[First published on August 2, 2013]
Last Thursday (July 25), a team of four people representing The Peacemakers’ Circle travelled from “imperial Manila” to the remote villages of Aleosan and Midsayap in North Cotabato, Mindanao to promote Intra-Faith Dialogue for Muslim-Christian Peace- and Relationship-Buildingamong the victims of armed conflict there.
What we thought would be a journey that would unfold according to well laid plans turned out, in fact, to be an adventure of faith as we began our first steps facing the worrisome challenge of almost missing our flight to Davao and then having to wait another two hours in Davao for luggage to arrive in another plane!
Unfazed, I and the three other members of our team–Imam Ebra Moxsir, Al-Haj (President of the Imam Council of the Philippines), Orlan de Guzman (Project Coordinator of The Peacemakers’ Circle), and filmmaker Surf Reyes (AdvocaCinema)–travelled from Davao to Kidapawan, then on to Aleosan and Midsayap along the concrete highways of our fears, past Manubuan (the boundary between Matalam and Kidapawan) where fierce fighting occurred last Sunday (July 21) between warring clans of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Faith prevailed over our fears during our four-day visit, though our resolve was tested upon our arrival when an earthquake occurred while we were having an ifthar dinner for Imam Moxsir, Nhaz and Bai with the Balay Rehabilitation team at the fourth floor of our hotel. Our presence here must be earthshaking, quipped Surf Reyes; and I wondered what this meant if, indeed, nothing in this world happened by chance!
We geared up early for our “mission” the next day. But, in Sitio Mampurok, Dualing, we found ourselves having to abandon the comfort (and relative safety!) of our air conditioned van at a muddy juncture along the road. We had to walk a winding narrow path (which was said to be the path of attacking rebels!) just to get to the places where we were expected to be. It helped that our two young field coordinators of the Balay Rehabilitation Center—Gigi Mapanao (Catholic) and Nhaz Matula (Muslim)—who cheerfully served as our guides, kept us laughing at ourselves along the way. And when rain started to drizzle and the road got too muddy, they happily showed us the easiest way to reach the people waiting for us at the end of the road–by riding astride the trusty habal-habal (motorbike) with as much grace that we could muster without falling off our seats when the tires stuck to the mud or when the going got really bumpy!
I worried that the exertion and excitement might be too much for Imam Ebra Moxsir who was observing Ramadan and was fasting the whole day, but he said that he only had to see me on the bike to be assured that he could survive the experience as well.
Our perseverance paid off and we finally got to meet the Muslims and Christians of the SALAM and the SHALOM Community Intra-Faith Dialogue Circles that Gigi and Nhaz established for this pilot project last May in the barangays(villages) of Aleosan and Midsayap.
We met the Muslims and Christians separately in different places—in a makeshift barangay hall in Dungguan, under the trees and a nipa hut in Dualing, in the UCCP church in Baliki, and in a madrasah along the highway of Pagangan that had gaping holes on the wall that served as a grim reminder of the military “clearing operation” during the “all-out war” in 2000 that killed innocent women and children. There, the gentle Ustadz Abdul Rahman Esmael recalled how Fr. Bert Layson, OMI, saved many lives (including Ustadz Esmael’s) by pleading to the battalion commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to halt the operation. It was May 5, 2000. He remembered the date clearly as though it was indelibly etched in his memory.
We spoke to them–our newfound Muslim and Christian friends in the four conflict-affected barangays of Midsayap and Aleosan–not of promises to fulfill as politicians would, but of shared hopes and dreams of peace, alleviation from the hardships of life lived in poverty and fear, and of the sense of empowerment that comes with embodying the teachings and ideals of our faith as true believers in Christ and true followers of Islam.
What we said must have resonated in the hearts of those who cared to listen. They must have heard the quiet hope in the silences between our words for we were responded to shyly with warm embraces and quiet assurances of support. As he said goodbye to us, Bapa Abubakr “Bacron” Ibrahim (the kindly old chairman of the MILF in Dualing) flashed us a most disarming smile that captured my heart and inspired me with the sense of certainty that peace is not just a promise in these conflict-affected parts of our country. It is a reality that needs only to be awakened—lovingly–in the hearts of those who have been overcome by anger, hatred, and fear; and nurtured over time with sincerity, humility, patience and perseverance.
In my journey of fifteen years along the path of interfaith dialogue and relationship-building, I have learned that peace is not a “daang matuwid”or a straight path to follow in the same way that President Aquino would say of the fight against corruption in our country. More often than not, peace is a narrow, winding and bumpy road that demands from those who traverse it clarity of vision, depth of conviction, sincerity and passion (for being the change that they wish to see), patience and commitment to engage in reflective co-creative action with fellow travelers in the journey.
For us at The Peacemakers’ Circle and the Balay Rehabilitation Center, there are still “miles to go before we sleep” and we are deeply grateful to those who believe in us, support our work, and keep us company in the journey. We thank you all very sincerely!