'We are not surrendering': Tears, prayers as MILF begins large-scale disarming of forces

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines – In parts of Muslim Mindanao where gun battles are common, firearms are the most prized possession of men. Emotions are running high here as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) begins the large-scale disarming of its forces. 

“Ang armas sa buhay ng MILF combatant ay mas higit pa po sa aming mga asawa kung gaano naming kaalaga. Armas po ang nagliligtas sa amin kung saan kami naroroon. Sa mga bakbakan, armas po ang aming kasama," Mokada Alia Abas Salipada said in an interview inside the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Maguindanao.

(An MILF combatant loves his firearm more than his wife. It’s the firearm that keeps us safe wherever we are. During gunbattles, our firearm is our companion.)

Salipada, 44, has been a member of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) since he was 16. He didn't only fight the military, he also protected his neighbors from criminals and other security threats.

He values his firearm so much that he referred to it as if it were a living person. “Siya po ang naituturing namind kakampi at proteksiyon naming sa aming grupo at sa mga mamamayang Bangsamoro na nangangailangan  ng aming tulong (She is our ally and protection in defending the group and the Bangsamoro people who need our help),” he said.

On Saturday afternoon, September 7, President Rodrigo Duterte will witness a ceremony to decommission up to 1,060 forces and over a thousand weapons. It’s the first big batch to be decommissioned out of a total of 40,000 MILF combatants and about 7,000 weapons in the next 3 years. 

Salipada will be among the last combatants to be decommissioned, likely by 2020 or 2021. He was handpicked to join the newly established Joint Peace Security Teams (JPST) – units composed of BIAF, soldiers and cops – tasked to maintain peace and order in the region until the peace process is completed.

The prospect of disarming in a few years had made him emotional but he said it’s a sacrifice he was willing to make in order to achieve peace in his homeland.

“Kung para sa kapayapaan, kahit masakit man sa kalooban na mabitawan ang aming armas, gagawin po namin yun para sa kapayapaan ng Bangsamoro (If it is for peace, even if it pains us to let go of our weapons, we will do it for peace in the Bangsamoro),” Salipada said.

The government has hailed the sincerity of the MILF in fulfilling its obligation to decommission its forces now that the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has been established. 

“By and large, the decommissioning of MILF-BIAF members is a clear testament of the MILF’s desire to sustain the gains of the peace process, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s political will and unwavering commitment to fulfill all signed peace agreements,” said Chief Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr. (READ: Gov’t wants MILF to give up more weapons)

‘We are not surrendering’

BARMM chief minister Murad Ebrahim sympathized with the combatants. “During the struggle, we relied on our weapons in order to survive. It is very dear to us but we know that this time will come. Our objective is to have lasting peace,” Murad said.

He reminded them that the decommissioning process doesn't mean they are surrendering.

"I would like to emphasize that decommissioning doesn’t mean we have given up on what used to fight for. It simply demonstrates our sincere and full commitment to fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities in a peace agreement we signed with the Philippine government," Murad said in a forum on Friday, September 6.

"Let me reiterate that we are not surrendering. Decommissioning is not tantamount to surrendering. Our firearms will be handed over to the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) and will be put beyond use as agreed by the parties later," he said.

Ebrahim said the decommissioning process is part of the MILF’s continuing struggle to improve the lives of the Bangsamoro people. He said the battle is now about good governance as MILF took the helm of the new autonomous Muslim region.

“We really need to emphasize to everyone that what we are doing now is a continuation of the struggle for our people for our homeland. This is important,” he said.  

Socioeconomic packages

Learning from from mistakes in past peace processes, Galvez said the government is committed to “nurture and shepherd” the combatants as they transition into productive civilian lives.

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) earlier signed a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for the implementation of this program, which involves a funding support of P1.26 billion. The DSWD said 7,163 decommissioned combatants are expected to receive assistance this year under the MOA.

OPAPP also signed a MOA with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA )to develop training programs and provide scholarships to the decommissioned combatants.

Socioeconomic packages for the combatants is key in ensuring their successful transition to civilian lives. Murad said each combatant can also expect to receive P100,000 cash as part of a total package that amounts to about P1 million.

A combatant’s prayer

For the fighters, no amount of money could pay for the sacrifices they had made for the MILF struggle. But Salipada said the assistance would give him and his neighbors a good start.

Salipada wants to start a small business in his hometown in Upi.

“Doon kasi sa Upi, farmers ang mga tao doon. Gusto ko rin makatulong. Puwede ako magpautang sa kanila ng bigas, fertilizer, pesticide, o seeds (Upi is a farming community. I also want to help. I can loan then rice, fertilizer, pesticides, or seeds),” he said. (READ: 'There is another life coming,’ Murad tells MILF fighters before disarming)

Most importantly, he wants a better future for his 6-year-old child. His voice cracked again, emotional as he recalled the wars that his generation had been through.

“Masakit sa aming Bangsamoro mawalan ng mga mahal sa buhay, pamilya, kaibigan dahil sa pakikilaban. Oras na po para ituloy ang kapayapaan. Kung makaya lang namin at ibigay ng Allah sa amin, ayaw na po namin na maranasan ng aming pamilya kung ano pinagdaanan namin,” he said.

(It is painful for us Bangsamoro to have lost loved ones, family, and friends because of the fighting. It is time to pursue peace. If it is in our power to make peace happen and Allah grants it to us, we do not want our families to go through what we’ve suffered.)

This is his prayer. – Rappler.com