Ending the cycle of war in Sulu
My baptism of fire as a marine officer happened in this mesmerizing yet dangerous island called Mindanao. Fresh from my alma mater I battled literally and figuratively with the Muslim insurgents in Mindanao with the ultimate goal of winning peace in my area of responsibility.
As young as I was back then, I experienced death staring me in my face – bullets without their owner’s signature creating grotesque and deformed figures that can only be imagined or seen in the movies. Loss of lives on the enemy side was overwhelming, but so was the loss on the government side.
Despite this, we declared, “We have won the war” as we were able to disperse the enemy, recover many enemies’ belongings, and ultimately regain control of Camp Abubakar.
The combination of my residual childhood belief that a hero is just actually the villain’s good side, along with the “ideals” inculcated in me at the Philippine Military Academy – that we, men and women in uniform are made to win peace thru arms – became my guiding principles in pursuing the objective of peace.
Encounters here and there, regained camp here and there, deaths here and there became part of my life. The cycle of short period-of-peace and longer period-of-tension-and-violence made me realize that our method of winning was no different from patching the hole in a roof beyond repair.
Effective for a moment, it was, however, not long lasting. Just like a patch, it created a false sense of security, only to erupt again with a vengeance.
It was not only me who thought this way, as a handful of senior and junior officers of the Philippine Marine Corps started to give a little more attention to civil military operations (CMOs). Medical missions, feeding programs, reconstruction of war-torn school buildings were among the activities we embarked on. They did not require the use of bullets.
All CMOs were aimed at giving the people a break even for a day, as peace in Mindanao – particularly in the Sulu area – remained elusive. So the cycle of short period-of-peace and longer period-of-tension-and-violence continued, although with less intensity.
But what really is the problem? What is lacking? Surely Marines do not lack fighting skills. I am not proud of it, but I have taken enemy’s lives and would be willing to take them once again when absolutely necessary.
I am – we all are – trained warriors more than willing to die with our boots on. But Marines or soldiers, in general, were born to maintain peace by all means, even if it means laying down arms.
It dawned on me a year ago, a few days after I was reassigned to Sulu, that our present enemy consists of the children of our previous enemy back when I was a young lieutenant. The children we tried to protect a few years back are the very same ones now trying to kill us.
Very hard to grasp but in my heart I know it’s not their fault. If we, as soldiers, were trained to love the country and defend it at all costs, they were indoctrinated and trained to regard us as the enemy and to kill us at all costs.
In the same manner that we believe our children are the hope of our future, the children of the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are regarded as the key to making their war with the government perpetual.
Gaining the confidence and trust of these children is a new battlefield. If they could be convinced about the futility of war, reshaping Sulu will not be limited to what is tangible.
“Football for Peace” is guided by this thinking.
It started one day when children approached a group of Marines in their detachment kicking football. As none of these kids had any idea about the game, their curiosity about it created an opening for the Marines to reach out.
That one afternoon with a few kids led to more afternoons with more kids, and even more afternoons with still even more kids. – Rappler.com
Lt Col Stephen Cabanlet is presently Marine Corps Special Service officer. Prior to his promotion to lieutenant colonel, he was operations officer of the Marine Battalion Landing Team-3 stationed in Luuk, Sulu.