From the Ashes of Barira Redux

By Perry Diaz

(This is a repost of the original article that was posted in Global Balita on September 8, 2005)

A throwback to a time when Muslims and Christians in Mindanao worked together to overcome the things that separate them.

From the Ashes of Barira

Government troops attack Camp Abubakar

Government troops attack Camp Abubakar

In ancient Egyptian mythology, Phoenix is a mythical bird that dies in flames and is reborn from the ashes. In the boondocks of Maguindanao, a previously obscure town — Barira — is now in the limelight. Barira awed the world for rising from its ashes to become a vibrant community.

Barira was a land-locked town of approximately 18,000 people living a serene life until the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) selected it for one of its camps. MILF named the camp after Abubakar, the first successor of the Prophet Muhammad.

According to MILF officials, Camp Abubakar was not just a military camp. It was made into a model for the society that MILF wanted to establish for the people. Camp Abubakar occupied an area of 10,000 hectares; however, its control extended to an area of approximately 100 square kilometers.

MILF rebels defending Camp Abubakar

MILF rebels defending Camp Abubakar

In 1987, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government and renounced its goal of independence. The MILF — a splinter organization formed in 1984 — continued the fight for independence. But within a few months it accepted a truce and joined the government in peace talks. However, the truce did not last long. In the early 1990s, the peace talks stalled and the 15,000-strong MILF launched an all-out war against the government. Camp Abubakar became the MILF’s command headquarters and extended its operations into the predominantly Muslim provinces of Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and North Catabato. With at least 46 camps spread in the region, MILF was a force to reckon with.

Camp Abubakar under attack

President Joseph "Erap" Estrada inspects government forces at Camp Abubakar

President Joseph “Erap” Estrada inspects government forces at Camp Abubakar

In March 2000, the MILF-government negotiations broke down. Then-President Joseph “Erap” Estrada ordered an all-out attack — aerial and ground — at all the known MILF camps. The heaviest bombardment was directed at the nerve center of MILF — Camp Abubakar. After a few months of warfare, Camp Abubakar fell. However, the leaders evacuated before the fall to fight another day. Most of the other MILF camps were overran as well. But the government offensive did not wipe out MILF. The leadership of MILF was decentralized into six general commands and expanded their base of operation to the provinces of Davao, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato, Maguindanao, Lanao, Zamboanga, and Basilan.

Hardly defeated, MILF continued its campaign against the government but changed its military strategy to guerilla warfare. However, the biggest losers were the civilians. The war displaced more than 800,000 people. Barira took the worst beating due to the intense government attack on Camp Abubakar. When the dust settled, Barira was a virtual ghost town.




On July 2, 2002, two years after Camp Abubakar was captured by government troops, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited the camp and announced that her administration will transform the former MILF main camp into a “civilian-military camp for peace and development.” She said that henceforth Camp Abubakar should be known simply as “Sitio Bumbaran, in Barangay Tugaig, Barira,” and that the area would soon become a “model of a peace and development zone.” She promised that her administration would rehabilitate the 34 barangays of the three towns of Barira, Buldon and Matanog — the severest casualties of the war.

President Arroyo said that the government brought electricity to the towns and built farm-to-market roads. She also launched the Iranum Development Council, which would be responsible for the development of the area under the government’s “Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan” (KALAHI) program. The program was named after the Iranums, the indigenous people who lived in the area but were forced to leave their besieged communities during the military operation against Camp Abubakar. President Arroyo also handed checks from the USAID-funded Government Livelihood Assistance Program totaling P6.7 million to help in the rehabilitation of the former rebels.

A year later, the Department of Agriculture announced that the government earmarked P95 million to the area’s agricultural development projects to convert it into an “integrated sustainable development for agricultural development.” Other projects included the construction of access roads, hanging footbridges, and multi-purpose solar driers; training of farmers in modern cultivation technology; and planting of fruit trees. The government also spent P24.1 million to provide the displaced people with three tractors, six corn huskers and shellers, 312 carabaos, corn seeds, vegetable seeds, and assorted planting materials.

Gawad Kalinga

Gawad Kalinga village in Barira

Gawad Kalinga village in Barira

But the most heart-warming projects were those that involved people helping the displaced people get back on their feet. Starting in 2003, Filipino Christians and Muslims joined hands in building Gawad Kalinga villages in the devastated areas. In the former Camp Abubakar, the bullet-riddled mosque — within walking distance from the ashes of the MILF command headquarters — stood alone, a stark reminder of the conflict that pitted the Muslims against their Christian brothers. Next to the mosque, Gawad Kalinga built a village of colorful houses for the displaced people. Couples for Christ teams from other provinces such as Samar and Leyte came to help build the houses. Over the next two years, Gawad Kalinga built villages in the provinces of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Sur and North Cotabato. Indeed, it was “Bayanihan” in action.

In April 2005, approximately 3,000 Gawad Kalinga advocates met in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, to commemorate and symbolize the harmony between the Muslims and the Christians in Mindanao. Finally, respect for one another’s culture and religion had been restored.

Books for the Barrios

Computer Learning School at Barira Central Elementary School

Computer Learning School at Barira Central Elementary School

Later that year, I received a photo from Nancy Harrington of the US-based Books for the Barrios, showing a young school girl in Barira writing on a piece of paper with an inch-long pencil. The girl could hardly hold the end of the pencil but she had that resolve in her face — she was not giving up. A few months ago, I read in the news that Books for the Barrios, in coordination with the local government agencies of Barira and non-government organizations, inaugurated “Project Tanglaw” — which aims to rehabilitate the facilities of the Barira Elementary School — with the construction of a new classroom and a library.

From the ashes of Barira, a new community is reborn. It is amazing how people can really work together and overcome the things that separate — and hurt — them. It is likewise amazing what the government can do to improve the life of the people.


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