The other Mindanao

In a land where war is the norm, the occasional story of progress and peace-making is the more significant story.

(photos taken from video footage shot by Severino and Egay Navarro)

A Muslim woman supervisor at a banana-processing plant in Maguindanao

A Muslim woman supervisor at a banana-processing plant in Maguindanao

KABACAN, Cotabato — Last time I was here, in 1997, a body was dumped by the Army in front of the municipal hall, while nearly a dozen truckloads of troops rumbled by. A battle with Moro fighters had flared along the highway, creating smaller skirmishes in the fields and marshes around this town. One of them claimed the life of the man before me, wrapped in a malong awaiting his relatives, his bare farmer’s feet hanging out.

A crowd of usiseros eventually parted for family members, picking up the latest casualty in an unrecorded count. Since Islamic practice mandates Muslim burials within 24 hours of death, it is difficult to verify Muslim fatalities. The Christian dead you could easily find at wakes that lasted days. I had never before then seen a Muslim fatality.

I followed the relatives as they carried the body through the onlookers. I got the name and age of the dead man—Musa Lampukan, 30—but that was nearly all I could find out before the relatives turned away, loaded him onto a jeepney and drove off. Did he have children? Was he also a rebel? Did he have ambitions?

Like other Christian-born reporters covering Mindanao, I always felt I had limited access to Muslim communities. Almost all Muslims I interviewed were either evacuees or rebels. I never got the stories of anyone trying to live normal lives in ordinary Muslim communities, including casualties. But I’d always wondered what a Muslim journalist could have found out about Musa Lampukan. I had long wanted to see Muslim Mindanao as a society, and not just as a “critical area.”

So when I had a chance to direct a documentary on “the other side of war” in Mindanao, I recruited a Muslim cultural guide and on-cam host, the Maranao journalist Samira Ali Gutoc. She called herself a “peace journalist,” covering efforts to restore harmony, as opposed to war reporters who focus on conflict. Samira, just 27, had a been a Philippine Daily Inquirer correspondent based in Marawi City, where she reported on Muslims involved in conducting orderly elections, Christians learning about Islamic practices, and other subjects that had little to do with making war and much to do with building a peaceful, democratic society. She developed a following, especially among Muslim readers, across the country. “There is already so much negative imagery of Muslims in the media,” Samira said. “I just want to counter that.”

That’s how we found ourselves with a camera crew this January in this town’s dusty rural interior, in Barangay Molao, a Maguindanao community controlled by a former MNLF commander. Located near the heart of Mindanao’s fertile rice-growing plains, Molao’s poblacion is a bumpy, hour-long jeepney ride from Kabacan’s town center. Christian settlement in areas along the highway had long pushed Muslim communities toward the outskirts of town like this place, which few government services have ever reached.

With Samira doing most of the talking, we got the cooperation of the commander and his constituents in the town, where we recorded the work of two Maguindanao community organizers, Mona and Ismael, young Muslims who had graduated from Notre Dame University, a Catholic-run institution in Cotabato City that is respected as well by the Muslim community.

Mona had been a Montessori teacher before she decided she wanted to work with communities; Ismael aspired to be a radio broadcaster and would practice by interviewing us, their guests, on his mini-cassette recorder. They were among the Muslims we met on this journey who did not fit the stereotypes of Muslims—the rebels, bandits and victims—that dominate the Manila-based media.

MORE THAN a year after the Philippine military assaults in central Mindanao displaced hundreds of thousands by mid-2000, there have been some efforts at rebuilding Muslim communities. Samira helped us gain access to a few of these areas, so we could document Muslims helping each other. Working with a Mindanao-based NGO, Mona and Ismael were teaching the community how to determine their needs and develop plans to meet them.

Gathering women in a nipa hut for a focus-group discussion, the veiled Mona began by leading the group in Islamic prayer, their hands outstretched, palms facing upward, like my own veiled Roman Catholic mother in church. Then the women discussed, among other things, their coping strategies for times when the men in their communities would be absent for days or weeks at a time.

Many here were evacuees from a neighboring barangay that had become a grassy battleground. They have now resettled in this community where they had fled. I had been told that evacuees often could not return to their original homes even after the end of the violence because new occupants had moved into their land. These were usually people from even more marginalized and war-torn communities who were willing to take the risks of living in another dangerous place.

But here in Barangay Molao, the new settlers came under the wing of Datu Valentino Mantawil, a former commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). After many years in Jolo and elsewhere battling government forces, he was semi-retired from fighting following the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF. Modest and soft-spoken, Datu Mantawil offered the evacuees the use of some of the idle land he had inherited from his father, so his new constituents could grow food. The datu shrugged off the importance of what he was doing. “I’m willing to help anyone, Muslim or Christian,” he said.

There are, however, some returns for this generosity. Our documentary team accompanied an evacuee couple as they paid a visit to the site of their former home, near the boundary with a rival MNLF commander. Datu Mantawil came along for the walk over rolling terrain with three armed escorts, one of them the evacuee husband who had now apparently become part of the datu’s forces.

The couple’s home had been burned down in mid-2000 by Army soldiers after they fled, presumably to prevent it from being used as a hiding place for guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The site was now overgrown with cogon, and a rock was the only evidence of what was once a home.

