Midsayap Crisis: Winning the Peace

Midsayap is one of the most progressive towns in Cotabato and for years now had been bidding to become a city. Hosting a big portion of the Ligawasan Marsh which has a commercially-viable deposit of natural gas, Midsayap, erstwhile peaceful and progressive, has turned into a hotly contested area. Like in many parts of Mindanao, competition over natural resources such as mining is not immediately apparent to the people as what is more pressing is the armed conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Midsayap is one of the most progressive towns in Cotabato and for years now had been bidding to become a city. Hosting a big portion of the Ligawasan Marsh which has a commercially-viable deposit of natural gas, Midsayap, erstwhile peaceful and progressive, has turned into a hotly contested area. Like in many parts of Mindanao, competition over natural resources such as mining is not immediately apparent to the people as what is more pressing is the armed conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

But this story is not about soldiers and rebels shooting each other. We always get that from our blood-thirsty and sensationally-laden media. This is a story of two young Muslim and Christian women named Junalyn and Brenda — two ordinary women with extra-ordinary courage and generous hearts who braved the bombs and canons to save people.

Junalyn is a native of Midsayap, 28 years old and a mother of two young boys. During the height of the conflict in Midsayap early this March, she volunteered as a grassroots monitor of the Bantay Ceasefire. Bantay Ceasefire is an independent ceasefire monitoring mechanism that closely look into the strictest compliance of the ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the AFP. This is a gargantuan task given the sheer number of military presence in Mindanao and countless mujahideens of the Bangsamoro people. As a volunteer, Junalyn liaises between the rebels and soldiers, reports to the Joint Ceasefire Committee and attends to the protection needs of the internally displaced persons who are often caught in between the armed conflict.

During the height of the conflict in early February, Junalyn helped extricate over fifty families that were trapped at the SZOPAD building just as the military started bombing the area of the MILF. With the aide of a cellphone, she reported to the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) the dangers faced by the civilians. This was in turn brought to the attention of the peace panels and the International Monitoring Team (IMT) who had to wrestle with the generals in Manila to abate the bombings. At first the military denied having employed aerial bombings in Midsayap but with the strength of Junalyn’s positive and accurate information – IID was able to bring forth the evacuees’ situation in Midsayap right into the war room of the generals in Manila.

Driving her own motorcycle, Junalyn braved to enter the conflict zones to be able to locate the evacuees. She caught the ire of the military who found out that she serves as the communication link of the evacuees to the outside world. She distinctly recalled one situation when the soldiers did not anymore allow her to enter the area despite her Bantay Ceasefire credentials. Bantay Ceasefire, as an accredited partner of the Ceasefire Committee, is supposed to have access in the conflict zones. Desperate to reach the evacuees, she insisted to go but the soldier did not allow her to pass with her motorcycle. Reluctantly, she left her motorcycle and walked her way passing another trail to escape the soldiers. It took her hours to walk and by the time she returned it was almost midnight.

Dealing with a ceasefire situation entails a round-the-clock presence and attention. It involves constant communication with over 650 Bantay Ceasefire volunteers who regularly feedback to IID whatever is happening on the ground – be it unusual massing of soldiers, air reconnaissance or abuses against civilians. It also involves regular training and mentoring, recruitment and consolidation of members. These volunteers have been trained in documentation work, international humanitarian laws, human rights, conflictprevention and the entire gamut of the peace process in Mindanao from history, interim agreements especially the ceasefire agreement which serves as a “bible” in their work. IID also provides them with safety trainings which initiate the participants on the basics of survival in the conflict zones.

When asked what the prospects are for the GRP-MILF peace talks, Brenda could sense very positive prospects. She measured the impact as it translates to the day-to-day lives of children who have now returned to school. Children can now play and freely run around their communities. She recalls the time in February when she had to transport families with her tricycle to the nearest evacuation centers. She did not anymore expect payment from those people – all she cared about at that time was to bring those children to safety. The whole day, Brenda ferried the evacuees – she did not stop until the last family escaped from danger.

During the crisis in Midsayap, Brenda volunteered to join the Joint Monitoring Assistance Team (JMAT) for Bantay Ceasefire. This is an outpost set-up by the Joint Ceasefire Committee and the International Monitoring Team right into the conflict spot in Midsayap to regularly monitor the movements of soldiers and rebels. The JMAT interposition itself between the warring parties to prevent resurgence of violence. The presence of the JMAT normalized the situation of the community and gave them a sense of protection.

