Three Days with a Bantay Ceasefire Mission

By Evgenia Lipski and Tobias Schuldt

An unfamiliar landscape is running behind the windows of the van that we are riding. Fields, villages and unknown locations are taking turns before our eyes. We are listening greedily to the conversations of our companions in the van, a strange mixture of Visayan and English words to us, trying to remember names and other new facts.

We are trying not to look helpless in the face of so much background information. We are not only visitors here; we are trying to be useful to something important - the Bantay Ceasefire. Bantay Ceasefire (BC) or Ceasefire Watch is a civil society group that has monitored since 2003 the ceasefire between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. Bantay Ceasefire takes the viewpoint of the civilians in a situation of conflict. The European Center for Conflict Prevention, in its “People Building Peace 2” book, lists the Bantay Ceasefire experience as one of the successful stories of civil societies in the world engaging their governments and other actors in order to prevent armed conflict.

It is not histrionic at all. The work of Bantay Ceasefire must be recognized because of the hard work that has been put in by its members. These volunteers are committed and courageous people, with the conviction of what must be done and with the rare ability to establish the correct priorities.

In our contemporary world - when the boundaries between our private understanding of security and the common hunt for terrorists, between our needs and the state's imperative to control the situation are melting - it is not easy to follow our own principles. There are many examples of societies which accept the state's rules on countering terrorism. Thus we are heartened to know that civil society initiatives like Bantay Ceasefire exist as a peace advocacy - so that people in Mindanao can change their life situation.

29 July. Mission 1 in Talayan, Maguindanao

Since July 1, the Philippine Army has been trying to find and attack a band of the Abu Sayyaf Group or ASG who are reportedly in Maguindanao. Under harassment by continuing AFP operations, the ASG has split into small groups. Not to endanger the peace process and the ceasefire, the MILF and the government agreed to cooperate in the evacuation of more than 1,500 civilians in the affected barangays in Guindolongan and Talayan. Meanwhile the MILF has agreed to temporarily move out from two of their camps in Maguindanao, Camp Badar and Camp Omar, to give government troops the leeway to operate in their areas. The MILF fighters move out under a guarantee of security by the government. A search operation, planned first for 72 hours, is extended several times when the army is still unable to make contact with the group of terrorists.

This cooperation between the government and the MILF cannot be undervalued. But what about the civilian evacuees? In GRP Timar, we see a destroyed school, a mosque without spiritual life, and military checkpoints. The village seems dead. At the school we meet a group of women and children evacuees, all with serious faces. They do not expect help from us, but our inability to change their situation makes us sad. Our attempt to laugh seems to be out of place here. What can you say to people who have fled their houses and their livestock and will be far from their fields when harvest time comes? Some of the evacuees have been allowed to enter the area of search operations on the West side of the Ahan River. But they are only allowed in the area from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., a mechanism agreed on between the MILF and GRP. Eight hours; but it already takes the farmers some six hours just to reach their farms - six hours from the allowed eight! To harvest, two hours is simply not enough. And with our new experiences with the Philippine kitchen, it is also clear that giving each family five kilos of rice is not enough government support to the evacuees.

We begin to realize that terrorism and criminal elements seem to be a common problem of the government and the MILF; the military operations against the terror groups seem to be a common matter to them. But whose matters are the needs of the evacuees? If it is a concern to the Bantay Ceasefire, it must first be a concern of the decision-makers. The BC, meanwhile, is planning their second mission.

5 August. Preparing for Mission 2

It is evening and we are at the Notre Dame Peace Center in Cotabato City with some 40 Bantay Ceasefire members. We are discussing the situation of the farmer evacuees of GRP Timar. Some farmers return to their farms and stay there overnight, accepting the risk to remain in an area that has not been declared “cleared” of terrorist elements. We talk about the security question for the evacuees - how will their security be ensured? It is a difficult question: Have you ever chosen between your personal security and the necessity to be able to feed your family in the coming months?

6 August. GRP Ahan

We are in a beautiful landscape with fertile fields of rice, corn and sesame plants, which have to be harvested before they rot or are eaten by wild animals like monkeys and wild pigs during the night. It is a 17-kilometer walk to the fields and from the farms to the checkpoint. The day is hot but we are wet after crossing the Ahan River several times. The place looks so peaceful but a loud noise from overhead ruins our idyll. “Look there, an airplane! What plane is it? An American one? It has been here since the start of the operations against the Abu Sayyaf!” Later we learn that the plane is likely a P-3 Orion that is used in surveillance operations by the U.S. armed forces. The people say that daily the plane has been circling up to 13 hours in the last three months. Then, another significant find - empty plastic bags of MRE'S (Meals Ready to Eat), meal rations that are standard issue to U.S military forces. The military's reported search operations now becomes a search of Bantay Cease-fire for the truth - what is going on in this area in Maguindanao? What are American soldiers really doing here? It is a question that the military has not answered clearly for us …

Mission 3, 4, 5 ?

It wasn't the last Bantay Ceasefire mission and neither would it be our last. We start thinking: This is not a time for peace advo-cates to rest, maybe there will never be. This is the time to be with people and for the people. It is like a credo: “To be in the right place at the right time.”

Tobias Schuldt and Evgenia Lipski were participants of the ASA programme 2005.


Abbreviations:

  • MILF - Moro Islamic Liberation Front

  • GRP - Government of the Republic of the Philippines



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