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Beyond the bridge of Tukanalipao

12:08 AM February 16, 2015

The ghostly silence under the sweltering heat of the midday sun overwhelms one’s visit to the corn patch of Tukanalipao. While Tukanalipao itself looks like your typical roadside barangay, the killing field is not. A river with swift currents made murky by the rich alluvium of the Liguasan Marsh runs through the now-iconic bamboo bridge.

It is sparsely populated beyond that bridge. Hence, one can’t miss the little hut at the outer fringes of that corn patch, standing desolately along a row of banana trees, the only nearest cover. It is the house of farmer Kusalim Kusain, his young face wrinkled with seeming age from hours of toil under the sun. Kusain owns that corn patch, now fed with the martyr’s blood of 44 police officers.

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At age 43, Kusain is a bachelor, a rarity in Islam where single blessedness is not encouraged. But he explains—a wife and children would not have bid well for a life in constant evacuation. Kusain knows war first hand. He had lost family members in the bombing just outside the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cotabato City in July 2009.

Kusain knows fully well when it is time to start packing meager belongings and flee. In that shadow of dawn, 4:30 a.m. of Jan. 25, just before the faj’r was sounded—the first of the day’s prayers—he heard shots. It was a familiar signal to escape. The ordinary Moro, like Kusain, has been conditioned by a long string of similar experiences not to ask questions as to where shots are coming from when he/she hears the sound of guns.

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“When will this war end?” is a question badgering the ordinary Moro. While a sector of Filipinos have called for an “all-out” war in Mindanao to seek justice for the death of the Fallen 44, mainstream Moro people, who are neither of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) nor of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), have taken to the streets to rally for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. In Pikit, North Cotabato alone, about 50,000 individuals marched on the streets last

Feb. 10, and they were not MILF nor BIFF.

Theirs is a cry for peace that many in Manila will not be able to understand, a cry fed no less by the knee-jerk reactions of legislators turning rabid against the BBL. This is not to say that any constitutional infirmity the BBL may have must not be addressed. But while it is true that advocating for Mindanao peace can be done simultaneously with the calls for justice for the Fallen 44, few even bother to ask: “What does the ordinary Moro think?” Few bother to ask because most of us, remote as we are from the war-torn terrains of Mindanao, tend to think that every Moro is MILF, BIFF, or even Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Let’s admit it: From the day we woke up to this carnage, we have been hearing words we had thought were last heard more than a hundred years ago, words hammered into our heads by colonizers—“a good Muslim is a dead Muslim.”

We readily use ascriptions like “Muslim” thief or “Muslim” terrorist. Why not when one is a “Catholic” thief or a “Mormon” terrorist? In an era of cultural pluralism, ethnocentrism is not only medieval. The double standard is a violent imposition on those who happen to have a religious orientation different from ours.

Due to arrogance fed by ignorance, we fail to hear voices from the margins. They are voices that have no guns because they are not combatants. Many of them are evacuees. Some work in government offices or in private enterprises, but most of them live humble lives of abject poverty. Many have been nursing for decades the pain of losing loved ones in a crossfire. Haven’t we noticed? We have looked the other way as to the identity of that little girl who also died in the Tukanalipao crossfire. What was her name? The victims of war, we rarely become aware of, are neither rebel nor soldier.

Among those who went to the Tukanalipao corn patch was a group of young women from Datu Piang town. They were there to express their own dolor and disbelief over the death of the Fallen 44, they said. Like many of us, they were seeking to understand the tragedy. They too wanted an end to this senseless war.

A reality that rarely makes headlines: Grassroots Moro and settler communities take to each other as though there were no religious barriers. Intermarriages between Moros and settlers are common. In evacuation centers, they share the use of the karahay, the wok where meals are cooked. Hammocks and mats are shared.

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These pockets of peace are commonplace. They make war more painful because they have shown us that intercultural interactions that last lifetimes are possible, nay, real even in war.

War is not a necessity. Declare war and we end up falling for the bait laid by those who openly defy the teachings of Islam. Shall we pay evil with evil? Religious tolerance is not a sin. But intolerance is.

We do not follow the example of the proud police director who, instead of showing remorse over the loss of 44 of his best young men, had the nerve to announce his resignation against the backdrop of a swanky swimming pool, in his hubris to save his own soul. We do not follow the example of the father of a grieving nation who evades culpability, while relishing the drone of a new Mitsubishi engine with a toothsome smile, as if governance were like a video game. Neither do we follow the example of national leaders who continue to deny in national media their sins of commission and omission in the botched Mamasapano operation. Insensitivity must be the Siamese twin of intolerance.

Prosecute the guilty and punish the liars in government and in the rebel ranks. But for the defenseless majority who are victims of war, can’t we even ask what it is that they deserve beyond the bridge of Tukanalipao?

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