Pigcawayan, North Cotabato, Jan. 31 – For almost two years, the gently sloping terrain of this once ancient seat of Islamic civilization in southern Philippines had been a picture of lost dreams and uncertain future.
Tents, which housed roughly 2,000 families displaced by war during the height of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain debacle in 2008, used to line up the paths and the hills of Libungan Toretta.
But today, the desolate image has been replaced with that of renewed conviction. Recently, 295 shelter units were formally turned over by the government to the displaced families who decided to settle here, as well as in Barangay Dunguan in Aleosan.
The aid is part of the government’s PAMANA or Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (Peaceful and Resilient Communities) program through its IDP (internally displaced person) Shelter Assistance Project, which being implemented in collaboration with the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the municipal local government units.
PAMANA is the current administration’s program and framework for peace and development in conflict areas and communities covered by existing peace agreements. It aims to reduce poverty, improve governance and empower people through interventions that enhance peace and socio-economic conditions.
Instead of tents, small white houses made of plyboard stand in neat rows on the 10-hectare land lent by the municipal administrator.
Now that they are homeless no more, the IDPs are ready to face their dreams and rebuild their lives, praying that no violent conflict will disrupt their lives again.
Reuniting with family
Tauntik, a 42-year-old father, thought he will not see his pregnant wife and two children anymore. When mortars hit their neighborhood in Kabuntalan in the afternoon of August 18, 2008, people frantically ran towards different directions to escape from the warring forces.
“We got separated. I brought with me three of our kids, boarded a fishing boat and headed to Libungan Toretta, which is across our barangay. My wife with our two other children went to Cotabato City,” he related.
Hearing no news about her husband, Tauntik’s wife Mamot thought that he was killed. “I didn’t know he’s still alive. But after seven days, we became reunited.”
For the couple, the PAMANA shelter unit provided to them marks their family’s triumph over the ordeals. “This is where we have been brought back together,” stated Tauntik, who dreams that his children will finish school someday.
Mamot said that they are very grateful for this government’s initiative. “We are now protected from the sun and rain unlike those days when we were living in a tent."
Healing the spirit
Even before the armed clashes between government forces and lawless elements occurred in their area, 34-year-old Alenith and her family took off from their home in Ganta, Kabuntalan and travelled to Cotabato to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
Returning after a few days, they found the community deserted and many houses destroyed. “I suffered a nervous breakdown. My children were traumatized, always seeing armed men crossing the river,” she said. “We fetched some things from our house and went here (Libungan Toretta) to stay.”
Alenith related that various government and non-government assistance poured in Libungan Toretta. Among those she mentioned was the United Nations Children’s Fund’s trauma healing program. “Finally, my kids and I were healed from our traumas. As a volunteer, I also helped other IDPs suffering from the same problem.”
She narrated how hard it was to live in a makeshift tent made of scraps of wood and other materials. “But now, we have our own house. I am really thankful.”
Dreaming that someday her children will live better lives, Alenith said she hopes that a peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will be forged soon. “So that there will be no more bloody clashes,” she stated.
Holding on to dreams
Twelve-year-old Salama said she does not mind being in third grade again as long as she is able to continue her schooling, and eventually realize her dream of becoming a teacher.
When armed skirmishes in her hometown Kabuntalan erupted, her family escaped to Cotabato. “I was a grade three pupil then. I had to stop my schooling because of the war,” she said.
Salama recounted that fateful day in August when clashing forces entered their school grounds. “I was so scared that I cried. Our teacher yelled at us, telling us to take cover, but we wanted to go home because we were worried about our parents and siblings,” she related. “My family went to Cotabato to be safe. My aunt and I followed them there. After a while, we decided to go here (Libungan Toretta) where we lived in a tent for several months.”
After two years, Salama was able to resume schooling in third grade. With a house to call their own and newfound friends to stay, she feels contented.
“I want a happy life,” she said. “And I want to live here because nobody is fighting with another.”
Pursuing a just, lasting peace
The government, while addressing the needs of war-torn communities, continues to pursue a negotiated political settlement with rebel groups, particularly with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP).
“This administration is bent on resolving the decades-old armed conflict in the country,” stated Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles.
In a regional peace forum held recently in Malaysia, the peace adviser stressed the urgency to “have a signed agreement (with the MILF) as soon as possible, hopefully before 2013 or the midterm” or “we will run out of time for properly implementing what we have signed.”
Deles added that the government “will persevere because we know that status quo (of existing armed conflicts) is not an option.”
“We will continue to toil in the search for peace,” she said