WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Below the surface of the war arena

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/02 December) — Basilan Vice Governor Al-Rasheed A. Sakkalahul was at the Ateneo de Davao University last 25 November 2011 to tell the story of Al Barka where he once served as mayor. Sakkalahul came on the invitation of Al Qalam, the newly created Islamic institute at the ADDU headed by Muss Sinsuat Lidasan. The Al Qalam is a research arm aimed at fostering intercultural dialogue, allowing for Bangsamoro history, culture, and community life to be mainstreamed into academic literature and contemporary Mindanao consciousness.

The Al Qalam has been a long time coming, and I for one was especially glad when its creation was made official last September and the office was located right across mine in the dungeons of Finster Hall. It made it so much easier to collaborate with the amiable Muss on points of convergence. In fact, sitting in the panel of reactors for my 11 September presentation of the Mindanao Resilient Communities report was probably Muss’ first official outing in the ADDU community.

Our new neighbors are nice. We lend them our plate, they return it laden with something to eat. And two days ago, we roped them in to co-sponsor the hastily arranged lecture given by eminent social anthropologist Eric Casiño. Funny how Muss had only two monosyllables in reply to my inquiry on his willingness to provide the snacks and availability to sit through the lecture: “Yes” and “yes.”

With Tambara staff Pam Castrillo and Lani Rivera working together like a well-oiled machine, we were able to give Dr. Casiño a full audience after just a day of setting it up. No sweat for these wonderful women.

No, I could not claim credit for the success of the event. Pam and Lani put it all together while I was up in Paquibato providing psychosocial support to the widow and assessing the children – ages 3, 5, and 8 – of an Army soldier who was executed at close range by a suspected communist element while taking the children out on a joyride on his motorcycle at 6 am on November 10.

Yes, the children were able to scamper, just as soon as the motorcycle fell when their father was hit. The children are still running – at least, in their minds.


It’s a crazy world I live in when a 3-year-old has to run and keep running.

I’m beginning to see I am part of the invisible portion of the iceberg that is Casiño’s metaphor for the landscape of war in Mindanao. We see the combatants. They are the visible tip of the iceberg. Low below the surface where we don’t see are the families, communities, civil society groups, peace advocates, media, business interests, governments at all levels, foreign governments even, and other civilian entities that – directly or indirectly – exert vectors of influence on the combatants.

I am invisible in this war. Whichever war.

I do what I do – that is, provide mental health management for our soldiers – because I desire for them to be psychologically prepared to make judicious decisions in combat situations. If war is inevitable, and if it is to be done – as it had been justified countless times before – in my name and in the name of every other citizen of this country, let it be a humane war, I pray. Let it be a contained war that recognizes rules of engagement, spares non-combatants and children, and does not propagate like a virus the acceptance of violent alternatives to disputes.

The iceberg of war sits submerged. Below the surface I’ve found former rebels who want out and can’t get out. I’ve found widows and orphans and communities caught in the crossfire. As much as I can in the last seven years, I start to heal. It’s a lot easier with soldiers and their families and mainstreaming communities, even those that are hard to access. Beyond my reach and needing a lot more healing are the repeatedly traumatized MILF communities and the Abu Sayyaf-frequented ones. Often, their needs cross my mind and cause uncomfortable twinges in the region of my conscience. I try to argue with myself that I can only do so much.

I was out of town when the Basilan Vice Governor flew in. Muss, who belatedly came to know that I was doing trauma event management on the soldiers that survived the 18 October 2011 Al Barka debacle, thoughtfully recorded the forum proceedings and saved it on my desktop. It sits there waiting to be transcribed, along with the audiotapes I brought home of my interviews with the 11 wounded soldiers in V. Luna and the Fort Bonifacio general hospitals over the weekend, 40 days after Al Barka. Today, I sat down and listened to the recording of Sakkalahul’s forum.

An hour into the 25 November forum and he talks about noon of 19 October 2011 when he walked into the encounter site. Accompanied by civilians and three media men – among them Dave Santos of ABS-CBN Zamboanga and a certain Richard Palcatan – the vice governor avers that they found the six cadavers decomposing, fallen in what he assumed to be combat positions. He said he paid the civilians a total of PhP6,000; PhP1000 for each cadaver to be readied for transport. Nobody, he said, initially wanted to touch the dead because of the undignified mess a violent death brings to the human anatomy.

“I thought she was among the civilians who came with me,” Sakkalahul shifted topic in recounting. He was talking about a bolo-wielding woman who surprised everyone by rushing up to a cadaver and hacking it with so much force that chunks of flesh flew and hit the shocked vice governor and his companions.

Then came a 14-year-old youth wielding an M-16 set on automatic. He rained bullets on the cadavers. Sakkalahul said media man Richard Palcata clung to him in terror during the fire burst.

Sakkalahul did not say how the woman and the illegally armed youth were contained in their rampage, hitting out at the dead. Instead, he said the woman was the wife of an MILF combatant. She was widowed in that encounter. The youth was the son of an MILF combatant. He was orphaned by that encounter.


The widow’s grief, the orphan’s grief. They are in that submerged parts of the iceberg that are not included the main agenda of the GPH-MILF negotiations. They are, by responsibility, to be addressed by mental health practitioners like me. Grief does not have to be expressed as an explosion of violence. It does that when the pain of repeated injury finds no other recourse. Not in the justice system, not in the peace negotiations, not in the kind of governance that fails to protect its citizens from this kind of psychic injury when repeated exposures to defiled bodies in the war zone that is home are too indelibly etched in the mind’s eye. Defiling the dead by recreating mutilation and unspeakable atrocity comes to be a “normal” response in one’s repertoire of behaviors.

But how can we mental health practitioners come in?

My recent article on the psychological cost of providing psychological support in the aftermath of war (See Surviving Al Barka) had spawned much debate among clinical practitioners. Some colleagues who wrote in expressed concern over how I should protect my continued sanity. Some offered to debrief me for free; and I am truly grateful. From their perch assessing learning disabilities, treating drug addiction, witnessing for the dissolution of marriage, and managing other psychological concerns of the comfortable and the affluent, some of them salute the courage it takes to calm the terrible, unforgettable images of war and death and dying and mortal suffering.

None so far has volunteered to walk with me where we are most needed: low below the surface to excise the roots of war and grow the seeds of peace. . (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, theopinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, FamilySociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo deDavao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of areply,” she says.)