Villagers who fled during a lull in fighting between Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters take shelter at a gymnasium in Pagalungan town, Maguindanao province (Photo by Ferdinandh Cabrera)
Grade 9 student Datumama Santi Tutin is preparing for the trip of a lifetime. She’s one of 24 young Muslim and indigenous people from the Philippines’ troubled Mindanao region who will soon be traveling to the United States for a youth leadership conference.
But for Tutin, the trip will be especially meaningful in the wake of January’s tragedy in nearby Mamasapano district, which saw the deaths of 67 people in a bloody clash between police commandos and Moro rebel fighters.
The massacre has ignited a political firestorm in the Philippines and threatened to derail the tenuous peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Some politicians called for the government to delay passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which was slated to be a major step in ending almost four decades of Moro rebellion. The Philippine Congress suspended discussion of the proposed legislation after the killings in Mamasapano.
For Tutin, such feelings are oblivious to the plight of civilians who have spent their lives amid conflict.
“Some people are calling for an all-out war [against Moro rebels] as if they know how it is to live in a time of war,” Tutin told ucanews.com in an interview.
Tutin was only seven years old when she was first forced to flee her home. She said her family left because of armed clashes between the MILF and government forces.
“They do not know what war is and how ugly war can be for us,” she said.
The Philippines military has reported that some 6,000 people have again fled their homes because of renewed fighting between rebel MILF fighters and their counterparts in the breakaway group, Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in the province of Maguindanao. BIFF has rejected the MILF’s planned peace deal with the government.
Military spokesman Lt Col Harold Cabunoc told ucanews.com that residents have evacuated for fear that they would be caught in the crossfire.
"They also fear that the conflict will spread," said Cabunoc.
Rius Valle, head of the Children Rehabilitation Center, a non-governmental organization, said many kids have refused to go back to school in Mamasapano town, where the January fighting erupted.
“Children think that the war will happen again,” he said.
During a Senate inquiry in Manila last week, an irate senator, Alan Peter Cayetano, said the government must not pursue peace with the MILF. Instead, Cayetano said the Moro rebels should be punished for their roles in the clash that killed at least 44 police commandos.
MILF leaders, however, say the bloodshed could have been avoided if there had been better coordination between the rebels and the police, who were reportedly targeting a wanted terrorist when the operation escalated.
Spokesman Mohagher Iqbal said the MILF still believes in peace.
“The peace process is important to us,” he said in a statement. “It has brought us the promise of a good life for our people.”
The governor of what is currently the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has urged the government not to abandon the peace process despite calls to the contrary from various sectors.
"Let us not give up," said Governor Mujiv Hataman. "Let us continue working for an enduring peace in Mindanao. Let us continue the peace process."
The Catholic Bishops' Conference this week added its voice to the calls for peace and offered its assistance.
"We hold it to be morally obligatory for the government and for the restive segments of Philippine society to search for the paths of peace," Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the bishops' conference, said in a statement.
That path to peace is still uncertain, especially for those most closely intertwined with the conflict.
The village of Tukanalipao sits near the scene of the fateful clash. The murmur of the nearby river and the rustling of corn leaves in the wind offer a semblance of peace. But on January 25, a burst of gunfire pierced the silence and changed Lyn-Lyn Sandigan’s life forever.
When fighting erupted early that Sunday morning, her husband stood up, grabbed his gun, rushed to the river and paddled into the darkness in a wooden canoe. He never came back.
Mamariza Sandigan was a Moro rebel fighter and though he was not listed among the official dead, Lyn-Lyn said he perished in the battle.
“My husband was a rebel, but we also wanted peace,” she said.