Covering defense for about two decades gave me this opportunity to walk through with our officers and enlisted personnel in their journey at various battle fields.
There were days of mourning, grieving for fallen heroes.
There were days of victories when our gallant soldiers, marines, navies, air forces peaked up with campaigns against lawless elements, against threat groups and liberating thousands of villagers from the claws of banditry and terrorism.
As a journalist, there were moments we get tired of counting bodies, houses burned, children lost their lives and limbs to wars.
Oftentimes, we questioned the military’s goals and missions. Why innocent people are trapped and worst, ended up as collateral damage, when an armed confrontation breaks out in a certain village.
Threats evolved from the common tagging of lawless elements, banditry, and now terrorism.
From the vantage point of a journalist, war has to be covered on the side of those who are greatly affected, the innocent civilians.
There may be tally board as to whoever wins the battle but at the end of the day, stories of ordinary people struggling to bring peace in their own localities, establishing bridges to bring people together to build a better community, children safely tucked and learning more inside a classroom, women enjoying local commerce without fear of being caught in a crossfire are among the best narratives to share, when two or more parties have been waging war at each other.
In August 2012 – the words “reaching horizons through integrated effort and multi sectoral alliance,” was achieved when two commanders decided to leave their respective war materiel and started opening up to bring peace to a particular town.
Former Colonel Carlito Galvez Jr., who was then the 104th Army Brigade commander in Basilan and Hadji Dan Asnawi, commander of the 114th Base Command of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front started breaking breads in one table in one of obscure villages in Al Barka town.
Fighting history indicated that almost 600 soldiers sacrificed their lives in Al Barka. More than double the number of Moro rebels perished, countless of families displaced, a number of school children were orphaned.
One of the widows of the August 2007 clashes was crying for justice after her husband was retrieved, his body was recovered in pieces.
An orphan of a Moro fighter who also died in the clash is still struggling now to read an alphabet, homeless and illiterate.
There was justice. Her husband died fighting, her family was compensated because the fallen hero was performing his mandated mission. The father of the boy who may have been behind the carnage, left his family in despair, with nothing, except a memory of an ugly war, and nothing to upkeep them for a better future.
The cycle went on until Galvez decided to end it by reaching the hands of the so-called enemies of the state.
A pact has been established. The sharing of bread led to a sharing of thoughts, ideas and plans on how to build a better community.
Converting a war zone to a peace village is not as easy as bringing to opposite minds to a peace table.
Local government units and the villagers have equally important roles in creating a peace zone.
Asnawi sees the need to educate his people, to make them understand that education is more important than bearing arms in the hinterlands.
Galvez pointed out that active governance with its strong presence of government is one tool to attain trust from among the villagers including those combatants in the battlefields.
There were no shortcuts made, a painstaking effort to build trust and confidence – where mechanisms used were not that popular to others especially those who were never affected by conflict.
To this date, Al Barka, known to host a number of combatants and home to Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front and even some Abu Sayyaf Group fighters, is the most peaceful town in Basilan.
The reaching out of two commanders were witnessed by many, some may not be happy at first, but the fruits of their endeavours are being harvested by the people in Basilan.
There are still thousands of children who were orphaned in Al Barka, a number of mothers who lost a child or a husband, but the local government, various line agencies including well-meaning individuals, non-government organisations as well as religious groups are opening up their hearts and programs, actively involved in the healing process.
Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao committed to help the locals in livelihood programs for the combatants. A fund is also dedicated to ensure they can start with something fresh, thus resulting to more than a hundred members of the Abu Sayyaf to surrender.
The MILF also worked alongside with the troops to arrest some armed groups that are out to sow fear and terror and allowing different departments of government to bring in more infrastructures.
Religious groups, private organizations sharing resources to put smiles to children and allowing mothers to see their children finishing education.
Various battalions deployed in Basilan may still be active in catching terrorists in the mountains, but a huge percentage of troops devoted more in peace building, re-echoing and replicating the success in Al Barka to other towns.
It’s not an overnight thing, but narratives of success are growing in Basilan.
Asnawi’s dream is to see more of his fighters’ children inside the classroom, attaining a particular profession and nurture the seeds of peace he started with Galvez.
As for Galvez and the Armed Forces of the Philippines – understanding deeply the root cause of conflict, appreciating the colorful history and acknowledging the existence of cultural differences and sensitivities are steps to bring two or more warring groups in preserving humanity.
President, WestMinCom Defense Press Corps