PEACETALK: Our freedoms, their struggles. By Rick R. Flores

Still, I am a stranger in my own homeland or at the very least a visitor to the greatness and vastness of a people who have tried to establish their own identity in a country that has outlived its purpose of being the first democratic nation in Asia.
“This is a sea of humanity, this is beautiful,” Angge Herrera of Sowing Peace Network told me while our vehicle tried to move away from the thousand ‘bakwits’ carrying placards with the demands ‘Respect MOA-AD’ and ‘Implement MOA-AD.’ It was past 6 PM when the peace
caravan arrived in Datu Piang. It was supposed to be dinner time or ‘sambahayan’ but the people trooped to the tiny streets and greeted the convoy of the Mindanao Peace Power Day. I haven’t seen such expression of hope from the very people who are suffering the angst of war and brutality of conflicts: they have waited for the caravan from 8 in the morning until we arrived in Datu Piang late afternoon. They endured the heat, hunger, and boredom. They have endured the
timelessness of being internally displaced; they have waged their individual battles of trying to go back to their places of origin. And the MOA-AD could have given them the opportunity, a ray of hope in the dying of the light.
Children aged 4-10 have come and gone from the evacuation sites here. Some were born on cardboards, ruptured floors, and cracked earth. Many also died from disease, starvation, and sickness. Where else in the world that being alive is a curse?
More than 2.5 million people were affected by the armed conflict in Mindanao since 2000. An estimated 210,000 people are internally displaced in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and Shariff Kabunsuan based on the data from the National Disaster Coordinating Council. The NDCC
admitted it could not give an accurate figure on the people currently displaced, although it said at least 600,000 people are ‘reportedly’ displaced. But the roadsides of Talayan, Guindolongan, Datu Piang, and Datu Saudi Ampatuan and the shanties where the ‘bakwits’ live may give
an idea of the exact number of the displaced.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) yearn to be home but the roads lead them far from their abodes. The Forced Migration Review noted that IDPs are less clearly identified and protected than refugees but are often particularly vulnerable. “The most difficult vulnerability to measure though is their loss of dignity, and, as the period of displacement increases, their sense of hope,” according to FMR.
National attention to the plight of IDPs drops and durable solutions can be elusive. IDPs often receive too little support for too short a period of time to allow them to reestablish their lives in safety and dignity, while recovery activities in the areas where they want to live are all too often slow to be completed. There is a contrast also in terms of government policy and practice when dealing with IDPs. At some point, there were reports of IDPS being forced to go back to their villages despite the presence of clear and imminent danger while in some instances IDPs are being used as human shields in operations against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Ironically, in between the span of the ‘bakwit’ country, many military personnel man checkpoints. Before reaching Datu Gumbay Elementary School which was virtually turned into a large edifice of ‘bakwits’  two armored vehicles are parked I side an Army camp as if  to show there is still war here. In Datu Piang a mosque was turned into a garrison.  And still, the people here have managed to live their lives as if there is no war. The war is to find a better place to be called home.
The Mindanao Peace Power Day exposed the undeniable truth that, indeed, there is a growing humanitarian crisis in conflict affected areas.  In the words of Babu Umbay, a ‘veteran bakwit’: “Dalaga pa lang ako ay nakaranas ko nang mag-bakwit, naranasan ko ang hirap ng buhay at takot sa magiging kalagayan ng aking mga magulang. Ngayon, tumatakbo pa rin ako pero kasama ko na ang aking mga anak at mga apo. Walong beses na kaming pabalik-balik sa evacuation centers, at maraming taon na rin akong pagod. Hanggang kalian matapos ito, hanggang kalian kami tatakbo? (I was still a young girl when I began experiencing life as an evacuee. I have tasted hardships and fear over what might happen to my parents. Now I’m still running away, this time
with my children and grandchildren. We have returned to evacuation centers eight times already, and I have become tired all these years. When will this end and until when will we keep running away?)”  (Rick R. Flores works for the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, an NGO that believes the MOA-AD is still alive.)