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Children’s playtime leads to MILF rehabilitation

(Second of a series)

COTABATO, Maguindanao, Philippines — It all began at playtime in a camp ran by aid workers for people who fled their homes following President Joseph Estrada’s all-out war in 2000 against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

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In “harmony spaces,” children were encouraged to play, sing, draw and talk about pent-up emotions as a result of the tragedy they had gone through.

Soon mothers joined what the workers describe as “psycho-social” gatherings, paving the way for an internationally funded reconstruction initiative managed by the World Bank to help move forward a peace process between the government and the MILF.

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The therapy program was initially opposed by MILF leaders as an attempt at “brainwashing.”

But Noraida Abdullah Karim of the humanitarian Community and Family Services International (CFSI) told them, “We don’t tell them not to join the revolution.”

What was alarming, she said, was children getting used to the notion of violence. They had become unafraid of gunfire. “They have become immune. The abnormal has become normal for them,” she said.

After sending observers, the MILF decided to form “child protection units” in its communities.

Workers from MILF’s Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) and CFSI also were allowed to begin the World Bank’s “transformation” program for six acknowledged MILF camps under the 2014 comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro.

In response to a request from the Philippine government in 2003, the bank had set up the Mindanao Trust Fund-Reconstruction and Development Programs (MTF-RDP) to consolidate international assistance for the war-battered region.

Joint Task Forces on Camp Transformation (JTFCT) and people’s organizations were organized and given training in project proposals, financing, managing and executing them.

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Changing the mindset

Abdullah Karim, as CFSI program director, has established links with MILF communities over 20 years of work in areas stricken by typhoons, earthquakes and violence.

Armed men had once attempted to seize at gunpoint rice she was delivering to a besieged community; a town mayor had threatened to burn her and her workers alive after evacuees declined his order to return to their still insecure homes, citing UN principles on internal displacement.

There were moments of joy as well.

A woman at a camp opted for a P400-grant instead of fishing gear to buy watermelon seeds. In three months, businessmen bought her watermelons for P50,000, making her instantly rich.

The MTF-RDP projects were modest—roads, water systems, warehouses with solar dryers for rice, corn shellers, training centers with accommodations, clinics and markets for agricultural products.

“The idea is to change the mindset,” said Windel Diangcalan, BDA executive director. “We are just beginning. What we are doing is like an appetizer. We are not yet doing the main dish.”

Hossana Manabilang, 47, said at Barangay Nabalawag in Midsayap town houses were burned during the all-out war. There were no roads. “Pregnant women were put on horseback. Many of them bled on the way to the hospital and died,” she said.

Tired of war

Most roads have been concreted in the area, a part of Camp Abubakar, stronghold of the late MILF chair Hashim Salamat and his deputy Murad Ebrahim. Houses of wood, concrete and corrugated iron have mushroomed there.

“We are tired of war,” said Tess Atong, 48, an MILF commander at Camp Bader’s Barangay Kinebaka. “This farm is forever,” he said. “We used to walk two kilometers to fetch water. Not anymore. We have a water reservoir. Horses carried sand and cement up the mountains to build solar dryers. Before, we used cogon grass on which to dry corn and upland rice.”

Atong has put up a P200,000 internet antennae in his house and charges P1 for 15-minute use. Called the “pisonet,” the service is used by Roger Usman, 30, a volunteer high school teacher downloading Department of Education modules online for his 200 students. He said he did not want them to go through the rigors of getting an education as he did.

Reconstruction demonstrated that the peace agreement was “not just a piece of paper;” said Ayobhan Usman.

“For the first time, the people felt government presence,” said Usman, 51. “The young have something to do, getting skills training and jobs.”

Soldiering on

Usman had worked as a cashier in Saudi Arabia. He returned home a year before Estrada’s all-out war that forced more than 900,000 people from their homes.

He recalled the day helicopter gunships hammered Camp Bilal as Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha. Each night at the bunker, he wrote a letter to his wife and tucked it in his backpack, hoping that upon his death, someone might find the letters and give them to his family.

“I did not know I would survive and be a part of this now,” he said.

Over almost two decades, the World Bank says its program has benefited some 638,000 people in 332 barangays in 114 municipalities in 19 provinces. It ended this month. With the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao now in place, the development initiatives will be transferred to its various ministries.

CFSI’s Abdullah Karim is likely to have an active role in a future arrangement in Mindanao. She has seen it all. Growing up in Cotabato, she and her family have fled countless times to escape an earthquake and tsunami, communal and tribal clashes. She had fled to Manila in the 1980s, landing in a Muslim squatter colony. There, she helped defend shanties from armed goons out to evict them.

And why has she soldiered on?

Abdullah Karim recalled queues she had joined in evacuation centers for food, for nutribuns and used clothing. Often, these were gone before she reached the breadline.

“There was that feeling of helplessness, that you cannot get mercy. I wanted a job so I can see to it that everyone will get help. If nobody helps you, you will die of hunger.”

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