Pushed into the Forest by War
By Annie Mae Cruda Berowa
“The stories of these women and probably many other women that will come after them can go on and on. It will be a never-ending story until and unless the conflict in Mindanao and its roots are addressed.”
I am a woman, a mother, a daughter. I am a young professional who grew up in areas that have been ravaged by internal conflict and politically-motivated acts of terrorism in Mindanao, Philippines.
I was born in Cotabato City and was raised in Pikit, North Cotabato, in the province of Maguindanao. I have been permanently residing in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) since I studied college in the Mindanao State University.
Both regions are infested with terrorists and serve as the seats of both the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). They are common sites for protracted wars between government forces and the secessionist Muslim groups of Maguindanao and ARMM. I grew up witnessing the scenes of killings, endless armed struggles, and indifference. The context of such underdeveloped settings made me realize early on how the disparities in people’s lives can be grossly affected by policy issues, how they are translated into legislative agendas, and, much more, how they are implemented in development terms by various local government units and agencies.
I was raised as a Christian, but equally exposed to Muslim ethnic communities and married to a Muslim-Maranao (one of the major Moro groups in Mindanao). Given such a multicultural background, my sense of community is stretched to Mindanao as a whole. I dream of Mindanao communities that are peaceful and progressive, where families live healthy, happy lives and are free to practice their religion and cultural traditions.
Compared to other areas in the Philippines, the Muslim communities in Mindanao have experienced conflict at higher levels: with the military during the Martial Law years of the Marcos regime and the All-Out-War under the Estrada administration. Armed conflict in the areas includes not only the military-rebel encounters but also conflict between feuding armed families and between the disjointed members of the MNLF and the MILF.
While armed conflict affects everybody, there is a differential impact of war between women and men. Although more men than women die as a direct consequence of fighting and/or being in the crossfire, women, even as noncombatants, suffer more as victims of war. They experience hardships in running (and hiding) for safety, not to mention bringing along with them their children, their elderly, and for some, chickens and other selected livestock. In such a situation the women must have both presence of mind and stamina. This action-drama in real life demands that the women remember to run for cover, along with their families, and when there is time, to pack a few pieces of malong (the sack-like garment worn by both women and men), their kettles and cooking pots and pans, some rice, matches to cook while hiding in the forests, and a gallon container of water. Sacks during these times become very handy. Survival is the main goal, not only of oneself but that of others (children and elderly in the family), neighbors, and relatives as well. Life is always given premium over any material possession. They have to take to the trails in the forests to make sure the enemies can not find them.
It is important to emphasize that during such times, the reproductive processes of the women continue: some are menstruating; others are either pregnant, in labor pains, or lactating. Women are reported to have delivered babies while in the forests.
During times of war and immediately following periods of armed conflict, the women, children, and elderly, although noncombatants, suffer just as much and sometimes much more than the men fighting in the field. In some cases where men were forced to hide or flee, women were suddenly left on their own to become “head of family,” making decisions and becoming breadwinners for their children and the elderly who are dependent on them. They face the additional burden of making sure the family has enough to eat.
The stories of these women and probably many other women who will come after them can go on and on. It will be a never-ending story until and unless the conflict in Mindanao and its roots are addressed.
The impact of war must be everybody’s concern and responsibility. Singly or collectively, we can do a little something to make a difference in the lives of those directly affected by the conflict, particularly the women and the children. The government, which declared war on certain groups and communities, cannot clean up its own mess alone. We also have to give our share. If we want peace, let us pursue it seriously and consistently. Let us all move towards healing and reconciliation, help in the empowerment of communities, work for participatory governance, and recognize the role of women in post-conflict community development. Multi-sector groups including the military, armed groups, local government units, private businesses, civil society, academe, and the media must work in tandem and must have synergy in their interventions.
I have to end this by saying, “LET THERE BE NO MORE WARS, PLEASE.” Leaders must learn to exhaust all options for nonviolent conflict settlement, mediation, and negotiation. Wars are costly in terms of huge war expenses, human lives and limbs, damaged properties, and lost opportunities. War should not be considered a last resort; it should no longer be considered an option. There should be synergy of all interventions such that we create peaceful, nonviolent communities where the well-being of people (women, men, and children) is given premium place.
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.