BANGSAMORO SPEAKS: Life Ends After Dark?

I missed Cotabato City where we partly spent many years of our youth. We missed the circle of friends as well as the familiar faces whom we shared common experiences and aspirations with, and dreamt of ‘impossible dream’, of ‘reaching the farthest star’ and of ‘treading that where the bravest dared not tread’. So every time we go to Cotabato City, a feeling of excitement takes over us.

We were in Cotabato City on a two-day visit related to work. The schedule was hectic and the travel a bit ‘worrisome’ because the weather was inclement and there were landslides along the way. But these did not really matter because what was foremost in our minds was to accomplish what we went there for and see friends whom we were not able to see since the pandemic in 2019.

So last Friday, after work was done, we saw and visited some friends. We accidentally bumped into a dear brother, Bro. Abe, a medical doctor whom we haven’t seen for ages, in a restaurant after Juma’ praye. Many, many moons ago we travelled in his car together with another brother from Cagayan de Oro (where they picked me up) to Pikit, North Cotabato, to attend a consultative meeting with the late Sheikh Salamat Hashim ((r) in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF’s) Islamic Center in Buliok. Bro. Abe had been an indefatigable Islamic activist-worker who was part of the circle of Moro professionals that supported the late MILF Chairman Sheikh Salamat (r). Today he is still in private practice and a couple of his children have followed in his footsteps and are also medical doctors. Masha’Allah! I was told he never joined government after the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) was passed. 

In the late afternoon, we visited Brother Prof. Abhoud Syed Lingga in his home. It was an unannounced visit. 

To digress a bit from the main point of this narrative, let me share some background on our association with Brother Abhoud. 

Our association with Brother Abhoud goes way, way back to the 1970s when we were together in the Moro National Liberation Front  Northern Mindanao Revolutionary Committee and Command (MNLF-NMRC) under then MNLF Central Committee Vice-Chairman Abul Khayr Alonto, Batch ‘90’. Brother Abhoud is a descendant of Ampuan a-Gaus, the M’ranaw resistance fighter who fought the longest resistance against the Americans for 14 years. The Ampuan was from Taraka and Ramain, and a relative of my paternal grandfather, Sultan sa Ramain Senator Alauya Alonto I. It was my grandfather who was one of those who helped Ampatuan a-Gaus escape the dragnet of the Americans who wanted to capture him, dead or alive. The Ampuan escaped to what is now Zamboanga del Sur where he got married in Malangas (I think), raised a family and died. Or so the story goes. 

Anyway, my association with Bro. Abhoud went on even when we went ‘aboveground’ after the 1976 Tripoli Agreement established the ceasefire between the MNLF and the Philippine Government. Bro. Abhoud went on ‘self-exile’ to Sabah and I joined the legal opposition groups, which were then engaged in ‘parliament of the streets’ activities against the Marcos dictatorship. But Bro. Abhoud eventually came home from Sabah. 

With professional and youthful brothers and sisters from Ranao, Maguindanao, Zamboanga and Sulu and from other parts of the country, we formed the ‘Muslim Alliance in the Philippines’ in the early 1980s when Islamic Resurgence around the world was taking place. We had a lot of exposure then to international Islamic movements where exchange programs allowed us to attend Islamic conferences and seminars abroad while renowned international Islamic scholars attended our Islamic Youth Camps inside Moroland to give lectures on Islam. 

It was in one of these programs that my better half and I were able to participate in the Islamic Course Studies for Muslims from eight countries (including the US) in Kuala Lumpur in 1988 sponsored by the Regional Islamic Da’awah Council for Southeast Asia and the Pacific (RISEAP). This was a very hectic program where a four-year Islamic course was compressed to three months! Our professors where drawn from the prestigious universities in Malaysia, including the International Islamic University, as well as Islamic professors from Egypt, Pakistan and India. 

Notwithstanding the rigors we were subjected to, the knowledge we earned from this schooling plus our ‘out-of-the-class’ exposures to the various Islamic movement trends of all the schools of thought of Islam were priceless. 

Now back to Bro. Abhoud, our association was not only confined to Islamic activism but went on when we joined Sheikh Salamat who came home to the homeland after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. To make the story short, we were together in the establishment of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies (IBS). Thereafter, we joined the MILF Peace Negotiating Panel though I was in the panel earlier than him. Nevertheless, we were together in the last phase of the negotiation when the Framework Agreement (FAB) and eventually the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) were inked. 

But since the pandemic broke out in 2019, our contact was interrupted. Last Friday’s meeting was the first since the pandemic. I discussed with him the writing of Bangsamoro history from the Moro perspective, and our desire to involve him in this historic and unprecedented undertaking by the Bangsamoro Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (BCPCH) in partnership with the Mindanao State University (MSU). 

