Karl Gaspar

I am Mindanawon. My late father was born in Capiz but grow up in Iloilo City. My late mother was born in Pangasinan but grew up in Manila. Just before the Second World War erupted, my migrant parents met each other in Davao City. By the end of that war, they had already two children. In 1947, I became their third child. After I was born, my parents decided to move to Digos. My parents built a house near the river. Digos was then a small town. Its population was what we now call tri-people. The majority of the residents were Bisaya – settlers from Cebu, Bohol and Leyte. There were a few Batangueno and Chinese families who had business establishments. In our neighborhood lived a few Sama Muslim families who had left Jolo to settle down here. On Sundays, the Bagobos from the village of Kapatagan came down to the poblacion to sell baskets and fruits.
Today, we refer to Bisayan settlers, Moro and lumad who live in Mindanao as Mindanawon. Recalling my youth, I could claim that I was very privileged to have lived in a place where the various cultural and religious traditions peacefully co-existed with each other. The Digos of my childhood was a place to cherish. Everyone knew each other. Everyone could have a good night’s rest. We could go swim in the river everyday. The Aplaya beach was not too far away. There were acacia trees at the very center of the poblacion. The tartanillas brought us to places outside of the town center. There were regular free movies at the school ground. The sugat preceding the dawn Mass on Easter Sunday took our breaths away as angels dropped from a wooden structure as tall as the church belfry. There was peace throughout my childhood in Digos. I never heard about fights between the Sama and the Bagobo, between the lumad and the settlers, between the Muslims and the Christians. My mother told us not to look down on the Bagobo and to be friendly with our Moro neighbors. It was therefore natural that I had Moro playmates in my youth. Early in my life, I just assumed that there were cultural differences among peoples, but that there was need to respect each other. However, it was not as if we were totally clueless regarding the tri-people interactions in other parts of Mindanao. Occasionally we did hear about violent eruptions and armed skirmishes out there in Cotabato or Lanao. There were occasions I would overhear my father’s conversation with his friends when they talked about pangayaw (armed Lumad uprisings) or the Moro juramentado. At some instances, my mother whispered her concern to my father about our safety when news came that trouble was getting nearer.
I was to realize later on that my childhood was not typical for a Mindanawon. This realization came with the opportunities to travel around Mindanao. After doing a post-graduate course in Sociology and Economics, I took jobs that brought me around southern Philippines. I traveled extensively both as Regional Manager of the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) and as Executive Secretary of the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat (MSPCS).
These were during some of the most difficult years of contemporary Mindanawon history, from 1974 to l983. The problems, however, had arisen earlier owing to the conflicts that erupted in the late l960s which were further worsened by the militarization during the Marcos dictatorship. I was in Jolo and Dimataling, Zamboanga del Sur after these places were burned. I encountered hundreds of those at the evacuation centers all across the Cotabato provinces. I met with church people who sponsored rehabilitation programs for internal refugees in Basilan. I spent time with lumads displaced owing to both military operations and development aggression in Agusan Sur. I did what I could to express solidarity with peace advocates in Lanao.
In many occasions during these travels, I was always struck with the impact of these violence on the children. Whether belonging to settler, Moro or lumad families, they all suffered the bitter consequences of a conflict situation. They became children of war. They suffered the trauma of armed hostilities. Their childhood innocence would be snatched away from them and they are left with bleak memories.
Like many Mindanawons, I was overjoyed with the peace initiatives during the Ramos administration that finally led to the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement. This peace process did not transform the whole of Mindanao into zones of healing and reconciliation, but, at least, there was a movement towards peace-building. However, the resistance of tens of thousands of Christian settlers to the SPCPD and the other projects that came with the Peace Agreement dampened the optimism felt by peace advocates. It was clear that so much biases and prejudices still lurked in many Mindanawon’s hearts.
The eruption of the war a year ago would break many a Mindanawon heart. I was about to take the Super-5 bus that got bombed in Rizal, Zamboanga del Norte on February 27, 2000. It was around this time that two other buses were bombed on the ferry boat as it moved towards Ozamis City. That very personal experience of being so near the sites of violence made me cringe at this new outbreak of violence.
When the ousted President Estrada ultimately declared his government’s all-out war strategy, one was reduced to a state of depression. Despite the cry of protest among those in civil society, the President would play the bida role as if he were still acting out in his action movies.
In the wake of his war cry, close to a million Mindandawons – mainly Moros – would turn evacuees. Their elderly and children will die there even as the government troops would spend P3 million a day.
For seven months we protested against this war. We wrote letters to the editors and articles for newspapers to pressure Erap to give up his war games. We raised funds to bring relief goods to the evacuees. We explained to communities that we should not support this war. We prayed to God for peace.
Finally, our prayers were heard when Gov. Chavit Singson began to tell outrageous stories about the President’s nocturnal habits. In less than four months, Erap was ousted and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) was installed as 14th President of the Republic of the Philippines.
Within a month after her ascendancy, GMA called on the MILF for the resumption of the peace talks, and set up the GRP Peace Panel and declared a ceasefire. The MILF still has to name the members of its own peace panel but it seems open to this new peace initiative. Many Mindanawons are hopeful that the peace negotiations will begin soon and that this would eventually lead to another peace agreement.
Mindanawons today have learned lessons from history. One of the most important lessons is that democracy will work only if the people are truly actively involved in governance processes. If the peace process is to succeed, the ordinary people must have a place at the negotiating table. There is need to trust and support the Peace Panel because what it brings to the table is most important. But what is more crucial is what the people will bring to that table, even if they are not physically present.
This peace process has to happen at two levels. But it should converge at various points. The first level involves the Peace Panels. But they should not monopolize the processes, neither should they be left alone by civil society and grassroots communities. Both levels will need to interact with each other in order to generate synergy.
In order to make sure that the processes will ultimately lead to peace, such a goal can be attained if we all work together sharing the dreams of peace advocates. Such an objective can be reached if only we can think of the children and have their interests in our heart.
Let the children enjoy their childhood in the only atmosphere that can make them precious to the eyes of Allah, Magbabaya and Dios, namely, that where peace reigns. For no Mindanawon child should ever be a child of war.