Marines' Football for Peace brings hope to Southern Mindanao
“People thought we were two psychotic middle-aged guys with a death wish,” says Rookie Nagtalon, about the Philippine Marine Corps Football for Peace program he and Lt. Col. Stephen Cabanlet began in 2011.
The concept, born in a BGC coffee shop, was simple: to get children in impoverished, war-torn areas in Mindanao to play football with the help of the Philippine Marines.
“Gusto naming malaman ng mga tao na ang sundalo, katuwang ng nation building. Hindi kami kalaban. Ine-erase namin ang mindset nila,” adds Cabanlet. (We want the people to know that a soldier is a partner in nation-building. We are not the enemy. We want to erase their mindset.)
I'm with Cabanlet and Nagtalon in Tawi-tawi, where I've accompanied the Loyola Meralco Sparks players and staff to participate in the the One Day, One Goal football festival in Bongao, Tawi-tawi. Amazingly, the Sparks, including James Younghusband, agreed to make the trip.
“There was a sharp intake of breath in the room when I told them about the area,” said Loyola coach Simon McMenemy. But the Scot even went on his own a month before the event to reconnoiter. He says he felt safe and welcome wherever he went in Tawi-Tawi, with only the presence of Marines as bodyguards an indication that this wasn't the safest of places. That emboldened him to bring other members of the team along for another trip.
In truth, Tawi-Tawi is largely safe, a “haven of peace in the midst of chaos,” according to Cabanlet. On the way there in Zamboanga our party ran into several celebrities and PBA legends who had been in Bongao, the provincial capital, for the annual Kamardikhaan festival on the invitation of the local government.
It was oft-repeated in our trip that among the five ARMM provinces, Tawi-Tawi was the most peaceful. I was told that there are no insurgents in the hills of the island province, and that encounters between the military and rogue elements there were mostly at sea. Elements from the Abu Sayyaf and MNLF only pass by Tawi-tawi sporadically enroute to strongholds in Basilan and Sulu.
“In Tawi-Tawi we are Muslims, Filipinos, and we are law-abiding,” says Congresswoman Ruby Sahali, a youthful, fun-loving legislator who wears a traditional scarf on top of blue jeans much of the week.
“The Sama (Tawi-Tawi's ethno-linguistic group), are peace-loving.”
The tournament itself is on the sprawling DepEd field in Bongao. There are almost 300 kids from all over Tawi-tawi in different age groups. Dignitaries like Ruby and Nurbert Sahali, the governor, are there, as is Jeff Tarayao from One Meralco Foundation, which started off their support for the event with a donation of balls a few years ago and have now ramped up their help.
While the Sparks conduct drills with the kids, I meet Lieutenant Al Abdul, a 34-year-old Marine who was part of the pioneer PMC-FFP initiative in Luuk and Panamao on the island of Sulu in 2010. A mix of tribal and religious prejudices made for a cocktail of mistrust between the armed forces and the Tausug inhabitants.
“Socially, ang Tausug ayaw maki-halo at ayaw mahaluan,” says Abdul. (Socially, the Tausug don't want to mix and have their society mixed with other cultures.)
His assertion is given weight by the fact that he himself is a Tausug from Zamboanga.
“Some Tausug will take a joke seriously. That's our character,” adds the Lieutenant, who is as soft-spoken and respectful as they come.
Football for kids, for peace
Why start Football for Peace? Abdul said it was a way to gain the trust of the children, with the hopes that the parents would follow. To then instill discipline, friendship, and skills. It was, to borrow a phrase from the Americans, a way to win hearts and minds in an area where the presence of both the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro National Liberation Front has been felt for quite some time.
The kids were given a ball to play, then quickly picked up the game, recounts Abdul. Then the kids were told they could only play football if they cleaned up the surroundings, which they dutifully did. In the succeeding days, the newly-minted footballers would knock on the soldiers doors with a bag full of rubbish, already collected, as their ticket to a football game.
According to Abdul, what started as an outreach of one detachment involving thirteen young kids playing football spawned a program encompassing hundreds of children all over the Third Battalion of the Philippine Marine Corps. (The Marines are the infantry division of the Philippine Navy.)
Abdul says that many of the locals, who are majority Muslim, felt that the program was a ploy to get the kids to convert to Christianity, since most of the military personnel there are Christian, with Abdul being an exception. Abdul denies this.
