It’s already 3:30 AM in Bangkok but dreamland seems to be so far away from me. I read a book “Conflict and Stability in Southeast Asia” but it didn’t help me doze off. Instead, it led my mind to meander over what’s happening around the globe at the moment.
Environmental catastrophes wracked several countries such as the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand and the eruption of Mt. Bulusan in my beloved country Philippines. Political unrest continues to escalate in the Middle East not to mention the conflict over a parcel of land and a temple between Cambodia and Thailand.
Perhaps, talking about war is not a new thing. War seems to be a never ending tale arising from both absurd to serious issues. I said “absurd” having Helen in mind, the face that launched a thousand ships resulting to the Trojan War.
Talking about war may not be new but being where the war is puts one into an entirely different dimension.
More than two years have passed yet my memories of the uprising in Iligan, the capital city of Lanao del Norte in Mindanao are still freshly embedded in my thoughts. Too much reading of news on Middle East made me remember my own war experience.
I was a Global Xchange volunteer then. We were a team of 9 Filipinos and 9 British volunteers who came to Iligan, the magnificent city of waterfalls, for the second phase of the Global Xchange Programme.
Me and my work placement counterpart Dee Mills volunteered at the Reconciliatory Initiatives for Development Opportunities (RIDO), a Muslim non-profit organisation established mainly to settle disputes between Muslim clans.
At that time, clashes between the government troops and rebel groups as well as kidnappings were rampant in Mindanao particularly in Marawi City, an hour away from Iligan.
Our work placement supervisor, a highly respected Muslim leader and peace advocate, brought us to Marawi City to attend the wedding of one of the Muslim volunteers in the organisation. It was my first time to attend a Muslim wedding and I had so much fun and learning.
On our way to Marawi, Kuya Pogs shared his experiences as a conflict mediator. He mediated between kidnappers and the authorities and between clans, amongst others. His sister explained to us the history of Muslim rebellion against the government and their plight for self-determination.
Seeing the face of Marawi was a bit surreal for me knowing there was an encounter between the military and MILF few days before we came. The place gave a historic feel emanated by the preserved historical structures and artefacts.
On our way back to Iligan in the evening, my mind drifted on negative thoughts. What if we will be ambushed or caught in crossfire? Then I told myself, “so this is how it feels to live in a war zone”. There is no peace in the community and peace of mind among the residents.
Who would have thought that I will experience more than just fearing the possibilities that played in my imagination? Few weeks before GX ends, a bomb exploded in Iligan City which marked the beginning of upheaval in the town.
It was never easy to be in such turmoil. Anything can happen anytime at any place. We heard explosions anywhere. The fear we were feeling was tormenting.
Our host family were already talking about leaving the place until things settle down. Then again I thought, “How can things happen so quickly that the other day they were going about their business normally and now they are faced with the predicament of uncertainty?”
They are a well-off family, I am pretty sure they can manage even if they have to start over again in another place. They have a car to take them to where they can be safe. What worried me were the thousands of people who have no resources to support them, people who have nowhere to go.
Witnessing things unfold, seeing the agony in people’s eyes, hearing different tragic stories was heart-breaking.
At dawn the following day, the whole team were evacuated to Cagayan de Oro. Everyone was devastated at the sudden twist of events. We were then looking forward to our community farewell and it turned out we were not even able to say proper goodbyes to those people who have been a great part of our 3-month sojourn.
On our way to Cagayan de Oro, we came across military trucks full of armed troops heading to Iligan. It was just one of the many things I thought I will only see on TV.
We stayed safely at South East Asia Rural Social Leadership Institute (SEARSOLIN), a unit of the Xavier University. We had a session to discuss and let out our feelings and plan what we can do for Iligan. How we wished we can go back and help the displaced people who were staying at the evacuation centres but we were not allowed for our own safety.
We felt defeated at the thought of leaving our host community when the very reason why we came there was to work for peace and development. But then, there are a lot of means to an end. Our team tapped several organizations where we can get involved in their relief efforts. We visited every class at Xavier University and encouraged students to donate goods and food.
My experience with war may not be that worst but the mark it left in my life was something I wouldn’t have acquired if I only read the news or watch it on TV.
It reminded me that material things, conflicts, ambitions, hatred and stuff of that sort will no longer matter when we are at the verge of fighting for our life. It made me wish for only one thing, to be beside the people I love most. It made me count the time I wasted not saying words to people who mattered so much to me. It opened my heart even more to other people and strengthened my compassion.
Perhaps, I can go on with my realisations but at this point, I want to end this by saying, we will never run out of ways to make a difference and help others, all we need is love and everything will follow.