(First of four parts)
DATU PIANG, MAGUINDANAO ? Sometime in mid-June, just days after the new school year opened, classes at Datu Gumbay Piang Central Elementary School broke up as cannons boomed from an Army firebase 25 meters away.
Teacher Noime Pua said that with every volley, ?our pupils would go out of the classroom, some would go home to the evacuation center, others were fetched by their parents.?
?Those left behind could no longer concentrate on our lessons,? Pua told a group of peace advocates, humanitarian workers and journalists.
School officials asked the soldiers to move their two 105-mm and one 155-mm howitzers elsewhere but the Army was not inclined to give up its strategic position. One officer instead advised the school to look for a new location.
The incident seemed to illustrate the supremacy of military objectives over any other considerations after fighting broke out with Moro rebels last year following the collapse of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).
Today, both sides are trying to revive the stalled negotiations brokered by Malaysia. Hopes are that with the end of the Muslim fasting season of Ramadan, talks could begin anew in the next few weeks.
Sharing the blame
The aborted deal on ancestral domain called for an expanded Bangsamoro homeland in parts of Mindanao and Palawan, to be governed by Muslims or by a so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.
It was the symbol of a generations-old hope among Moros for self-rule, nourishing countless revolts that have bedeviled every government in the fractious archipelago.
Blame for the renewed fighting fell on everyone.
Angry at the aborted signing of the accord, guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) attacked Kolambugan and Kauswagan towns in Lanao del Norte in August last year, reigniting large-scale clashes after five years of relative lull.
The MOA-AD crowned talks on the sensitive issue of ancestral domain. Both government and the MILF regarded it as the biggest gain of the 11-year peace negotiations aimed at ending an insurgency that has claimed some 150,000 lives, by some estimates.
Tension boiled after local officials warned of a political backlash from communities that would be covered by the Moro homeland. Critics slammed what they called ?juicy? concessions to the rebels.
Weeks before the August attacks on civilian areas in Lanao del Norte, smaller skirmishes had erupted in Midsayap town in North Cotabato. The military used bomber planes in the fighting.
By Aug. 18, the battleground had widened to include Maasim town in Sarangani.
?We are man enough to acknowledge that we started the fighting in Lanao del Norte,? MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told reporters.
But while conceding that ?we violated the ceasefire, especially in Lanao del Norte,? Iqbal also pointed out that the later clashes were ?worse than what was started.?
Iqbal denied accusations that the MILF had bombed major localities, killing civilians. He said the MILF was open to an investigation, preferably by the International Monitoring Team (IMT), and urged the Armed Forces to submit to the same process.
The IMT, formed in 2004 and headed by Malaysia, monitors compliance with the 1997 ceasefire agreement. From 2004 to July 2008, encounters had drastically gone down. The biggest number (16) occurred in 2004.
In mid-2007, both sides also edged close to a full-scale fighting after Moro rebels beheaded 10 Marines in an encounter in Albarka, Basilan. The Joint Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH), where both sides are represented, defused the tension.
With the resurgence of fighting in August last year, the military launched a manhunt for three ?rogue? MILF commanders blamed for the atrocities in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato.
The search for the three commanders?Ameril Ombra Kato, Abdullah Macapaar, alias ?Commander Bravo,? and Aleem Sulaiman Pangalian?took the Armed Forces beyond Lanao del Norte to the Liguasan Marsh towns in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
In its pursuit, the government unilaterally lifted the ceasefire in three of 19 areas in Mindanao where the MILF has armed units.
At one point, the government went to the extent of disbanding its peace panel to show disgust at MILF strikes. As usual, the MILF said it was merely exercising its ?right to self-defense.?
Children in midst of war
The humanitarian tragedy that has befallen civilians, who fled their homes to avoid getting caught in the crossfire, has put into question all justifications for waging war.
Teacher Noime Pua?s schoolchildren may be too young to understand the horror of the war but they certainly felt it that June day in their classrooms as the Army guns thundered around them.
This town is now a major evacuation site and Pua?s wards are among the nearly 600,000 civilians displaced by the conflict. For nearly a year since the resurgence of fighting, the frightening sound of artillery guns was almost a daily fare for them.
Last July, the government and the MILF finally agreed to cease hostilities.
It may be another of those shaky truces in the long running war but for now Datu Gumbay Piang?s schoolchildren can study their lessons in relative peace. (To be continued)