Our own dirty war in Mindanao

Here we go again in Mindanao, launching a war that defies all reason.  A full-scale assault has suddenly been launched by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in communities identified as mass bases of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  We thought all along that a ceasefire was supposed to be in force, and peace talks were supposed to be ongoing between the MILF and the government.  The military says they are not targeting the MILF but only elements of the kidnap-for-ransom gang known as the Pentagon group. But, apart from the soldiers, most of the dead are MILF rebels and civilians.

The AFP has accused the MILF of harboring the Pentagon group. That may or may not be true.  The Maguindanaos are not a huge ethnic community — it should not surprise anyone if Pentagon members come from MILF families or used to be MILF combatants themselves. If MILF members have given them shelter, that doesn’t mean the MILF is protecting them.  The MILF has denied it is protecting criminals.  If that is hard to believe, the government panel should raise it as an issue in the peace talks.

But to deploy thousands of soldiers in order to hunt down a handful of bandits who are thought to be hiding in populous villages is to play an insensitive game.  It immediately dislocates thousands of fearful families whose deep insecurity makes them leave their homes and farms at the first burst of gunfire. Anyone who has ever had to abandon one’s own home in haste to avoid being killed in the crossfire would know that this is what terror means.  Is their pain part of the collateral damage of necessary wars?

Like the impending war in Iraq, this is an avoidable war.  It is totally unprovoked.  The military was not responding to an attack, nor was it facing an imminent threat of an attack from any armed group, whether rebel or plain bandit.  The pursuit of the Pentagon elements seems more like a pretext rather than the real objective of such a huge operation.

Some unnamed government sources have been reported in the newspapers as saying that the military meant to preempt retaliatory attacks from the MILF, which could happen as soon as the US starts assaulting Iraq.  They were worried about the supposed unusual build-up of MILF forces in the Buliok Complex.  If true, why are we doing this to ourselves?  This is the same mindset that drives the preemptive insanity of the George W. Bush’s government.  We have no need for it.  The ethno-religious and class fault lines of our society are active and troublesome enough as they are without us having to import American paranoia.

Two years ago, I made a visit to Pikit, North Cotabato, and saw for myself the remnants of the evacuation centers that for months had sheltered thousands of families who had fled from the war against the MILF.  What I witnessed tore my heart, and I wondered how many more evacuations these hapless communities had to go through before they could begin to enjoy settled lives.

In Pikit, I met Normina Mamasabulod, a young Muslim girl who was working as a volunteer in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish of Father Bert Layson.  Her story impressed me so much that I decided to make it a part of a book I was writing at that time.  Her life is the diary of all evacuees and all the silent victims of the righteous wars of governments.  I thought of her again the other day.

“Her most vivid childhood memory is of a dark day when she was nine.  She is carrying a small bundle of clothes, and she is running. The whole village is running.  She is scared and confused.  There are explosions.  In everyone’s face, she sees confusion and fear.  She holds on tight to her sister’s skirt.  Her father leads, glancing backward to check on them now and then.  Her mother lags behind, holding her baby sister in her arms.

“After moving from one town to another that fateful day, they settled with relatives in Dungguan, a few towns away.  They did not return to their home until a year later.  By the time they returned, the farm was hardly familiar to her, for much of what she knew and held dear had been ruined and spoiled by the war.”

That was her first encounter with the face of war.  Evacuation became a regular routine for her village.  “She recalls a night during a fiesta in their barangay in 1997, when she, then 14, joined the evening’s revelry.  The grains in the fields were ripe for harvest, and the barrio was in the mood to celebrate, even as they looked forward to many days of hard work.  CAFGUs – civilian militia deputized by the military – surrounded the place as usual, eyeing every movement. All of a sudden a grenade exploded, and mayhem followed.  The CAFGUs closed in and strafed the crowd indiscriminately.  People fell.  Normina saw two people die at close range.”

“The following morning, Normina and her family were fleeing again. They barely had time to snatch a few things: a piece of bread for her younger sister; for her mother, a cooking pot.  Normina grabbed a few of her clothes hanging on a line.  The whole community – men, women, and children – became, again, a horde of refugees fleeing their homes.  There was to be no harvest.  The grains would be left to rot in the sun.”

This is a story that is familiar to many communities around the world that have lived in a time of war, regardless of their religion or race. Marilou Diaz-Abaya captured it most poignantly in her film “Bagong Buwan.”  That film says it all for us:  The conflicts of our time can be solved neither by arms nor by arguments.  Their resolution can only begin with the stories that people of cultures different from ours tell, stories that permit the rest of us to achieve an imaginative identification with the situation of fellow human beings we do not know well.


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