“It's a mess here. Babieschildrenold people! There are thousands of them! There's no dignity here inside the National Food Authority warehouse. My heart begins to cry again.” This was the message that Fr. Roberto ‘Bert’ LAYSONsent to friends and heads of NGOs on SundayFebruary 9as AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and MILF forces (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) began massing troops in the Pikit-Pagalungan area of Mindanao. Fr. Bert is the parish priest in Pikit.
The area around Pikit has been the scene of several major battles in recent years between the AFP and MILF. Each timeFr. Bert has mustered parish volunteersboth Muslims and Christiansto come to the aid of the tens of thousands of evacuees who seek refuge in the town.
He and his co-workers have teamed up with local government officialsthe military and MILF leadershipand NGOs to agree on the concept of “Space for Peace”. Similar to the United Nations’ safe zones in the Bosnian wartwo of Pikit’s outlying villages (barangays) which were frequent sites of AFP and MILF skirmisheswould be declared “safe” zones. The concept includes the prohibition of armed elements from either the military or the 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 development programs undertaken by the government and various NGO's may come to naught with the AFP-MILF war that started on February 11.
That same dayPresident Arroyo ordered a temporary ceasefire in deference to the Muslim feast Eid'l Adhathe “Day of Sacrifice.” She also ordered the government panel to meet and discuss with its MILF counterpart in the ongoing conflict. There was a glimmer of hope that the war would endbut the MILF demanded that the AFP withdraw to its positions before the fight began. This was not negotiable as the AFP's ultimate objective is to occupy the Liguasan Marsh area to deny havens for criminalseven though this is in violation of the ceasefire agreement with the MILF.
By the end of the weekafter five days of bombing and intense ground assaults the AFP had taken the MILF’s command center at Buliokbut the MILF field commanders had already dispersed and now continue attacking military units. This has resulted in small-scale clashes in different parts of the provinces of Maguindanao and Cotabatoincluding the outskirts of Pikit. Thus the non-combatants continue their painful trek to evacuation centers. Many civilians refuse to return to their villages even if the AFP has declared them “cleared” and therefore safe. How can these villages be safe when MILF bands are just in the vicinityready to pounce on newly established military detachments?
This is the fourth major armed confrontation between government troops and MILF forces in six years. In 199739000 civilians were displaced; in 2000 they numbered 41000; in the year 2001they were 24000and as of the last count 39000 people have taken shelter in evacuation centers in Pikit. As of February 26the government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development reported 212448 persons affected by the armed conflicts in Mindanao. More than 191000 of them are from provinces of North CotabatoSultan KudaratMaguindanao and Lanao del Sur.
Archbishop Orlando QUEVEDOpresident of the Philippine Bishops’ Conferencein an interview with Radio Veritas on February 27 urged the government to continue negotiations with the MILF. “We must be aware that a military solution is not the solution. It must be a comprehensive solution and we pray that [this will] be implemented by the Philippine government.”
MeanwhileFr. Layson and his volunteersgovernment agenciesNGOsand people of good will continue to care for the helpless evacuees. The need for “Spaces of Peace” becomes more urgent. (From The Mindanao CrossFeb. 15 and 22 editorials by Fr. Al Cariño. Statistics from MISNA.)