Coming to Tawi-Tawi after a gruelling tour of duty in another part of Mindanao feels like an elf coming home to Rivendell in JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. Although the fictional Rivendell is a valley and Tawi-Tawi an island province, the two places are synonymous in terms of being a haven of peace in the midst of chaos. This faraway group of islands seem to have the protection of the Rivendell’s vilya ring. It does not experience the same turbulence happening in the nearby areas. It has not seen blood the way other parts of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) perpetually had.
Being assigned to Tawi-Tawi is the “next best thing” for every Marine. The white sand beach, the camp near the beach, the luscious seafood, exotic fruits, other beautiful scenery and the absence of warring clans killing each other is an assignment close to rest and recreation.
But history shows it hasn’t always been like this. It is in these Islands where the 3rd Marine Battalion, my present unit, had its baptism of fire way back in the 70’s, when insurgency took the lives of many Marines. Like the elves of Rivendell, many of the troops and Tawi-Tawi natives sacrificed their lives to achieve relative peace and resolved that the gains are preserved.
But the vilya ring placed to protect Tawi-Tawi is not as powerful as the vilya ring of Rivendell. Not all bad elements are warded off in these islands as it is in the “deep valley of the cleft.”
The peace-loving people of the Tawi-Tawi Muslims (Sama, Jama and Badjao) are tested every election when “war” erupts between political families.They are threatened, too, by the occasional presence of the Abu Sayaff Group (ASG), which uses the island as pathway and “stop over place.” The rebels target the residents for their kidnap-for-ransom activities. This has alarmingly forced the people to embrace the “must have gun per family” culture. A gun in the wrong hands always makes peace volatile.
‘Place of refuge’
Elrond, the elf owner of the vilya ring, protected Rivendell so there will be a place for those who seek refuge. It is now the Philippine Marine Corp’s (PMC’s) thrust to be the Elrond of Tawi-Tawi. The PMC 3rd Marine Battalion could either use the ring of protection through the guns of violence or with the balls of peace. Marines are fierce fighters who know and experience violence at its worst, and will never back out for anything. But these same Marines are also well-versed in attaining peace through peaceful means.
On September 21, 2014, the 3rd Marine Battalion, in partnership with Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), introduced the game of football as one peaceful means to protect the people of Tawi-Tawi. The Football for Peace Program has been PMC’s project for quite some time, and it has been proven to leave an imprint of permanent longing for peace on those who had participated in it.
We’ve brought the activity launched in Sulu and Zamboanga to these islands. Tawi-Tawi is favored because this event is not a simple local event. It was done simultaneously with football events of other country members of the United Nations – PEACE ONE DAY, an international organization involved in promoting peace in areas plagued with insurgents.
Participants in this football event were Muslim children aged 8 to 16 years old, coming from the far flung islands of TawiTawi. These children are not as war-shocked compared to their cousins in Sulu and Basilan but they are less privileged as well.
Ferried by boats, they came to Bongao, the capital town of TawiTawi. For most of them, it was the first time they left the islands they were born in. It is the hope of PMC MBLT III and the Football for Peace program to seed in these children the deep longing for true and genuine peace in ARMM.
The fictional Rivendell is a place of semi isolation very much like Tawi-Tawi. It served as refuge for those who are weary and oppressed. In the “Lord of the Rings” the same place is visited by people who seek sanctuary, healing, and wisdom. Given the right effort, it will not be impossible for fiction to become reality. Tawi-Tawi can become the Rivendell of the South and provide sanctuary for their weary and the oppressed brothers.
Watch this video of Football for Peace below.
Lt Col Stephen Cabanlet is one of the founders of the Football for Peace Movement.
Read about the Football for Peace Movement in these stories: