NORTH COTABATO, Philippines – Hajuier Antuan shook her head as she touched the marks of bullet holes inside a classroom of a madrasah in the town of Aleosan in North Cotabato.
The 58-year-old shared that residents were huddled together inside the madrasah when government tanks rolled inside the compound and opened fire on a group of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members a few meters away from the area during the Estrada administration’s all out war against the then rebel group in 2000.
“We immediately ran and scampered towards the mosque,” Antuan said.
Antuan was exposed to armed conflict at an early age; she first experienced war and became a bakwit – an evacuee – in 1972.
“I would never forget 1972. A group of armed militia went to our village and burned our houses. Everything was razed to the ground,” Antuan recalled. “We ran and ran blindly in the dark because they attacked during nighttime. We were not able to bring anything except the clothes that we were wearing.”
Antuan and her family stayed in an evacuation center for 4 years after their house and their belongings were torched by the militia.
Because of the war and their condition, Antuan was forced to quit school and was not able to go to high school.
“While we were in the evacuation center, my father had to fish in the river while I peddled his catch so that we will have money for food and for our other needs. How can you go to school if you have this responsibility for your family?” Antuan shared.
In the evacuation center, almost everything was scarce.
“I cannot describe the difficulties we had in trying to survive in an evacuation center. Even the use of the restroom is being controlled. If I have the choice, I do not want to experience it again,” Antuan said.
But war is treacherous and ugly. Antuan and her family evacuated again and again from the 1980s until 2008.
“I was still a young girl when I first encountered evacuation. I got married and had my own family but the same cycle I experienced when I was still a child happened repeatedly. The only difference is that this time I am now a mother,” Antuan said.
Antuan’s husband planted corn in a small parcel of land. They were blessed with 9 children but 4 died due to different health problems while staying at the evacuation center.
“It was very painful. I do not want anyone to experience what we have been through,” Antuan said.
Out of their 5 living children, only 2 were able to finish their studies through two-year technical vocational courses. Antuan said they feel fortunate that no one died from getting caught in the crossfire.
“Through Allah’s help we were able to survive the clashes. Our children quickly learned how to survive the war because they were also introduced to the world during war time,” Antuan said.
The last time their village experienced massive evacuation, she said, was during the disagreement between the government and the MILF on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).
The Arroyo administration had to withdraw the MOA-AD over charges that it was unconstitutional. It was later deemed as such by the Supreme Court.
“I told the soldiers I am already tired of leaving our houses because of the war,” Antuan said.
With the government and the MILF continued to engage and make progress in the peace negotiations, Antuan said they are optimistic that the peace that they have been dreaming for will be attained through the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
Antuan, who was interviewed head of President Benigno Aquino III’s 5th State of the Nation Address, said she wanted to hear a sincere commitment from Aquino to ensure that the construction of the road towards peace and progress in Mindanao will be completed.
“I am hoping that Aquino would act and enact the Bangsamoro Basic Law so that we can at least experience peace and change while we are still alive,” Antuan said (READ: Aquino asks for understanding over Bangsamoro law delay)
Recently, the MILF expressed its dismay over the delays in the crafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law that would establish the new political entity.
After missing several deadlines, the government said the draft would not be ready in time for this year’s SONA.
While the draft of the proposed BBL is not expected to be revealed to the public, the MILF said the review done by the Office of the President had greatly watered down the draft, even if the concerned provisions had been agreed upon in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).
“The current government proposals will not restore dignity to a people who suffered tyranny and will not secure a peaceful and prosperous future,” the MILF said in an editorial posted on its official website.
Government peace negotiators have insisted that the proposed BBL should adhere to the Constitution to ensure its passage, and that any need to amend the 1987 Constitution can be done later.
The MILF earlier appealed to its ground forces and members to remain calm and extend their patience as the peace panel stretches its struggle ensuring the crafting of the BBL.
Several groups have also expressed their worries that the chance for an enduring peace might slip away if a proposed BBL consistent with the signed agreement is not submitted to Congress soon.
But Oxfam, which has brought humanitarian relief to internally displaced peoples during the past wars, and has supported community consultations that contributed to the drafting of the BBL, said that there is always hope.
“This is the closest we have ever got to an enduring peace, but we are not there yet. A BBL that addresses the roots of poverty and inequality will be that beacon of hope that will take the Bangsamoro to a new age of peace and prosperity,” said Oxfam Country Director Justin Morgan.
The specter of displacement
Antuan feared that if the BBL and the present negotiations would fail, she and her family would become evacuees once more.
“If the BBL would not be finished, we worry that we will go back to our old cycle again. We will be displaced again. And I am sure that this time it will be more painful,” Antuan said.
She added that if the conflict would not be resolved through peaceful means, many children will be deprived of their basic rights to education and would be forced to take up arms just like what their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done.
“We do not want that to happen. Everyone wants peace and we now have this venue to resolve it peacefully. We are only hoping that the government would be serious and sincere in its commitments,” Antuan said.
Today, Antuan teaches at the Mahad Aleosan Al-Islamie, hoping that through education, children in her community would be able to find hope in their hearts and pursue their dreams for a better and more peaceful future.
The marks of bullets in their classrooms, Antuan said, serves as a constant reminder to her students that war is not glorious and that they must work hard to contribute in building the future of the Bangsamoro people. – Rappler.com