MAMASAPANO, Maguindanao (MindaNews/09 February) — “We regret the death of our brothers in the SAF, but we cannot do anything about that now. Search our hearts, and you will see that that is how we feel. If only the government will look to our dead, the way it looks to the death of our SAF brothers.”

Those were the parting words of alias Haramen, operations commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s 105 Base Base Command, as he bade us goodbye under the jackfruit tree. Graciously, he sent us off with the hope to see us again under less troubled times.

Haramen claimed that he lost two of his men from the shots that started it all at dawn of January 25. They had retaliated at the source of that unidentified enemy fire. With two among them downed, they could not stop firing at the cornfield until the opposing guns from there fell silent.

It would be close to seven hours before Haramen received the order for ceasefire from the MILF’s 7th Brigade. By then, his original force of 35 had been reinforced by an estimated double that number, positioned elsewhere nearby and operating not under his direct command. The bullet scars I saw on the bridge indicated that the bullets were indeed coming from different directions.

Their fire had silenced the guns from the cornfield, but even as the ceasefire order was received past noon, they weren’t sure if they had indeed neutralized the threat. They had to proceed with caution.

In the heat of the engagement, Haramen claimed to have been operationally deaf for a while. He said the brownout the night before had not allowed them to charge the batteries on their cell phones and radio.

It was 2:30 in the afternoon of Pnoy’s 55th birthday, a fortnight after the SAF operation to get seemingly at all cost a Malaysian bomb expert on the wanted list of the US-led war on terror. The MindaNews team had been thirty minutes off the main road on the bend leading to Sitio Amelil in Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano in Maguindanao before we got word that the MILF troops were now in place to meet with us at the encounter site. In that time, three motorcycles had come by. They bore armed men who measured us at a glance as they passed. Their eyes, when they met mine, were not unfriendly.

This meeting had been coordinated with the MILF counterpart to the Joint Peace Monitoring Post in the area. Accompanying us also were the barangay treasurer and one of Barangay Tukanalipao’s elementary school teachers who told us that they had reported back to the classrooms, but their pupils are still staying away. Forty-one families residing near the concrete road and about half of the families along the trail leading inside were yet to come home. They were still staying with their relatives in the poblacion.

The day before, there were rumors again of military operations about to be launched in the area. This time, the locals heard that the Marines were being sent in. The residents – those that had straggled back in the last week – had packed again, ready to move out.

We cut our conversation about the constant drone they heard flying above a week prior to the SAF arriving in the area. It was time to go.

“You’ll be safe with us,” the barangay official assured as he ushered us onboard the payong-payong for the short ride along the narrow feeder road.

“Just about a kilo through here,” he said. Kilo for kilometer. MILF lingo.

Our payong-payong stopped across the scenic makeshift bridge made famous in the last two weeks. This was the bridge too far for the 55th SAF tragically pinned down by deadly MILF fire before dawn of January 25. Three hundred meters away, I could make out a group of Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) soldiers in the treeline.

I snapped a quick shot of the bridge, a lone cow placidly smiling in the foreground. My driver mused: “There were eight cows that were a casualty that day, too.”

But the owners found their cows days too late. Beyond the numbers of the Fallen 44, nobody seems to have made an effort at a full accounting the cost of this misencounter. The cattle owners absorbed the loss, just as farmer Cusalim Cusain absorbed the loss of his expected harvest.

“P40,000.00, ma’m. That’s what I was expecting to earn from that corn field,” he said.

Funny how the number 4 keeps showing up. Eight is also four times two.

I’m relieved GMA’s John Consulta opted not to follow us inside for this rendezvous. That would have made four of us instead of three. And, no offense to the young man, I am not quite sure how he would take to interviews like this.

Crossing the bridge, I marked several points where a bullet had hit. Remarkably, the center post was sprouting young leaves. It lives.

We soon got to the devastated cornfield. It had been picked clean of evidence that people died here, except for four wads of white absorbent tissue discarded somewhere in the middle of the withered stalks. Rain had bled off light brown whatever traces of blood these had wiped away. One had irregular round burns, like a high-velocity bullet had gone through it. A few locals followed me around as I trod the encounter site, pointing where some bodies had been found.

The tinder-dry cornstalks snapped as we trod on them. We crossed the expanse and waited under the shade of the jackfruit tree on the western side of the cornfield. Soon the BIAF troops emerged single file from the tree line to approach us. I counted 18, all armed and mostly with their faces covered, except for Haramen who spoke for them. We would be over half an hour talking before the rest of his men joined us coming from eastern flank. These ones were older, leaner, and a lot more alert than the young ones that accompanied the commander to this meet.

I soon found myself in the middle of Haramen’s men, snapping pictures and showing it to them for their permission to keep. We talked under our breath as Carol was interviewing their commander. They confirmed that these were the guns they used that day. Among them, they murmured affirmation of their commander’s pronouncements or added a brief opinion for my ears. They allowed me to fiddle with their packs, showing me what the pockets were used for, and grinning conspiratorially when I deposited our last stash of Oishi shrimp crackers into someone’s empty meal pouch.

“Just put them in there, ma’m. Thank you,” murmured the young man while standing at parade rest, pretending nothing was amiss. His companion obligingly helped me snap his pouch open and shut.

We tuned back in on the conversation when Haramen talked about what he intended to do when the peace process would have unfolded to its hoped for conclusion.

“I am a farmer,” he said. “I will go back to farming when the bombs will stop falling on our farms.”

I have heard the same sentiment expressed by AFP soldiers who come from farming folk. They too look forward to retirement when they can trade their guns for the plough.

“What about your boys, sir? What do they want?” I asked.

“They are farmers. They will farm, too,” he said.

“You, son, what do you want in life?” I asked the young soldier standing behind Haramen. “Does anyone here want to go back to school?”

Three hands came up.

“Won’t you miss your guns?,” asked Carol.

“I can sell mine. Or give it away,” said Haramen. “We want peace. We only take up arms so we can have peace.”

“Allahu Akbar!,” breathed the young man shooting beside me the video of this meeting on his hot pink i-phone.

He was among the few who showed his face. He looked barely older than my daughters. He was one of those who wanted to go back to school. He had helped me open his comrade’s meal pouch. He had whispered for my ears to hear what the symbols on the 105BC patch stood for. He told me his M-14 with a wooden stock was manufactured locally.

“Allahu Akbar!,” he said. “We desire peace.”

I could hear conviction in his quiet words. (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 gail.ilagan@gmail.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)