What can the Muslim youth do to help build peace in Mindanao?
(This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.)
For decades, Mindanao has seen conflict. What is it like to be a young Muslim Filipino, growing up in a place rich with culture and diversity but rife with violence and destruction?
At the Ako Para Sa Bata conference, four Bangsamoro youth shared their stories in a simultaneous symposium.
One objective of the session was to describe the various issues, including health, from the perspective of youth from cultural minorities. Abdul Rauf B. Lumabao talked about adolescent sexual and reproductive health in Maguindao, while Yasser Arabi Usani shared stories of the Badjao community.
Another objective of the session was to discuss the need to engage young people and their critical role in peace building in the region.
How do you bring peace to this land in the south?
Aklimah L. Batao comes from Lanao Del Sur. “Most, if not all of you, may have heard about our place. War, conflicts, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and lawlessness, but I bet it is war, armed conflicts, the struggle for peace [that] you associate our place with.”
Aklimah shared what it was like to live in a place of conflict. “Ever know how it feels when you are called by your Christian teachers crying, asking for help after men in black took over the school, captured, and the school was set on fire? Imagine a parent worrying over their daughter, who is stranded in the other side of the city. Picture hundreds of patients, wounded and sick, carrying their bags and dextrose, others still in their hospital beds, helpless, trying to leave the hospital to save their lives.”
How do you move on from such an ordeal? “What about after? After three months or a year of being displaced or living in evacuation sites? Do all children go back to school? Do workers get to report for work like they do before? Do parents go back to their homes with moms to cook food for the family to share like they did before the year 2017?”
To make things more difficult, Aklimah and his family suffered discrimination because of their faith. “Imagine taking refuge at an unfamiliar city, adjusting to new hard realities, being rejected by an apartment owner just because of you are a Muslim, or being defenseless when a city resolution demands for all evacuees to return to Lanao del Sur because the city people see you as a burden, and you are called beggars who disrupt their daily living. Do you know what is more heartbreaking from all those hardships we have gone through? You may have thought of it or be guilty of it. But being labeled as terrorist, a killer, ignorant, ISI, salot ng lipunan and other degrading words associated with Muslims, is disheartening to me, a young Muslim Filipino.”
Despite these difficulties, Aklimah did not give up. “It is because of our situation that I pushed myself so much to be involved in various leadership and community building activities. From youth camps to interfaith dialogues, I kept myself occupied and involved. This way I am able to help other young people to slowly forgive and forget the tragedy that left Marawi. Knowing our issues and the struggles that we continue and will still face motivated me to help my community. I always catch myself in tears, but [there is] frustration [that] no one seems to be taking the lead to resolve these issues, [so] I stepped up, determined to make the youth voices matter.”
This young man is now helping other young Muslims do their part in peacebuilding. “In my willingness and eagerness to be involved in leadership and advocacy, I volunteered to various youth-led initiatives. Just this January 2019, I was elected as the Prime Minister of the Federation of Ranaw Youth Students Leaders. [This is] an umbrella organization of all Supreme Student Government organizations in the whole province of Lanao del Sur. The federation aims to promote camaraderie among schools, and of course train and develop students as early as high school to take part in community building, peace and governance.”
He acknowledges the many organizations working to empower him and other youth to speak up, to participate, and to lead. “The continuous support and opportunities [of] so many organizations, the VSO Philippines, UNICEF, allows young people like us from the Bangsamoro to share our stories of change and empowerment that we continue to learn, develop and strive to become good leaders back to our community. It is with the trust of everyone in here that young people in our place are becoming the epitome of positive change. It is with these opportunities that we become agents of peace, peace builders. And I, myself, could attest to that.”
“The nightmares of the past are still there, I am aware of those, but the impact is not the same today as before. There are still evacuation sites, Marawi is still a ghost town, but I believe that the city will rise and be back again. For now as I am empowered, given the spaces to [be involved] and to be an instrument to impart positive change to young people in our community who, until today, are still haunted by the past, I will continue to work for peace and become the peace that will inspire everyone.”
How do you go from armed combatant to peace builder?
No matter who you are, what you do, you were a child once, playing, maybe skipping school, just like Samanoding S. Daranda. Sam was not able to attend the conference, but Rauf read his message.
“I grew up in Panoroganan, Iligan City. Like other children, I used to skip school because I would rather climb trees and steal fruits from a macopa tree with my friends. I got tired of going to school because it was an hour away, and we had to walk from our houses. When the roads are dry, we take the roads. But when the weather gets bad and the roads are slippery, I just skip it. As a result of being truant, I didn’t know how to read until the second grade. Well, I know how to write, but reading? Nah, no thanks! But just like any other kid, there will always be someone who will help us do better. It was my dad who motivated me. He would give me rewards whenever I do well in school and not miss any classes. Because of that, I graduated from elementary as Class Salutatorian. My teachers were proud of me, but most especially my Mom and Dad.”
