Quote for the Week..

"Why are the country’s political leaders quick to act on amending the Constitution to change nationalistic provisions for the benefit of foreigners or to extend their terms of office but are allergic to amending the Constitution to address the people’s aspirations for self-determination?" - Marvic Leonen,Dean of the UP College of Law, in a keynote address delivered at the 1st International Solidarity Conference on Mindanao; March 16-18, 2009 in Davao City, Philippines.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Christians, Muslims keep bond after attack on community

Kung mamakwit man diay mo, nagpahibalo unta mo (If you opted to evacuate, you could have informed us),” Kairon Oday recalled what he told—albeit in jest—evacuees during a recent community dialogue in Barangay Muntay after the Aug. 18 siege of the Kolambugan town proper in Lanao del Norte.

Like any other community affected by the attacks that fateful day, many families, mostly Christians, fled Muntay, taking a 30-minute boat ride to Ozamiz City.

“Everybody was in panic. Gunshots were heard everywhere,” said village chief Julius Montecillo.

Such state of confusion resulted in the evacuation of at least 70 percent of the population. Those who fled included families living along the shorelines.

But Muslim families staying on the other side of the community, together with the barangay officials, remained.

“We believe that if we stayed here, they (armed men) will not harm us,” Abdulcamid Dimalapang, a Maranao leader, who also serves as temporary barangay secretary, reasoned out.

No guns allowed

On that morning, Dimalapang said, the Muslim families went out to the main highway on the northern end going to Maigo town. On the other end, going to Tubod, the provincial capital, the barangay officials, who are mostly Christians, were on guard. Muntay is among the villages along the national highway that connects the coastal towns.

Neither groups had firearms.

“If we were armed, we would surely be caught in the crossfire. It would be hard to determine whether we were members of CVO (Civilian Volunteers Organization) or soldiers or rebels or plain civilians,” Dimalapang said. “So, we decided not to take up arms.”

True enough, at around 9 a.m., a series of violence hit nearby communities of Kolambugan and Kauswagan towns. Armed men believed to be Moro rebels arrived at a bridge in Sitio Kulasian, just a kilometer away from the barangay hall.

“They saw us, we saw them. And for a long while, we just stared at each other from afar. They did not make any move and we stood pat. Then, they left,” Dimalapang narrated in a pensive tone, reliving their experiences that day.

At around the same time, at the southern tip of the same stretch of road, around 20 armed men believed to be vigilantes turned up. According to Montecillo, the group received a text message saying the whole barangay was taken hostage by the other armed group and they came to check.

Montecillo talked to the group, asking them to leave their community. They heeded.

The local leaders might have prevented an imminent confrontation between fully armed groups, but the commotion and confusion that descended in the community left the residents at a loss. Many could not understand what happened to them on that day. Others were distraught and hurt.

The day ended with 43 deaths, five of whom were soldiers and a police officer, 41 wounded and 36 houses burned in Kolambugan and Kauswagan, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council.

Residents’ ordeal

Though no direct atrocities took place in Muntay, the ordeal that the residents had gone through started to create a dent on the harmonious relationship between those who evacuated and those who stayed behind.

Three days after the incident, all those who left came back. But an invisible gap tried to divide the Christians and Muslims in the community.

Sensing the tension, local officials called for a community dialogue during a barangay session held not at the barangay hall but at the area where the Muslim families lived, which locals called “SPCPD” (Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development).

It was named such as Maranao families came to Muntay after it was declared a “center for peace and development” by the Ranao State Revolutionary Committee of the Moro National Liberation Front after the final peace agreement was signed between the government and the rebel group in 1996. The families still live there.

SPCPD had served as the transitional implementing mechanism of the peace pact.

Maranao integration

The social integration of the Maranao families, who came from the interior towns and settled in this predominantly Christian village in 2000, was an arduous journey by itself.

After a series of dialogues between the Muslim and Christian residents, as well as several planning sessions, the barangay declared itself a Peace and Development Community (PDC) in 2001.

PDCs are conflict-affected or conflict-vulnerable areas, whose transformation into self-sustaining and peaceful communities, have been supported by the United Nations Multi-Donor Program and now by its successor program, the GoP-UN Action for Conflict Transformation (ACT) for Peace Program.

The dialogue was called to discuss ways to sustain and even strengthen the harmonious coexistence of both Christians and Muslims, especially during trying times, Montecillo said.

During the latest community dialogue, “all of us, Christians and Muslims, poured our hearts out to break the tension between us,” Oday said.

“We clarified it among ourselves and agreed that this conflict is between the military and some groups of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). We are not part of this,” Dimalapang added.

Community pact

After two hours of intense discussion, the community reached an agreement that Christians and Muslims should not turn their backs against the other, and came up with concrete steps on how to maintain peace in the place despite the tension gripping the province.

Handwritten on a white pad in Visayan and signed by barangay officials and sectoral representatives, the community banned any form of weapon in the barangay and agreed to share information that may affect the residents.

“If we hear of ill plots by a group from the (Moro) tribes, we’ll inform the barangay officials and we will negotiate with that group not do it. In the same manner, if such plans are to be (carried out) by Christian groups, the barangay officials will inform us and dissuade them from doing anything,” said Dimalapang, whose family is among the 56 Muslim families now living among 262 Christian families in Muntay.

If and when armed hostilities will affect the community, both groups decided that the Christian families will go to the houses of Muslim families if the perpetrators are Christians, while the Muslim families will stay at the homes of Christian families if those responsible are Muslims.

But Dimalapang, Montecillo and Oday hoped it would not reach that point. “We, Muslims and Christians, just want to live in peace here in our community,” Montecillo said.

Muntay is now even hosting other internally displaced people from Tangkal and Munai towns.

“We can all peacefully coexist,” Montecillo added.

The villagers are now doing their best to recover from the trauma caused by the violence and move on as one community, banking on the strength of the renewed bond between and among them..(By Leah P. Bugtay, INQ.net)
The author is a communications specialist for the Act for Peace, a partnership between the Philippine government and the United Nations, which supports 251 peace and development communities in Mindanao and Palawan

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