SIMUNOL ISLAND, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines -- Her calmness was contagious, if not reassuring?things will be all right. Soon enough, one forgot about the nasty boat sway or the crazy wind that, at one point, ripped the tired blue tarp that turned out to be a weak shield.
Phibiebie Sali offered a piece of soft bread she bought from mainland Tawi-Tawi, her other hand firmly holding the boat?s wooden beam to keep her balance. Near her right foot was a small pool of rainwater that had dripped through the cracks of the roof.
When her gesture was politely turned down, she showed something else?a black and white photo that yellowed through time and years of struggle. Taken in 1975, the photo shows Sali, then 16, and her husband Hamid, his hair down to the waist, and their 2-month-old daughter, Queenihar.
It was taken at the height of the government?s war against Moro rebels in Mindanao, three years after strongman Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and seven years after soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines massacred 28 Moro recruits on Corregidor Island.
Rewind the story behind the photo two years earlier. Fourteen-year-old Sali was curious. Liberation? Free Mindanao? Free the Moro world? The issues spread across the island provinces following the tragic events that involved the government and the Moro people.
Tawi-Tawi residents were already arming themselves; many had already gone to the mountains. Sali, a sophomore of the Mindanao State University in the province, would be joining the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) despite her parents? disapproval.
Sali was the youngest among 100 Moro women recruits of the MNLF. Why must she remain in the revolution that was dominated by ?strong men??
?The Moro people were faced by a force that must be stopped or else the Moro people will vanish without dignity. We had to take arms ? we had to kill ? or we would all die helpless, at the mercy of the oppressive government,? she said.
Two months after the photo was taken, Queenihar died deep in the mountains of Tawi-Tawi. For two weeks, Sali said, the baby had suffered from fever, perhaps brought about when 105-mm mortar bomb fired by solders fell near where they were hiding. Queenihar?s father, a top leader of the MNLF, was fighting fiercely on the frontline.
?That was a difficult time for us, but we had to accept it because we were fighting a revolution. We cannot be drowned by the pain of losing someone as many are relying on us,? Sali said.
She had since mastered pain and made sure to excel in armed struggle by becoming an expert in guns. With a puckish grin, she declared: ?Magaling akong mang-target ng kalaban ? (I can very well target an enemy),? and added that ?hindi ko na mabilang kung ilan ang tinamaan ng bala ko ? (I no longer count how many I had shot).?
Sali recalled how her unit endured hunger and the prospects of unexpected armed encounters while walking from Zamboanga to Davao for months, passing through Ipil and Pagadian cities. ?There were times we would starve for days because we were not allowed to cook because the enemies might sense our presence from the smoke,? she said.
Life in Malaysia
She said they often staved off their hunger with leaves of the ?kalimaw? and ?kambong,? plants and the heart of ?uway,? which was also an effective cure for malaria.
From Tawi-Tawi, she said, they took an outrigger boat to Pata Island in Jolo, then to Tonkil in Basilan, and Tiktapul in Zamboanga City.
For a decade, Sali fought the government for Moro self-determination and freedom. In 1984, she and her husband, who lost a leg during the war, went to Malaysia just as negotiations for a final peace agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government was underway.
Sali worked in a plywood factory, earning 450 ringgits (US $116) a month to help sustain the needs of her growing family. When her husband took a second wife, she decided to separate from him and found herself and her children going back to Tawi-Tawi.
?It was a decision for me and my children. I knew that we can survive and we did,? she said.
Sali?s eldest son, a graduate of computer science, now works in a school in Dubai. Another works in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, while another son is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Islamic Studies degree in a state university in Zamboanga City.
A daughter had to stop her nursing studies because of financial constraints. The youngest son is a second year high school student.
?We had to succumb to the reality that life is still difficult for the Moro people although many good things arrived for us because of the peace agreement ? still the struggle continues and it is only ourselves who can really help us,? Sali said.
Now 50 years old, the former Armalite-wielding mother has become one of the most prominent women leaders in Tawi-Tawi. She chairs the Tora-Tora Bangsamoro Women?s Association. (The name appears to be a reminder of the aerial attacks launched by the government against the Moro rebels.)
Launched immediately after the peace agreement between the MNLF and the government was signed in 1996, the association has grown to deliver change to the lives of women on Simunol Island, especially those whose families were combatants of the MNLF.
Last year, the group received P100,000 in livelihood assistance under the Act for Peace Program of the United Nations and the Philippine government.
Sali and her comrades are now busy cooking jaa, bawlo, panyam, panganan, burha, sikalang, sinah, mahmur and other indigenous food and delicacies that they sell around the island. They also do Sama embroidery that shows the people?s innate craftsmanship and artistry.
?The struggle of the people is never ending and still, despite our age, many of us are entangled and forced not to put it down. Only that this time, for us, it is a little different compared to the armed struggle. Now, the struggle that we fight depends on us?mothers to their children and wives to their husbands?and on our willingness and determination to win it,? Sali said.