Sam left his hometown to attend high school. “For the first time, I went down from the hinterlands to enroll in the city. It was also in high school that I learned how to use the computer. However, three years later, I had to leave the city and finish my last year in Panoroganan due to personal matters. I enrolled in an Agricultural High School and I was perplexed! All subjects were focused in Agriculture—harvesting, planting crops and so on. But I was able to cope. Alhamdulillah! I was able to graduate high school.”
Sam was in college when his father passed away. “When I saw my mom crying so hard—I instantly knew. Dad left. Inalillah wa inalillahi raji’on! For Allah we are created, and for Him we will return. After his burial, I forced myself to go back to school, but for weeks I can’t get myself to concentrate. I finished the semester without actually learning anything that is why I decided to stop and just go back to my hometown.”
It was when he went home that his life with BIAF started. “When I returned, my relatives encouraged me to be active in the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). Honestly, almost all of my relatives are members of the MILF, and so am I. I was not recruited. I was already enlisted but I was inactive because I chose to study and be in school. We are not forced to be part of the forces because we volunteer. After my dad died, I felt that my life was pointless if I don’t join the group. Being a BIAF is not only about combat, but we are also taught of Islam. Even in small talks and prayers, Islam is taught and the Islamic teachings are stressed upon us. I believed being a BIAF is a great help for others especially my family and the Moro community. I was there when the campaign for the Bangsamoro Organic Law Plebiscite happened. I really believe that BOL is the solution for the problem that the Moro community is facing. All throughout the campaign until BARMM won the plebiscite, I was there and under the command of Commander Bravo who some of you may now know as MP Abdullah Macapaar.”
Soon afterwards, his involvement with youth activities began. “During the BOL’s campaign period, I was invited to participate in a Youth Action Planning dialogue by Pakigdait Incorporated. I thought, maybe the staff of Pakigdait didn’t know that I was a MILF combatant. It was only when they visited the camp in Kura-Kura when one of their staff saw me. She then called the bosses of Pakigdait, and I knew instantly from their shocked faces that they didn’t expect to see me there in full combat attire. I introduced myself, and I was grateful that they recognized me from their previous youth activity. They continued their contact with me after that and I was invited to join another youth activity.”
Sam’s involvement with Pakigdait led to new experiences and perspectives. “I have never participated in any youth activities or even focus group discussions or seminars before because for me it’s boring. But participating in the youth activities by Pakigdait and VSO, I felt blessed. I became one of the members of the Pakigdait Youth Council, as this was one way I see that youth could bring great impact in the community. VSO through Pakigdait invited me to join a write shop in Davao City. I was both nervous and excited with that invitation, because that was my first time to travel and ride an airplane. Arriving at the venue in Davao, I saw new faces, heard different dialects that are not Filipino, not English and not even Bisaya. I later learned that the youth activity brought together youth leaders from all of the BARMM areas including Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. I was astonished, because we see in the media, they are described as barbaric or uneducated, but what I saw was way different from what I expected. They are very friendly, jolly and active, and they have more problems in their communities that need to be solved.”
Even Sam was surprised by his own involvement. “Who would have thought that I would become a U-Report Ambassador? I didn’t even think that a young person like me who is a BIAF soldier, someone who is seen as a rebel, someone people would be afraid of, would become someone whose voice would matter. Someone who will take part in changing the lives of thousands of young Bangsamoro. I still remember when I came home in Rogongon after the activity in Davao, I asked my cousins to join the U-report just through house to house invitation. I went to their houses and explain about social-media application where you can voice out their issues and even give feedback as a youth in BARMM. I also told them that the issues will not be solved right away, but Insha Allah, it will and that the people behind U-Report won’t turn their back on us.”
Sam shared, “You start with yourself, then to your family, your neighbours, then, the people in your community. I learned two things in through youth engagement. One, there are a lot of things that the youth can do when two or more work together, but if all youth organizations collaborate, that’s a greater impact and even bigger change. Second, the problems and issues we face in our community is probably the same thing one or more experience in their community as well. It just shows that despite our geographical locations and differences, we all face by the same issues. I realized that we should not just look at the surface level, but we should go deeper. We will know and understand things if we look at its roots. Even though we have different tribes and different culture, we can still connect, communicate, and understand each other. We just have to let go of the prejudices that were injected to our minds by the rumors or those we see in the media.”
Sam has changed this mind about quite a few things. “Honestly, before I was exposed in Pakigdait, I believed that there is no way to attain peace because of discrimination. It is highly unlikely to achieve peace. But the opportunities that was given to me by Pakigdait, VSO and UNICEF have opened my eyes. Despite our differences and our geographical location, we have one goal and that is to achieve peace. And one way to achieve that is through RESPECT and DIALOGUE. As a youth peace advocate, dialogue and communication is key. Let others understand your faith, your culture, your beliefs, let them listen and understand your story.”
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