NARCISO RAMOS HIGHWAY (MindaNews/ 15 Feb) — Camp Abubakar, for so many years, was a name which evoked fear among the Christians but served as a source of pride for the Muslims in Southern Mindanao.
In the late 1990s up until the day then President Joseph Estrada launched a major offensive against the Moro Islamic Liberartion Front (MILF) in 2000, Camp Abubakar was the seat of power of the de facto Bangsamoro government headed by the late Ustadz Hashim Salamat.
For majority of the Muslims in Central Mindanao, Camp Abubakar was their Malacanang where leaders were summoned for important consultations and where wayward members of the MILF and even Muslim civilians were brought to for discipline and punishment.
For most Christians, Camp Abubakar was the seat of power of an organization they perceived to be a threat to their lives, properties and peace in their communities.
For the military, it was a No Man’s land where those who ventured risked losing their lives.
Indeed, when the Armed Forces overran and captured Camp Abubakar, they paid a very high price in so many lives lost which included high ranking officers.
The long stretch of road from Parang in Maguindanao Province to Malabang, Lanao del Sur called the Narciso Ramos Highway is considered a high-risk stretch where travelers are advised to take only during day-time.
Yesterday, Friday, Feb. 13, I and my staff of three decided to take the shorter route going home to Kidapawan City from Dipolog City in Zamboanga del Norte.
We had been on the road for four days with Davao City Mayor Rody Duterte in the continuing Federalism advocacy which brought us to Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental, and the cities of Dapitan and Dipolog in Zamboanga del Norte.
The trip back to Kidapawan City via the “safer” route which would take us to Cagayan de Oro City back to Kidapawan City via Davao would have been a day-long travel.
Passing through the Camp Abubakar route was a bit scary but it would only take us about six to 8 hours.
The members of the staff were scared but I assured them that even with the tension between the government and the MILF following the Mamasapano carnage, there was still relative peace in the area.
I was thankful I made the decision to pass through the long, lonely stretch of the Narciso Ramos Highway because it gave me an opportunity to see for myself how the people in this “feared” area were leading their lives.
What I saw gave me a pleasant surprise.
Along the way, I saw the highway being repaired by a construction group whose equipment fleet was being guarded by military men.
Local people were working on the road projects.
The vehicles we met along the road were not that many but most of these were small cargo vehicles carrying bananas, copra, boxes containing fish to be delivered to Cotabato City, obviously.
In Tukuran town, Zamboanga del Sur, I and the staff dropped by the fish post and bought fresh fish for P45 per kilo.
Very near the former Camp Abubakar, which is now the headquarters of the 603rd Brigade of the Philippine Army, and I and the staff got off to take photos of the beautiful sunflowers in full-bloom by the side of the road.
In the fertile lands and by the seaside, I saw farmers and fishermen do their daily work.
Children coming home from school to prepare for Friday prayers frolicked along the highway. One of them took a rest inside a concrete culvert by the side of the highway.
They were all moving in easy gait and seemingly unconcerned that there is an air of fear enveloping other parts of Central Mindanao because of the Mamasapano carnage.
I could not help but feel both pity and admiration for the people I saw along the long stretch of road.
I pitied them because development appeared slow in coming to the area, perhaps because of the fear of Camp Abubakar.
But I also admired them because in spite of the apparent neglect by government, they seemed to be contented with their simple lives.
Maybe, if true and lasting peace were achieved in this part of the country, the Narciso Ramos Highway will cease to be a long and lonely stretch of road seldom traveled.
Sadly, as the nation grieves over the tragedy in Mamasapano and the national politicians dance to the cries of the angry multitude, peace seems to be as elusive now as it had been in the past. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wishes to share his/her views on peace in Mindanao. Emmanuel “Manny” Pinol was a former sportswriter who later became mayor of M’lang in North Cotabato. He served as Governor of North Cotabato from 1998 to 2007 and Vice Governor from 2007 to 2010. This piece was first published on his Facebook wall. Permission to reprint granted to MindaNews).