MANILA, Philippines—This time around, the female soldiers and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters standing side by side in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, were not gearing for battle.
Traditionally adversarial, the two groups were preparing to tag each other on Facebook, as friends from either side took pictures of them together.
“Just tag us. See you in Facebook,” the soldiers and MILF fighters bantered among themselves in a light moment during President Aquino’s visit to the rebel territory Monday to deliver social services.
The soldiers and villagers from MILF communities later faced off in a totally different battle—on a football field in Maguindanao.
“Things are really different now,” said Pfc. Gromyco Realda from the 603rd Brigade in Camp Iranon. “It’s weird but in a good way,” he added.
Realda is one of the players who joined the kick-off of the soccer for peace initiative of the government and the Maharlika Sports Foundation, part of President Aquino’s itinerary during his visit to the MILF territories.
“Unlike in the battlefield, you don’t get killed when you get hit in soccer. On this field, there are no casualties,” Realda said.
“With every encounter in the soccer field, you don’t kill, but instead gain friends,” he added.
In a five-minute friendly match, the composite teams demonstrated the potential of soccer as a means for winning the peace in Mindanao.
The peace initiative included soccer training for the players and coaches in the community level that, according to the Maharlika Sports Foundation, promotes not only excellence in the sport, but also imparts values.
“When you enter the (soccer) field, the principle (to remember) is that you are facing playmates and not enemies,” the foundation said.
Realda recounted how, in the past, villagers would shun them when they enter communities carrying rifles.
“This time our former adversaries automatically greet us because what we’re bringing now are soccer balls,” he added.
Even parents from MILF communities are now pushing their children to join and learn soccer, although they have little access to quality sports gear and equipment, with most of them playing barefoot, Realda said.
“I am appealing to President Aquino and the leaders of the MILF to support this initiative because it is very effective. Donors are always welcome. Even ukay-ukay (used) shoes will be appreciated,” he added.
Elsewhere in the area, hopes were as buoyant that peace would finally prevail in the strife-torn MILF communities.
“We are happy and grateful that President Aquino visited us,” said Bartonina Abdullah, a mother of three.
“We are praying hard that the final peace deal would be signed soon. With a more secure village and clear access to government services, we are confident that the lives of our children would be better,” added Abdullah, who also thanked the MILF leaders and fighters “for defending the rights and interests” of the Bangsamoro people.
But in Cotabato City, Kabataan nominee Bai Ali Indayla cautioned the public against taking at “face value” the President’s peace offering through a package of socioeconomic services in the area.
“We should not be easily carried away by the President’s gesture which was merely symbolic. The Moro people deserve more than just another experiment designed to momentarily offset the social and economic hardship of select beneficiaries,” Indayla said in a statement.
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles, however, defended Aquino’s attempt to bring back normalcy on the ground through community development.
“It may take some time, but we have laid down the groundwork, acknowledging and rectifying lapses of previous administrations,” Deles said.
Closing the gap
“We’re trying to stop the cycle of violence and break the socioeconomic deprivation among (Moro insurgents) by closing the gap (and going) from the negotiating table to humanitarian services on the ground,” she added.
Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government peace panel, maintained that the Aquino formula to bring peace is on the right track.
“The MILF forces are ready to get out from the shadows of the underground,” Ferrer told reporters, citing the trust and support shown by the MILF leadership of Ebrahim Murad to the peace efforts of the Aquino government, and the almost zero reported cases of Moro insurgency-related atrocities by police and military authorities from 2012 to the present.