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Power of Dialogue
by Marrio Mapanao and Keith Bacongco
Date: 8/15/2009

Long yearning for a place of healing, former war refugees from the village of Panicupan near Pikit recently embarked on a step-by-step journey toward reconciliation. On June 4, 2002, Moro and Settler residents from Panicupan and four other villages gathered together in the spirit of cooperation to declare their community a Space for Peace.

During the declaration ceremony, the villagers agreed to stand united, and made a collective appeal to both government and MILF officials to respect their efforts at managing security problems through peaceful means. Because heavy fighting between the two armies uprooted hundreds of residents from their homes near the National Highway in 2000, these communities insisted that the art of mediation, rather than the brute force of the gun, is the best tool to bring about healing. They had already demonstrated that intensive negotiation and dialogue helped to effectively resolve recent local disputes. All they needed now was sincere support from the various armed factions operating in the municipality of Pikit.

In a region fraught with historical conflict since the beginning of the settler migration to Mindanao, strong inter-relationships have enabled this heterogeneous community to survive. As in much of Central Mindanao, the insatiable desire for land brought vastly different cultures into a matrix of regular interaction. The fertile fields between Panicupan and Ginatilan attracted Visayan farmers to establish the first agricultural colony in the region in 1913. Although the settlers practiced different cultural and spiritual traditions, the Maguindanaoan Moro residents encouraged them to stay and start new families and opportunities for themselves.

Tanny Mandas, Panicupan’s barangay chairman, recalled that before the war, Moros and Christians treated each other like brothers. They welcomed each other into their homes during birthday and wedding celebrations. And when shells began raining down on Panicupan’s dense coconut groves in May 2000, Moros and Christians braved the deadly mortar fire together. Rather than abandon one another, Mandas said that both Moros and Christians waited until everyone had gathered their belongings, and then evacuated to the town of Pikit together.

Just as the war united them in their suffering, it also strengthened their resolve to restore respect among neighbors who practice different religions, but share a common vision for the future. While hundreds of people from the villages of Panicupan, Lagundi, Ginatilan, Takepan, and Dalengaoen quickly signed their commitment to nonviolence at the two-hour declaration ceremony, they know that rebuilding relationships is a steady process which unfolds daily in a community seeking to promote long-lasting unity.

For the people of Panicupan and the four other villages involved in the Space for Peace program, dialogue solidified and sealed the very fiber of their close relationships. When leaders from Panicupan first came together in September 2001 to discuss issues affecting the stability of their community, they agreed to formalize a program that would simultaneously foster solidarity and economic empowerment. Soon after Panicupan’s residents organized themselves into committees, officials from the surrounding barangays of Dalengaoen, Ginatilan, Lagundi, and Takepan recognized the power of dialogue among their neighbors. They immediately decided to join collective efforts at mending relationships which had been strained by recent episodes of cattle rustling and massacres.

While the people concluded that they needed to expand their knowledge on raising and marketing livestock and developing water systems, they also acknowledged the importance of addressing the fundamental causes of these local conflicts.

During the first of many subsequent healing ceremonies, Moro and Settler leaders examined why a recent series of strafings, ambushes, and murders amplified both fear as well as stereotypes in a place where people of different faiths had always understood each other. The incidents, which took place in December 2001, triggered an evacuation of both Maguindanaoan Moro and Visayan settler residents in Sitio Saguing in Ginatilan. Although the displaced persons eventually returned to their respective homes four months later, a troubling mood of suspicion hovered over their village for some time.

Karim Sapal, who spoke about the root sources of violence at a culture-of-peace seminar, hails from the small village of Putao where two children were murdered allegedly by government militiamen. The murders remain unsolved and internal strife threatens to unravel the progress made toward reconciliation in Panicupan. “There is no justice in Mindanao, especially in poor communities,” said Sapal. “While there is a law, there is no application of the law in our place.”

Yet local leaders such as Sedik Akmad, who evacuated with his family from Sitio Saguing last December, believed that Muslims and Christians hold the power to close the gap between them and jointly develop a future for their community despite bloodshed in the past. To reaffirm his commitment to a nonviolent way of life, he signed an agreement on behalf of local Moro villagers with Saguing’s Visayan residents that aimed to resolve any residual misunderstanding between the two groups.

Exposing painful examples of lawlessness once they occur is an important way of preventing future injustice in Panicupan. In culture of peace classes, Moros and Settlers now willingly confront prejudices before they lead to violence. Through dialogue, they then harness both their differences and commonalities to advance the principles of justice.

As a result, notes Adele Nayal, a project officer for the “Space for Peace” Integrated Return and Rehabilitation Program in Panicupan, people can settle their own disputes without outside intervention. “In spite of our differences, we believe peace will be achieved only through our own efforts to stop the conflict. At the same time, our biases will be settled, and cooperation, understanding, respect, and brotherhood will reign for the sake of the goodness of everyone,” says Nayal.

Apart from community peacebuilding, residents plan to install new sanitation and water systems, organize cooperative and agricultural schemes as well as plant community gardens with assistance from a local and international non-government organization. While most of the work focuses on Panicupan’s five sitios, eleven other sitios from the four neighboring barangays will benefit from certain livelihood projects over the course of several months.

“The Space for Peace program will finally allow us to give peace a chance,” says Geraldine Adil, whose husband and five relatives were killed in Delangaoen during the 2000 war.

If all peace needs is a chance, then the people of Panicupan have already made their choice. This choice, says Kadtong Andik, will create a place where problems are solved by people who are consistently determined to help one another.

Source: Mindanao on the Mend. Pasig City : Anvil, 2003, pp. 69-80

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