There at the outpost, Brenda works together with the Malaysian military officers and their counterparts in the Philippine Military and the MILF. All members of the JMAT stay together in the outpost, cook and share their meals together. Because of her rather “boyish” built, it took these men almost one week to realize that Brenda is a woman. Together with other members of the Bantay Ceasefire, Brenda monitors the situation of the community on a 24/7 basis.

It took painstaking years for IID, through its grassroots partner the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, to get the Bantay Ceasefire on-board in the formal mechanisms. Through series of confidence-building measures such as establishing contacts with both military officers and rebel field commanders, Bantay Ceasefire slowly earned the recognition of the government and the MILF as a non-partisan and independent monitoring mechanism. “People feel more secure with the presence of the Bantay Ceasefire in the communities”, Brenda said. As a Christian, she responds to the needs of her Muslim brothers and sisters and does not discriminate anyone by reason of faith nor ethnicity. If we only put our hearts to the cause of peace, we can easily work together. Even though she considers herself poor with her meager income from tricycle driving, Brenda volunteers her time to the JMAT and reports there at least 4 days a week to be able to follow-up the people and contribute in whatever way to improve the situation in Midsayap.

IID supports the efforts of these women by providing them regular skills training on conflict resolution and documentation work. It also conducts debriefing sessions to help the volunteers process their own experiences and release the tension and stress that they had to absorb under very intense situation.

Aside from monitoring the ceasefire, IID also helped organize a Peace Dialogue at the Southern Christian College to bring all parties involved in the conflict into constructive dialogue. The members of the IMT and Joint CCCH were present including the former Commanding General of the 6th Infantry Division who claimed that no one can prevent the military from entering any areas because there is only one sovereign in the country – that is the Philippine government. The MILF has no territory, he said. This line of thinking obviously reveals a classic military mindset which has not keep up with the trailblazing developments in the peace process.

The ceasefire agreement clearly provides for the delineation of lines of the MILF and the AFP so that each army will not cross their paths. Stepping into the line of each camp requires proper coordination with the ceasefire committee to avoid skirmishes.

Prior to the Peace Dialogue, Junalyn and Brenda mobilized the evacuees from the interior barangays of Midsayap to attend the meeting. It was the first time that the evacuees were able to face the generals and officers who were commanding the operations into their communities.

That can be a very intimidating situation for ordinary civilians who are powerless in the midst of military might. But with the reassuring presence of these women from the Bantay Ceasefire, the evacuees were able to raise their demands such as adequate and regular supply of relief to the evacuation centers, safe return to their own communities which by the way includes the return of their goats and chickens looted during the height of the military operations.

Shortly after the Peace Dialogue, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued a Memorandum addressed to the AFP which reiterates government’s policy on the primacy of the peace process. The Memo outlined more stringent guidelines on aerial bombings drawing lessons from the Midsayap crisis. It took away the discretion from ground commanders to employ aerial bombings which tend to be more harmful to civilian populations.

To reciprocate President Arroyo’s Memorandum, the Chairman of the MILF Al Hajj Murad issued a statement directing the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces to exercise restraint and abide resolutely to the ceasefire agreement.

For Junalyn and Brenda, these two important documents both serve as a vindication and reaffirmation of their work in Midsayap. If the soldiers and rebels will not listen to them – ordinary women – then they should at least listen to their own Commanders-in-Chief who are now saying the same thing that Brenda and Junalyn had been telling them. The cycle of violence in Midsayap like in other parts of Mindanao is long and vicious. But with women like Junalyn and Brenda who are winning the peace on a day-to-day basis, there is every reason to continue.

“My work with Bantay Ceasefire has definitely made me a better person – it gives me the resilience to endure and persist no matter what it costs for the sake of peace”, Junalyn said as she relates her story in a recent forum organized by IID. Looking at those lifeless soldiers and rebels, I imagined that if I will not move now, these soldiers and rebels could be my own sons in the future.

Brenda on the other hand found a new learning community among the Bantay Ceasefire volunteers. She sees the group as a venue where she can learn and discover more things about herself. What should keep us going is our love for the people. If we work with love in our hearts, we will be able to conquer the most difficult battles.

At the office of the Initiatives for International, indeed work goes on. Finding the love to temper the work remains a rather difficult challenge. But the inspiring words of Junalyn and Brenda are there for us emulate. It is with women like them that we find the love to work for our people.

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