Along the way, we chatted with other new settlers tending beds of rice seedlings and preparing fields for planting. Aside from land, there was little else in these parts to help people with the hazards of living. “When we were in the evacuation center, we had some health care from the government. Here there are no services,” said Keybutsa Pataru, as he watched his young son Anji fetch dirty drinking water from a shallow well. Three of his other children died of measles and tetanus, both preventable through a government immunization program that had not yet reached his community.

After our chat, he went to his land, on loan from the datu, where he started uprooting bright green rice seedlings from their bed for transferring to a nearby field. Finally, I had reached a “critical area” in Muslim Mindanao and saw what real people did aside from flee or fight a war. They helped each other, focused on growing food, and worried about the future of their children. And sometimes they made peace.

IN A tense town called Buluan in Maguindanao province, where the municipal hall was a burnt-out shell, we took a ride in a narrow, outrigger-less banca down the Buluan River, a main thoroughfare for a number of Muslim communities along the banks. The waterway was also the dividing line between two warring clans that had recently called a truce. At the height of the conflict a few years ago, a foot bridge across the river was destroyed to prevent one side from attacking the other. Since the truce, a single bamboo pole was laid across a portion where the wooden planks of the bridge had been, parallel another bamboo pole for use as a hand rail. To get to the other side, we had to balance ourselves precariously on the pole with all of our equipment, wondering whether the truce was just as perilous as the crossing.

A family building their lives after being displaced by the warIn Mindanao, the political conflicts between the government and various rebel groups hog the headlines. But generally unreported are the many minor wars between fellow Muslims, feuding families that started fighting over a boundary dispute or a crime committed against a member of another family. Courts are either absent or barely functioning in many places in Muslim Mindanao; revenge is the main form of justice.

But sometimes families just get tired of it all, especially the risks for family members who had nothing to do with the dispute except be related by blood to someone directly involved. The peace makers also see the wider benefits of compromise, such as the stability that can lead to economic opportunities. Rido is a well-known word in Mindanao for feud; but much less familiar is the term kanduli, which means festive occasion for making peace, among other reasons. In places wracked by rido, the occasional kanduli can result in radical changes.

For years, tensions between the Mangudadatu clan of Buluan and the Paglas family of the adjoining Datu Paglas municipality threatened to erupt into armed confrontations. In early January, elders from both sides met over a kanduli and agreed to ease the hostility.

“Kinausap namin sila, at nakiusap din sila sa amin na kung pupuwede hintuin na natin ito kasi walang nadadamay kung hindi maliliit na tao (We talked to them, and they also asked us if it were possible to stop feuding because the only ones who got hurt were the innocent and the powerless),” said Totoy Paglas, his town’s two-term mayor. “E kami, nagkikita kami sa labas, parang wala lang sa amin. Pero pag nandito, nagaaway-away kami (We’d see each other outside, and everything would be fine. But once we were here, we’d fight).”

The mayor was driving our team around Datu Paglas as he talked, perhaps the only politician in these parts who drove himself and without any escorts. His municipality, named after his grandfather, had become known outside Mindanao as having remained peaceful even during the height of the government-MILF war of 2000 that raged in the towns around it.

Mayor Paglas didn’t have a complex explanation for the general safety in his town’s streets: constant dialog involving elders, initiating compromise, and livelihood. “Ang talagang nakapagbago sa isip ng mga tao dito nung una yung pagdating ng National Irrigation Administration, noong ma-implement yung irrigation sa amin (What really changed the way people thought here was the coming of the National Irrigation Administration, when irrigation came to our place),” he said. “Nawala na yung gulo-gulo… nakapagtrabaho lahat ng tao (Trouble disappeared…all the people had work).”

Increased livelihood, he explained, lessened criminal activities. The improved peace-and-order situation in turn attracted investors who saw the potential of the region’s rich soil. That created more jobs, so that even former kidnappers are gainfully employed, the mayor said.

The town’s showcase today is La Frutera, a modern banana plantation and processing plant that employs 2,000 men and women, and exports to Saudi Arabia, Japan, and very soon, Iran. One of the fastest growing enterprises in central Mindanao, La Frutera was started by Mayor Paglas’s brother Toto, a former mayor who ran and lost in last year’s election for governor of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao.

On the day of our visit to the plant, I listened in as Samira interviewed Kulaypa S. Mamangcas, a pregnant Maguindanao woman who is a supervisor in La Frutera. Mamangcas talked about how the plant had changed the lives of women there. “Kakaunti lang ang trabaho na puede sa babae rito sa amin (There was little work available for women here),” she said, as rows of women washed bananas and put them on a conveyor belt enroute to boxes. But now, she said, “nakapunta pa ako sa Japan para pag-aralan ang market namin (I was even able to go to Japan to study our market).”

A happy woman in a supervisory position working in a modern company in a peaceful rural town in Muslim Mindanao—how many stereotypes can be broken in a single sentence? In a land where bad news is the norm, perhaps the occasional story of progress and peace-making is the more significant news. Documented and reported, these kinds of stories might have a better chance of recurring. Alas, the pregnant supervisor’s experience and that of Datu Paglas are still exceptions to the rule.

But they weren’t the only exceptions. We met more than a few along the way—among them, young community organizers who chose a different way to Muslim empowerment, a land owner who shared his land, a mayor who traveled unarmed, and a peace journalist who thought a bridge of reconciliation was just as important a story as the conflict that ended with the laying of a single bamboo pole.