Mindanao’s Child Evacuees Send Arroyo Messages of Hope

“Mrs. President, we want to go back to our homes so that we can study well and support you. We have suffered enough.” This is just one of the messages scribbled in home-made cards that Mindanao’s child evacuees hope would get the attention of the new administration.


PARANG, Maguindanao– If greeting cards can touch the heart, homemade cards sent by children evacuees to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo can make one’s heart bleed.

“Dear Mrs. President, natatakot kami sa putukan. Ang gusto namin matapos na ang gyera para makabalik na kami,” reads the message in a card signed by Jaina, a child evacuee. (“Dear Mrs. President, we are afraid of gunfire. We want this war to end so we could go back to our homes.”)

“Dear Mrs Arroyo, gusto naming itigil ang pagpaputok sa Mindanao para makapag-aral kami ng mabuti,” reads another card written by another child evacuee, Rowena. (“Dear Mrs. President, we want the fighting to stop so we can go back to school.”)

The messages in other cards are more poignant, like the one written by child evacuee Leo: “Dear Mrs. President, gusto po kaming makabalik sa aming lugar upang makapag-aral ng mabuti para makasuporta sa iyo. Hirap na hirap na po kami.” (“Dear Mrs. President, we want to go back to our homes so that we can study well and support you. We have suffered enough.”)

The cards have drawings and a collage of children in happy and playful mood, representing what they called as their “dreamworld.”

Undersecretary Jesus Dureza, presidential assistant for Southeastern Mindanao and head of the government peace panel in the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), collected about a dozen of these cards from children when he visited the evacuation center at Amir Bara Lidasan National High School here Wednesday last week.

About 200 families are staying at this evacuation center alone, many of them suffering diarrhea and other diseases. Most of them had walked for days from their war-torn villages in Matanog town, Maguindanao, at the height of the Estrada regime’s all-out war against the MILF last year.

Bleeding Heart

Dureza promised the children that he would personally hand over the cards to President Macapagal. “My heart bleeds for these refugees, especially children. They have been there since May,” Dureza told reporters who accompanied him in the visit.

But the children did not stop at merely sending greeting cards to the President. Assisted by the peace advocacy group Kids for Peace, they engaged Dureza in a “peace dialogue” right inside the evacuation center.

The children only had one message to Dureza during the dialogue: to report to the President that they want the war to end.

“Sabihin ninyo kay President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo na sanay matapos na ang giyera para makauwi kami sa aming lugar, para makapag-aral na kami mabuti at saka po para makatrabaho kami,” Badria Burjan, a nine-year-old child evacuee, told Dureza. (“Tell President Arroyo that we hope the war will end so we can go back to our homes, our schools and so we can work.”)

Badria’s cousin, Monaira, a Grade 3 student, told Dureza that several people died in their village when the fighting erupted last year. “Para sa akin po, ang gusto ko po ay mawala na ang giyera sa aming lugar dahil paano na po ang aming kinabukasan kung palagi lang giyera?” Monaira said. (“To me, I want the war to stop. What would happen to our future if the war continues?”)

Cotabato Meeting

Last week, government and MILF emissaries met in Cotabato City for the first time after the war that erupted in late April 2000.

It lasted only 30 minutes, but when they emerged from the closed-door meeting, the faces of the emissaries exuded the hope that the peace process would resume soon.

President Arroyo sent Dureza to the meeting. The MILF was represented by Islamic religious leaders Abu Halil Yahya and Ustadz Omar Pasionan .

Lawyer Lanang Ali, a member of the now disbanded MILF reciprocal technical working committee and the rebel group’s official representative in its backroom talks with the government, also joined the meeting at the residence of Maguindanao Gov. Zacaria Candao. Candao once served as legal counsel of the MILF.

The meeting, Dureza said, was technically not part of the peace process but was meant to “extend symbolically the hand of peace and the message of peace from the President.” He said this “breakthrough” would “set the ball rolling.”

Ali said the meeting set an “atmosphere” indicating that the peace-making efforts of the government “has very much improved.”

For The Worse

The conflict in Mindanao took a turn for the worse during Estrada’s time. He allegedly declared war in order to gain popularity points after his administration figured in a series of scandals and controversies that ultimately led to his ouster from office last month.

The war displaced more than 300,000 residents, most of them Moros, and killed thousands of civilians, rebels and soldiers. It also plunged the island into its worse economic crisis since the Marcos years, with agricultural production – its main economic power – decreasing significantly. Investors also shied away from the island, which was at the time rocked by a series of bombings and other forms of violence even in non-conflict areas.

The MILF is the largest guerrilla group waging war against the government in Mindanao. It had wanted a separate Islamic state but agreed to put the issue of self-determination through a referendum supervised by the United Nations. Nothing came out of that proposal.

The war in Mindanao takes its roots from the decades of neglect by the Manila government of the island and the extractive economic policies it implemented in favor of big business and multinational corporations. Mindanao is largely a plantation economy dominated by big landed interests, including foreign multinational companies that have been exploiting its rich natural resources for decades.

Mindanawons have been complaining that despite their island’s large contribution to the country’s economy (contributing, for example, more than half of the Philippine’s corn produce), not much has been plowed back to improve the island. In fact, most of the 10 poorest provinces in the country can be found in Mindanao, the poorest being those within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Mindanao’s indigenous community have also been decimated by the entry of so-called development aggression to the island, mainly through multinational mining and agricultural companies that dispossessed them of their ancestral lands.

This inequality has spawned rebellions not only by the Moros and the Lumads but by the Communists as well who have had a strong presence in the Mindanao, countering the power being wielded in mineral-rich regions by multinational companies and big business.

In 1996, the Ramos administration signed a peace agreement with the then dominant rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), but the agreement has so far been not fully implemented, with MNLF chairman Nur Misuari complaining about its defects every so often. The sidelining of Misuari as a result of the agreement strengthened the MILF, making it the dominant rebel group on the island at present.

Misuari’s chief complaint is that the agreement has not been that empowering to the Moros, who, despite the existence of supposed autonomy, are still at the mercy of the Manila government. For example, according to Misuari, his region cannot appropriate its own budget. “I even have to seek the permission of Malacanang each time I go out of the country,” Misuari had said.

The MILF has called the 1996 peace agreement a sham and vowed never to take the same route taken by the MNLF in its negotiations with the government. (Bulatlat.com)

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