Horrors of war

Mindanao Cross, 2/2003
Reproduced with Permission

"It's a mess here. Babies. Children. Old people. There are thousands of them. There's no dignity inside this (NFA) warehouse. My heart begins to cry again." This was the text message Fr. Roberto "Bert" Layson, OMI sent to friends and heads of NGOs last Sunday when AFP and MILF forces began to mass up in the Pikit-Pagalungan areas. Fr. Bert is the parish priest of Pikit and coordinator of the Oblates' and the Archdiocese of Cotabato's Inter-Religious Dialogue Committee.

Fr. Bert's "My heart begins to cry again" refers to his experiences in past major battles between the AFP and MILF. Before, during and after each of those battles, he, along with parish volunteers (Muslims and Christians), spent practically all their waking hours attending to the needs of tens of thousands of evacuees who sought refuge in the town. For one reason only: they were human beings, too.

Since then, he and his co-workers had teamed up with local government officials, the military and MILF leadership, and NGOs, particularly Tabang Mindanao, to agree on the concept of "Space for Peace", and declare two of the town's barangays which were frequent sites of AFP and MILF skirmishes, as such. The concept includes the prohibition of armed elements from both the military or MILF to enter the "Spaces". It also includes the intensification of livelihood programs and peace-building activities so that both Muslims and Christians may live together in peace and harmony.

All this and other developments programs undertaken by the government and various NGO's may come to naught with the AFP-MILF war that started last Tuesday.

We see a parallel between the recent clash in Pikit and the building crisis in Iraq. Fed up over the non-compliance of Iraq to the UN Security Council's Resolution 1441, US President George Bush demanded from Saddam Hussein to show exactly where the banned weapons "are hidden, lay those weapons out for the world to see, and destroy them as directed," or else....

In the case of the war in Pikit, the AFP were also fed up over the "non-compliance" of the MILF with the 2001 GRP-MILF Joint Communique to "block the entry of criminals into MILF areas/communities" and to cooperate "in the isolation and interdiction of all criminal syndicates and kidnap-for-ransom groups." In the instant case, the AFP demanded that the MILF hand over by midnight last Tuesday the leaders and members of the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom gang and the perpetrators of the December 24 Datu Piang bombing which killed 18 people including its mayor or else.... But the parallel with the Iraq crisis ends there. While Bush is still giving "diplomacy" a last chance, the war in Pikit began on Tuesday morning, long before the midnight deadline.

Mid-Tuesday afternoon, President Arroyo ordered a temporary ceasefire in deference to the Muslim feast Eid'l Adha, the "Day of Sacrifice." With the President also ordering the government panel to meet and discuss with its MILF counterpart the ongoing conflict last Wednesday, there was a glimmer of hope that the war would end. But the MILF demanded that the military withdraw to its position before the war began. Which was non-negotiable as the AFP's ultimate objective is to occupy the Liguasan Marsh area to deny havens for criminals. Never mind if the ceasefire agreement with the MILF would be violated.

Thus non-combatants continued their painful trek to and stay in evacuation centers -- mere "collateral damage" as far as the AFP and MILF were concerned.

What the Pope said vis-a-vis the possible war in Iraq can also be said of the Pikit-Pagulangan war: "No to war. War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity."

Meanwhile, Fr. Bert and his volunteers, government agencies, NGOs, and people of good will continue to attend to those considered as "collateral damage" -- the helpless evacuees, our fellow human beings.