“Ang sports, beyond sa kaisipan ng bata (Sports is beyond the what the kids in Sulu are thinking of),” says Abdul. Sulu is one of the poorest places in the Philippines, with many families surviving on subsistence farming of coconut and cassava. Abdul reveals that many kids miss school to work the fields.
He says that football has been a way for many kids in Sulu to avoid drugs, stay clear of the ASG and MNLF, and see a way out of poverty. It has also become a way for the Marines to recruit young men and women into the armed forces.
The project has also been a way to end one of the more unsavory aspects of Philippine Muslim culture: the “rido,” or family feud. Spanning generations, a rido is a caustic cycle of retribution, often deadly. Oftentimes the roots of the hatred are long-forgotten, but the violence continues.
“Namamana ito ng bata. Kahit hindi directly involved, itinatanim ang galit,” bemoans Abdul. (The kids inherit this. Even if they are not directly involved, the anger is embedded in them.)
“Ang iniisip nila, 'basta ito ang pangalan, kaaway ko'," explains Cabanlet. (They think, 'if this person has this name, he is my enemy.)
Abdul says that one PMC-FFP squad featured two boys from rival clans, who had become buddies through football. Hopefully the enmity between the two families will thus not be passed on to the next generation.
The Football For Peace has had numerous activities since those humble beginnings. They have held tournaments in the area and last year they even brought hundreds to Manila for a competition and to have a taste of city life. (Due to budget constraints, some kids had to take a white-knuckle ride on a C-130 to get to the capital.)
PMC-FFP has also been able to send some students to higher education thanks to their football skills. But there have been pitfalls. One young man flamed out in a school in Zamboanga, says Nagtalon, because he discovered that riding a motorbike was more exciting than going to class. Another young Sulu girl got a football scholarship in UST but ended up switching to judo.
There seems to be nary a single centavo in the Marines budget for PMC-FFP. The activities are funded by the soldiers themselves, who are hardly millionaires. Abdul admits his own out-of-pocket contributions for gear, equipment, and snacks for the kids has totaled into the thousands.
Abdul has since moved along with the battalion to Tawi-Tawi, and has continued spreading the gospel of football in Panglima Sugala, a municipality on the island. This tournament in Bongao is for the footballers of Tawi-tawi, who number almost 300.
I meet some of the players from Sibutu, a cucumber-shaped island off Tawi-tawi. Usmansa Amelosin is a scrawny 16-year-old tenth grader who has been playing the game for 4 years now. Usmansa is with his buddy Saladin Usman.
Usmansa says seaweed harvesting is the main source of livelihood in Sibutu, although this year's crop is weak. Usmansa loves the game, although he admits sometimes he and his friends have to play with a basketball when there is no football around. Whenever he can he watches the Azkals on TV.
“Siyempre, ka-lahi natin sila (Naturally, they are our compatriots).”
The Loyola Meralco Sparks may have been without their Azkal, Phil Younghusband, because of national team training, but the crew certainly made the most of the trip. The first day was spent giving a training session for the coaches of the youth teams.
The next day the Sparks gave a clinic for the kids before the tournament proper before visiting the first mosque in the Philippines, the Sultan Makhdum Mosque in the island of Simunul, a twenty-minute speedboat ride away from Bongao. They also noted the surprisingly decent bermuda-grass football pitch just a stone's throw away from the mosque.
Tarayao says the One Meralco Foundation is looking at electrifying the school in Simunul.
The next day the team flew back to Zamboanga to tour the site of the 2013 siege and to meet Mayor Beng Climaco and some young Zamboangeño futsal players. The team could be back in the city soon for a friendly match, I am told.
PMC-FFP has plenty of plans. Nagtalon says they want to start a school in Sulu or Tawi-Tawi, to inculcate the values early on. They also intend to have more trips and tournaments for the kids. There's a 7-a-side youth tournament planned for Taguig in November, The Commandants' Cup, to raise funds.
But for now, the program is all about the individual moments that transform and touch lives. Meralco brought a huge load of football gear to Tawi-Tawi, and when McMenemy handed a pair of spikes to a young Tawi-tawian footballer during the clinic, the youngster teared up.
“The kid got emotional, and he got me emotional too,” admitted the Scot. – Rappler.com
If you would like to support the Philippine Marine Corps Football For Peace, message Lieutenant Colonel Cabanlet at the PMC Football for Peace Facebook page.