COMMENTARY: Above All… Our Common Humanity

By Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen

The ongoing Marawi Crisis has demonstrated to the world man’s boundless capacity to commit monstrosity. Yet, the same drama has also brought to the fore man’s redeeming values and capacity for greatness.

When it became evident that the shooting would not end just as yet on the evening of May 23 , neighbouring towns and cities, notably Iligan City, braced for the inevitable: the exodus of evacuees. Various groups immediately started organizing volunteer teams and preparing evacuation centers. In a way, the experience from Sendong made Iliganon folks little experts at crisis response.

In a region wracked by centuries of animosity supposedly with religious undertones, what may have initially appeared to be knee-jerk reaction of a predominantly Christian populace towards the mainly Maranao or Muslim neighbours turned out to be a sincere and genuine display of concern and compassion. I had recently returned from my hometown of Iligan where I had gone for my annual visit. I personally witnessed the spontaneous response of the locals to the brewing crisis.

Ching Lluch and her group of volunteers are putting up an invisible “Happy Tent” over the children in this evacuation center at Barangay Maria Cristina in Iligan City.

Among the very first to open the gates to provide safe haven to students fleeing the scene was MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology where I was once on its faculty roster. Students from the main campus were not only housed but also provided with transportation money so they could go home to their province of origin. No student evacuee remains on the MSU-IIT campus now. Instead, what used to serve as evacuation centers (e.g., the College of Arts Social Sciences building) are now serving as relief operations centers. As well, new sections were opened for the summer courses where students from the Marawi campus have been accommodated as cross-enrollees.

I met with Ching Erasquin-Lluch who volunteers at the evacuation center in Barangay Maria Cristina which has a very large concentration of evacuees. Ching and members of her family, including her very young children, had been shuttling between home and the evacuation center since Day One. Ching has focused her efforts upon the very young children noting that as an age group they are very vulnerable and require a special psycho-social intervention. She has gained experience at this type of work because her family was heavily involved during the Sendong Crisis. Former Iligan mayor Franklin Quijano shares the same assessment about the need for debriefing and massive psycho-social intervention. He notes that food and other goods seem to be sufficient at the moment.

It seems that wherever I went people I personally know had adjusted their daily routines in order to accommodate their volunteer duties at their chosen evacuation centers. They were either picking up or delivering donations or rendering service in any of the evacuation centers. My high school buddy Rommel Ancheta came home to Iligan for our class reunion bringing with him financial donations from the various campuses of the La Sallian Family in the Philippines (my alma mater La Salle Academy had been designated as conduit for the “One Marawi” campaign).

Once, while enjoying the sunset view at the city’s Paseo de Santiago, I bumped into a former student—Victor Anadeo—who is a barangay councilor. He and fellow volunteers of a charitable program of the Diocese of Iligan had been very busy for days looking into the conditions of Maranao families that had been housed in different homes in his barangay (until then I didn’t know individual families were doing this). They have been distributing goods from the international Catholic Relief Assistance Program.

I stayed in different hotels in Iligan and bumped into volunteers from Red Cross, World Vision, the different ARMM agencies, as well as media people from RAPPLER and other media outlets. Container vans (World Vision), ambulances, and all sorts of utility vehicles crowded hotel parking lots. All this shows that the world did not abandon Marawi at its gravest hour, nor did the Maranaos vis-à-vis the non-Muslim residents trapped in the siege.

I closely follow Facebook postings of Muslim friends like Robert Marohombsar Alonto and learned how his cousin Norodin Alonto Lucman, scion of the well-known political family, had saved the lives of scores of Christians in their family compound in the heart of Marawi City. Very recently, it was reported that five Muslim policemen had kept five Christians away from ISIS elements without regard for their own personal safety. These Maranaos could just have scampered away to safety as one would normally do but chose not to.

A helping hand from the College of Arts and Social Sciences, MSU-IIT.

More stories of how Muslims have tried to save Christians slowly filter out of Marawi, some bordering on the humorous. At the height of the flight from the hostilities, Maranao students of the Mindanao State University were said to have rummaged through their closets and luggage looking for malong, kombong and kopia, traditional wear of the Maranao, in order to dress the Christians like them, hoping their attire would sidetrack the attention of Maute terrorists. A story is told of how Maranaos had coached some Christians a few Muslim formula prayers and chants like Allah-hu Akbar but with a number of Christians failing the test as their Arabic accent was not convincing or that they totally forgot the phrases.

The story of Lanao had always been written in blood since Gov-Gen Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera launched a massive campaign to capture Sultan Kudarat in the mid-1600s. To be sure, age-old antagonisms have not totally disappeared in the region. This is rather ironic considering that some of the oldest Iliganon families trace their roots to Maranao royalty. These families have in fact been holding reunions with their Maranao relations where the Iliganon families are proud to show their lineage from a Samporna (a man of distinction) of ancient Lanao.

Academics have always strongly concluded religion has nothing to do with any lingering prejudices and conflicts involving Christians and Muslims in the area. For now, isn’t the massive outpouring of concern coming from both sides of the divide evidence enough? Before the Prophet Muhummad’s historic flight to Medina there was the dramatic flight of the first converts to Islam to the kingdom of Aksium (now the Ethiopia-Eritrea region). The Christian king had provided these early Muslims safe haven, noting the great similarities in religious beliefs. Thus was set a history of cooperation that I am sure is repeated a hundredfold across the centuries.

Meanwhile, Muslims and Christians find themselves locked in each other’s arms in the face of a common enemy, danger, and privation. All talk about religion and politics had been cast aside. Maybe temporarily. At the end of the day, it is a sense of our common humanity that may yet pull us through as one people though of varied cultural and religious backgrounds.

This calls to mind what an American scholar of Maranao culture, the late Dr. Peter Gowing, once said: It may be more accurate to refer to the Muslims of Mindanao as cousin Filipinos and not as brother Filipinos. Brothers grow up in the same household. Cousins grow up in different households but could still be closely related. Intriguing as it may appear, I find this view better than prejudice and bias.

(The author is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)