Soldiers watch as former Moro rebels haul their catch from a communal fishpond in the village of Pedtad in Kabacan town, North Cotabato province (Photo by Joe Torres)
In the hinterland village of Pedtad in North Cotabato province, a group of former Islamist fighters have put aside their guns in exchange for a more peaceful life managing fishponds.
"Tending the farm and pulling out water lilies is safer than carrying guns and roaming the mountains," said Harun Imba. "In the mountains, your life is always in danger.”
A former deputy battalion commander of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Imba started fighting — like many of the men here — when he was just a boy.
"I don't remember my age anymore," he said with a chuckle. But he can easily recall the long days of walking, the lack of food, and the sleepless nights spent in preparation for an attack.
"It was hard, very, very hard," he told ucanews.com in the local dialect. "And imagine that I was doing it since I was a teenager," said Imba, who looks to be in his mid-fifties.
As poverty and job opportunities worsened, thousands of young Muslims were lured into the war in Mindanao starting in the 1960s. Many initially joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a secessionist rebel organization founded by former university professor Nur Misuari in 1969. The MILF, which broke away from the MNLF in the late 1970s, continued the fight by recruiting more soldiers and setting up camps all over central Mindanao.
Decades of war left many young Moro men with few options.
Badarudin Mantawil, a 44-year old former MNLF fighter, was a student in the early 1980s, but was forced to drop out.
“I stopped because my parents could not afford to send me even to the public school in our town," Mantawil said.
“[They] were simple corn farmers caught in the middle of a war.... We would leave our farm every time there was an encounter between the military and the rebels," he recalled. "Then I took sides. I joined the rebels.”
The village of Pedtad, which has a poverty index of 35 percent and a malnutrition rate of eight percent, is one of 24 villages in the town of Kabacan that is trying to rebuild homes on the ashes of war. Most of Pedtad’s 2,700 residents belong to the MNLF and the MILF, and reintegration into peaceful communities has not been easy.
"You cannot imagine how it is to evacuate," says Abdul Buat, 45, a resident of Pedtad village. "You have to run, and keep on running as bombs and mortars explode around you."
"I grew up in evacuation centers,” said Buat, who still remembers coming home to the village with his parents and their neighbors only to find their homes burned and their crops rotten.
At least 40 percent of households in central Mindanao experienced displacement at least once between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Food Program.
In Pedtad, villagers and fighters alike simply decided to opt out.
In an evacuation center during one of the government's "all out wars" some five years ago, the villagers realized they were all "related to each other," said village leader Dan Mantawil.
"They had nothing to do, so they started talking with other displaced people from nearby villages."
After the shooting died down, they went home to their village and declared that they had enough of the fighting, he said.
"When 'outsiders' [fighters] saw that we did not want war anymore, they followed our example and started to stay home.”
Local MNLF and MILF fighters began going AWOL from their units. They sold their guns, bought water buffalos and started farming.
"There is still shooting sometimes in nearby villages, but people here are not joining the fighting," Mantawil said.
In October 2012, President Benigno Aquino signed a peace deal with the MILF to "pave the way for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao".
The government aims to set up a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro in the region by 2016. The agreement calls for Muslim self-rule in parts of the southern Philippines in exchange for a deactivation of rebel forces by the MILF.
Residents, however, insist the deal had little impact on their choices.
"We heard about the Bangsamoro, but we don't know anything yet about it," said Mantawil. "We just want to work here peacefully.... It was for the children.”
Former Moro rebels haul their catch from a communal fishpond in the village of Pedtad, in Kabacan town, North Cotabato province (Photo by Joe Torres)
For the past few years, fighters and villagers alike have been focused on carving out a more promising future.
“I work so that my children will not experience what I experienced,” said Badarudin Mantawil, the former fighter. “I farm. I do whatever I can to be able to send my children to school.”
A fish farm seems an unlikely place for a second start, but it is what many former fighters have pinned their hopes on in recent years.
At first the former rebels and villagers found it difficult to approach government officials.
"Nobody would want to help," said Buat.
But as peace talks progressed, their efforts gained traction.
Local agriculture officials arrived and gave lectures on proper farming techniques.
"We started pulling out the weeds and the water lilies," said Imba.
"Then they gave us fish nets," said Mantawil.
Grants began pouring in from the UN World Food Program and EU to help the villagers expand their fishpond into a communal venture.
For his part, Mantawil says he could not return to fighting.
"Life as a rebel was hard. You just follow orders. Now I am my own commander and I follow my own orders.”
Imbal said he is lucky he is still alive and is ready to "start a new life".
"Farming is better than fighting," he said in a somber tone.
"If you hold a gun, there is no future, and it's dangerous. It's better here, it's safe. And the water lilies are beautiful."