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When I think of Mindanao

When I think of Marawi, I remember my father’s military camp, which was perched on top of a hill. I remember hearing voices chanting, praying—like clockwork, five times a day—from the mosques in the town below. I remember seeing Muslim women covered in black from head to toe. I remember thinking, as a young girl, that this land was foreign to me. It offered none of the urban comforts of Cebu City, and the Filipinos who lived there dressed differently, spoke another language, and didn’t worship the way I did.

When I think of Mindanao, I remember the many boat rides from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro and the countless land trips from one province to another, which we would make as a family because my father, uncle, and grandfather spent many years of their military careers there. Checkpoints, tanks, guns, camouflage uniforms, and the brave men and women who wore them are all part of my childhood. Somewhere in the middle of listening to my grandfather’s tales of Sulu and visiting my father’s military camps, I knew that building peace was a lifetime mission—one into which I was born.

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When I think of Mindanao, I remember the work of Gawad Kalinga. I remember the chill that I couldn’t shake off when we crossed the very highway of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre. I remember feeling goose bumps when we visited the site of a future GK community, in a town next to Mamasapano. This was only months after members of the PNP Special Forces were brutally killed in the 2015 Mamasapano encounter.

I remember visiting Camp Abubakar. I remember not knowing what to say when Noronisa, Monaira, and Haula told me about running for their lives as children, when the government declared an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2000. They told me about the explosions and gunshots, about how every time they’d see someone in a camouflage uniform, they didn’t know if he was there to protect them or kill them. What does a soldier’s daughter say to that?

I don’t know. I still don’t know. I don’t know why wars have to happen, why innocent people have to die, and why there is so much hatred in the world.

But when I think of Mindanao, I also remember the miracles of solidarity that I personally witnessed amid the strongest of calamities and the most deep-seated of conflicts. I remember all the people I’ve encountered—Muslim, Christian, Lumad, Filipinos all. Mindanao is where I truly understood the wealth of our culture and heritage. Mindanao is where I witnessed indefatigable hope and self-sacrificing love.

When you think of Marawi, when you think of Mindanao, I wonder what you think about. I hope you see beyond the limited images provided by the media. When you think you’re one with the people of Mindanao, when you lift your placards in protest of martial law, maybe think about what those who live there actually feel. When you think of lashing out from your keyboard at the soldiers or the government or the Muslims or whoever you want to point your finger at, I hope you know that the soldiers are just doing their duty—leaving their families behind and putting their lives on the line just to make sure that the Filipino people sleep soundly at night. Yes, that means Filipinos of all tribes and religions. Even online trolls and keyboard warriors.

Lastly, when you think of Mindanao, I hope you don’t think of it as some foreign land, like I did when I was younger. When you think of the Filipinos in Marawi who are caught in the crossfire, I hope you look beyond religion and hijab and the prejudices that are louder and at times deadlier than the gunshots of the battlefield.

I recall Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” (1998), where he says: “Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die.” And at a time when it is more common to point out nationalism’s “roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.”

When you think of Mindanao, think about what being Filipino means to you.

Gia Leanne Luga, 29, graduated from the University of the Philippines and worked for Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation. She is currently completing her master’s degree in international communication at Macquarie University in Sydney. Among “my big, audacious dreams” she says, “is a poverty-free Philippines where everyone is proud to be Filipino.”

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TAGS: 2009 Maguindanao massacre, 2015 Mamasapano encounter, Marawi, Mindanao
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