sea of green looked like some quiet version of a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Outside the gate, I had counted one female to every male UBJP volunteer registrant. Inside, I saw more women, young and old alike, walking to and from the registration desks. In the three kilometer stretch to the new conference hall, I also counted five medic stations and more numerous food stalls.

Inside the conference hall, we were led to a small reception chamber where our hosts had laid out some welcome refreshments. Minutes later, the MILF chairman walked in on us, easily exchanging pleasantries. He seemed relaxed and well-rested, answering questions in calm and measured tones. He spoke of a new struggle, that of pulling the Bangsamoro together to transform the system and get it ready for the implementation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law when it happens.

He answered my questions on rehabilitation needs for war trauma, sharing the general outline of a program they are working out with UNICEF to address the issues of children who had experienced or witnessed armed violence. He also spoke of organizational measures to address the damage caused by opportunists who are making money from the unauthorized training of young men with the false promise to funnel them into the future community police force.

On the way home, we stopped by the Immaculate Conception Parish in Pikit to drop off an autographed copy of Karl Gaspar’s latest book. Pikit parish priest Fr. Bert Layson led us to his dining table where mudfish soup, fruits, and native sweets were waiting.

In 2000 and 2003, this convent was the original peace zone. While war was raging in portions of Pikit, people found a haven here. Journalists slept here on the floor. Village leaders met here to discuss what they could do together to chase the fighting away. This had turned into a relief distribution site, a psychosocial center. Even Army commanders had come here seeking access to communication facilities. In those distress-filled times, one man catered to everyone.

Bert Layson is an unassuming man. He mostly walks around in slippers, perhaps a metaphor to how grounded he is in the experience of the flock he serves. In his favored cotton shorts and shirt, he’d seldom get mistaken for a priest. His, I’ve found, is a religion that does not annoy. His is a faith that is lived, ever optimistic in finding God in the heart of every human being he touches. His beleaguered parishioners raised a disbelieving brow to find him walking among the displaced families of the MILF – they called him Fr. Robert Layson, OMI…LF. And still Fr. Bert persisted at opening up lines of dialogue for the displaced to see that they shared a similar dire condition, that they also shared a collective agency at doing something about their situation.

“There was an Army officer, Gail,” he shared. “He was on the phone and crying to his wife.”

In that instant, Fr. Bert realized one thing: In war, our enemy is not each other. Our enemy is war itself.

After dinner, he walked over to a quiet nook where I was stealing a moment to smoke. We reminisced about the early curriculum he designed for intercultural dialogue towards a culture of peace, and how the teaching of Mindanao history had to be a crucial input.

“People need to understand why they are participating in war,” he said.

“We’ve come a long way, Pads,” I observed. “Is there anything else that needs doing, especially in engaging the security sector?”

“We still need to continue educating them on history. More recent history,” he said.

That way, they too, can understand how things are changing and what the call of the time demands of them.

Hours later on the road home, my cellphone lights up with a text from Liane: “Come home for Christmas, mother.”

All’s right with the world, honey. I’ll be home before the clock strikes midnight. Old habits die hard.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan chairs the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. You may send comments to [email protected] “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)