Revisiting Camp Abubakar, ten years later

BARIRA, Maguindanao  (MindaNews/08 July) — The old, blue FX Tamaraw filled with soldiers cruised across the beautiful countryside dotted with farms planted to corn, abaca and coconut trees oblivious to the fact that this was once the most dangerous place in Mindanao.

Inside the vehicle, Army Lt. Greg Jose and his men were not even overly alert as though motoring into a war zone was not risky enough. It has been three years since the last attack on  the fringes of Camp Abubakar, erstwhile stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), now known as the Philippine military’s Camp Iranun.

Most of the trenches that once defended the former main camp of the MILF until then President Joseph Estrada, assisted by his generals, raised the Philippine flag there on July 10, 2000, are gone. Dirt and Mother Nature have claimed back the trenches where MILF rebels used to hide and wait to ambush government troops.

Except for some rubble rotting in the fields, there is no longer a trace of the two-month bitter fighting to control this 10,000-hectare land straddling the towns of Matanog, Barira, Buldon and Parang in Maguindanao.

“It is really quiet here now. We are now friends with all the residents here,” Jose said.

Jose and his men would not have stood a chance if they travelled this road ten years ago.

Camp Abubakar was more than a military camp. MILF top leaders, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and the late Salamat Hashim had their offices there. Murad, who was then MILF military chief, held office in Barangay Sarmiento, Matanog town while Salamat, the MILF chair, resided in a small bungalow inside Camp Abubakar itself.

There were thriving communities where the MILF ran a system of government based on Shariah law. Smoking was not allowed in these communities and wearing short pants even among males was forbidden.

Its nearby forests, small lakes, and rivers provided natural routes and cover for the MILF fighters, its agricultural fields honeycombed with tunnels, ditches and trenches that formed into an elaborate defense system.

Furthermore, agricultural produce from the farms helped sustain the small army of MILF fighters stationed in Camp Abubakar.

“The former Camp Abubakar was self sufficient. It had public markets and small businesses. It had a thriving community that supported the rebels,” Jose said.

Camp Abubakar was overrun on July 9, 2000 after two months of relentless airstrikes, artillery and ground onslaught by government troops. Murad declared a withdrawal of MILF forces from the Ramos Highway after the 1st Marine Brigade reached Barangay Langkong in Matanog, Maguindanao, considered to be its gateway.

The Marines had swept aside MILF resistance around Mt. Cabuyao where women guerillas in black uniform were seen fighting in the trenches.

MILF fighters mounted heavy caliber .50 machinegun emplacements on Mt. Bitu, overlooking Camp Abubakar. From the mountain, the rebels fired at the Marines who overrun Murad’s house in Sitio Sarmiento, Matanog town.

Fighting was also fierce around Hill 463 in Matanog town where Army Scout rangers and Marines fought a deadly battle with the MILF rebels dug in trenches.

Camp Abubakar was the prized catch for former President Estrada who launched his “All-out War” policy against the MILF on March 21, 2000.

Estrada was so elated with the news of the capture that he flew to Camp Abubakar on July 10, 2000. Together with the generals, Estrada posed in front of captured machineguns, computers and other military equipment for TV crew and photographers and, with the assistance of his generals, raised the Philippine flag, “in assertion of sovereignty.”

When he came to celebrate the fall of Camp Abubakar, Estrada brought trucks of lechon and cold beer to feed the conquering soldiers, a move denounced by devout Muslims who considered the place “a sacred ground for Islamic revival.”  Even Catholic priests and the media criticized the lack of sensitivity on the part of the President’s party.

Ten years later, Estrada, who ran in the 2010 presidential elections, made a campaign promise to crush the MILF again if he won. He won big in Northern Mindanao, Bukidnon, Davao and Sarangani, which have predominantly Christian voters.

Over the years, the former battlefield of Abubakar has been transformed into lush agricultural farms as villagers started returning home after months years, and residents from the interior towns started settling down into their new homes here.

President Gloria Arroyo tried to win “the hearts and minds” of the Bangsamoro people by pouring millions of pesos in development aid.

The road project from Langkong to Camp Abubakar, previously started by the Estrada administration, was continued by Arroyo.  A radio station was even put up although it went off the air shortly after.

Army engineers built a mosque in Sarmiento to replace the old one that was destroyed by the bombings. To entice residents to come back, a housing project was built, intended for displaced villagers but only a few have since returned. The rest have settled elsewhere. Gawad Kalinga later built houses, enticing residents from other parts of what used to be Abubakar to move into the new community, beside which an elementary school was built.

Because the weather around Camp Abubakar is cool, there was even talk of turning it into a tourism destination.

Yet, the dream of turning Camp Abubakar into a thriving economic zone failed and even the results of the “battle of hearts and minds” is under scrutiny.

Farmers still use horses to bring their produce to the traders, who in turn, sell them to markets in Parang or Malabang town in Lanao del Sur.

The ruins of the beautiful small bungalow where the late MILF leader Salamat resided and received visitors including government officials, have remained.

When government troops entered the bungalow two days from the fall of Camp Abubakar, they saw pictures of Senators Loren Legarda, Tingting Cojuangco and Mindanao leader Reuben Canoy on the cabinets and floors.

The conquering soldiers took everything they could lay their hands on from the bungalow for souvenir. They even used books from Salamat’s splendid library for cooking.

Today, the bungalow no longer has its colored roofs. Its fine wooden walls are gone and only the massive gray concrete foundation is left. Tall grasses from the nearby forest are about to reclaim the ruins.

Whatever gains the government had in winning the hearts and minds of the Bangsamoro people stopped cold at these ruins at the foot of the mountain behind Camp Abubakar.

The transition was never easy. Lieutenant Jose and his men knew this as they waved their hands to a group of men standing on the roadside.

“We still support these people in whatever way we can. We are winning. These people are now our mass base,” he said.

Oling Basagon, 41, watched as her husband and son laid their corn harvest to dry on the road fronting their store in the Gawad Kalinga housing project.

‘I don’t want to run anymore. I am enjoying a life of peace here,” Basagon said in the vernacular.

Basagon said it took them five years to gain enough courage to come and settle at the Gawad Kalinga housing project.

Before that, Basagon, who originally resided in Barira town, said the life of their family was “ from one evacuation center to another.”

“We ate relief food for two years. Life was never ending search for relief food,” Basagon narrated.

“We don’t have much here but the food is grown by us,” she added.

Shuffling the candy bags at her small sari-sari store, Basagon said they will not hesitate to run away again if war breaks out again.

She hopes that time will never come. (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)