This is not really about me, but about the people I meet, the places I visit and the stories I want to share.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Alias Striker and Aerial Strikes

“Nakakain na ako ng hita, ikaw gusto mo kumain?”, quipped Alias Striker when I asked him if it was true that they were resorting to cannibalism in their fight against Moro rebels in the 1970’s.

Despite his advanced age, Alias Striker is part of the Reformed Ilaga Movement, an armed group resurrected to fight against Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters in Mindanao. As the tension in the region particularly in North Cotabato, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Norte continues to heat up, first and second generation Ilagas are arming themselves to defend their families.

The group gained notoriety in the 1970’s when they waged war against the Moro National Liberation Front. According to the spokesperson of the Reformed Ilaga Movement who introduced himself as Mike Santiago, they were called “Ilaga” which in Hiligaynon language means rat, because they attacked their enemies just like rats in the middle of the night.

Their name also became an acronym for “Ilonggo Landgrabbers Association” since most Ilagas were settlers from Negros and Panay islands who speak Ilonggo or Hiligaynon. Of course, this name did not sit well for the Ilagas.

The government has already warned the Ilagas against pursuing MILF fighters since it will only fan the flames of animosity between Muslims and Christians. North Cotabato Vice Governor Manny Pinol said he will “stop the Ilagas at all cost.”

Malacanang and the military have also reminded the Ilagas not to complicate the on-going military operations against the group of Commanders Umbra Kato and Bravo.

In its campaign against the two MILF commanders, the government has even circulated “wanted” posters with pictures of Commanders Umbra Kato and Bravo. Charges of murder and arson were filed by the government against the two commanders.

But the MILF leadership has always stood by their two commanders even if they were branded by the government as renegade leaders.

MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in a rare press conference inside Camp Darapanan in Maguindanao reiterated that their botched homeland deal with the government is the key to peace in Mindanao. It was the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that led to the MILF attacks in the region and it is safe to assume that only a final homeland agreement will pacify the MILF commanders.

With the military continuing its offensives against Commanders Umbra Kato and Bravo, there seems to be no peace in sight in Mindanao. Military officials keep on saying that they have specific targets – the camps of the two “renegade” commanders.

But as the days go by since the MILF started their attacks, the number of civilian casualties continue to rise.

Twelve-year-old Ruben Pano lost his grandparents, and an uncle in an attack in Pikit town being blamed on MILF sympathizers of Commander Umbra Kato. Their house was razed into ashes and all that is left are the memories of harassment they got even if they were already staying in an evacuation center days after the attack.

Some children though have become immune of the bombs and bullets that have become part of their daily lives since the military airstrikes began. They all watched in awe as we were shooting OV 10 planes in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town in Maguindanao, not knowing that the bombs they were seeing could have killed innocent civilians nearby.

And true enough, collateral damage knows no boundaries - Muslims or Christians, MILF fighters or soldiers - practically anyone in the way of a bullet or bomb is a natural target.

Salampunay Umbay is just one of the widows of war in Maguindanao. She says she lost her husband after an OV-10 fighter plane dropped bombs on their village in Mamasapano town.

One of the bombs that the children in Datu Saudi Ampatuan were watching could have been the deadly bomb that found its way in Mamasapano, killing the husband of

The body of her husband was to be found five days later. Worse, Salampunay does not know where to find her eight children after they were separated from each other as they panicked after the military attacks on their town.
The non-government organization Mindanao Emergency Response Network says the number of deaths will increase as there seems to be no stopping the firefight even during the holy period of Ramadhan.

“Wala namang pinipili ang bala,” says Rose Ebus, MERN convenor.

With this grim scenario ahead of us here in Mindanao, can’t we just go on with the peace process, continue deliberating on the MOA by consulting all sectors concerned and let’s all move forward without firing a single bullet, without launching a single howitzer and without dropping a single bomb?

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