Brother Abhoud is not one brother who runs from a good challenge when it comes to the Bangsamoro cause, and so despite his physical handicap due to illness, he enthusiastically jumped into the wagon, so to speak. 

In any case, we did not stay more than what was necessary in Bro. Abhoud’s home, so we departed around 7:30 pm. We declined Sister Dr.Jo’s (better half of Brother Abhoud) offer of dinner. When we left his house, a heavy rain just ended but the road back to our hotel was jammed by heavy traffic because of a fire near the Rosary Heights Church. There was chaos on the road as the vehicular jam from the corner of Sero Street (formerly General Luna) to Rosary Heights held up traffic for many hours to allow fire trucks to come and go with full siren and lights blazing. What added to our woes was the throng of students and young people attending the concert held at the Cotabato Polytechnic Stafe University that exacerbated the traffic jam.

After almost an hour of inching our way through the highway, we finally reached the Shell Station at the corner of the road leading to our hotel (Paragon). But we couldn’t turn right because the road was closed due to the fire near the Rosary Heights Church. So we decided to proceed to the BARMM compound and fetch my nephew, who, by his lonesome, had been waiting to be fetched by us. 

Our problem, however, was that there was flash flood caused by the heavy downpour at that short stretch of the highway in front of Mercury Drugstore at the corner of I think Santos Street. The water was deep. So all vehicles were diverted to the old Chinese Cemetery to bypass the flash flood. So you can just imagine the chaotic spectacle of hundreds of vehicles going in and out of that narrow road that created a bottleneck that took hours to negotiate. In short, from the corner of Sero Street to the BARMM Compound, believe it or not, it took us two excruciating hours! 

After having fetched my nephew at the BARMM compound, we decided to have dinner at any restaurant. By the time we left BARMM, the traffic had eased. Less vehicles were on the road. A member of the BTA Parliament advised my wife by phone not to stay late and go back to the hotel. According to her, the peace and order situation in the city has deteriorated. Killings have been happening. But much as we wanted to return to our hotel as she advised, we knew that at that particular hour, the Hotel restaurant would be closed. All of us were ‘starving’ from having to wait out those insufferable traffic jams. Hence, we had to look for a restaurant where to have dinner and stabilize flayed nerves. 

However, much to our consternation, all the restaurants we went to along Sinsuat Avenue were closed or about to close. We were refused entrance because they were closing. We were about to get used to the idea of missing dinner when it struck me to try Jollibee near the BARMM. We aren’t exactly ‘fans’ of Jollibee but it was the last, desperate measure – last resort, ika nga – to get dinner from. . So we turned our SUV around and went to Jollibee at the corner of the road leading to BARMM for a dinner take-out. 

But when we reached Jollibee and drove through the drive-through lane, there was heavy ‘traffic’. Many vehicles were also lined up in the drive-through lane for takeouts. All the vehicles, we noticed, were from outside town. Visitors to Cotabato City like us. It took us another hour before we could secure our dinner and go back to the hotel. 

As we were cruising through Sinsual Avenue on the way to our hotel via the downtown and Bagwa route because the road at the Rosary Heights Church was still closed, we couldn’t help but observe something akin to a ‘ghost town’. We met one or two vehicles, but all the restaurants and commercial establishments were shut down. Nothing moved except maybe for some policemen, soldiers, or nocturnal denizens. It was eerie to see Cotabato City ‘dead’ – well maybe because we were coming from Cagayan de Oro where human activities went on into the night. 

Fifty or more years ago, the city plaza would be bustling with life until past midnight as people flocked to chicken barbecue stands to savor Cotabato City’s pride – chicken barbecue! 

I used to drive Ka Abul and Ka Uto Salahudin to the plaza – when they were secretly recruiting for the ‘90’ – to buy chicken barbecue and flirt with a very pretty Maguindanaon lass who was selling barbecue chicken. Hehehe…

Today, I feel sad for the city I grew up in where seemingly – perhaps it is just our imagination – life ends after dark. 

As the capital of BARMM, this ought not to be the situation.

Cotabato City is one big Footprint of History. As such, it does not deserve to be a place where life ends after dark. 

When we reached our hotel after our ‘odyssey’ on the road, a Moro brother, after I narrated to him our ordeal, told me on the phone he was glad we were safe back in our hotel. 

Safe from what, I wondered?

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Robert Maulana Marohombsar Alonto was a member of the peace panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that negotiated the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro signed in 2012 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in 2014. He was also a member of the Bangsamoro Transition. Commission that drafted the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that Congress during the Aquino administration failed to pass. Alonto is presently  Commissioner for Lanao del Sur of the Bangsamoro Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Alonto posted this piece on his FB page on 27 November 2022. MindaNews was granted permission to publish this)