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All aboard the Caravan for Peace

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Mindanao is one of the most beautiful and abundant parts of the country. Despite its richness, development in Mindanao has been greatly impeded by conflicts that have resulted in extreme poverty. Security and lasting peace is fleeting as tension among Muslims, Christians and Lumads often arise due to mistrust harbored through generations.

Recent developments in Mindanao, however, are bringing a glimmer of hope in this war-torn place. Brightly colored Gawad Kalinga communities for the poorest of the poor are rising rapidly in various Muslim areas through the pioneering work of some progressive Muslim leaders. Rich and poor, Muslims and Christians, government and the private sector are building communities together. The poor are rediscovering their dreams, and are being empowered to build a better future for their families.

What started barely five years ago in the Philippines as a simple but daring initiative by Couples for Christ has now become a growing multi-sectoral partnership driven by a vision of a new Philippines with no more slums. Together with its partners, Gawad Kalinga is now in the process of transforming poverty-stricken areas, many of them now empowered to further improve their quality of life. And the heart-work of GK volunteers is evident in the beautiful colors of the GK homes that have been built for and with the poorest of the poor Filipino families nationwide.

Today, there are 25 GK communities along what is now called the Highway of Peace have been established in the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) areas. The GK Grand Caravan is a coming together of all the people whose lives have been touched by Gawad Kalinga. It was held in Datu Paglas, the GK village that rose from the spot where 23 Christians were massacred a few years ago. People came from all over the country to celebrate the miracle of Bayanihan, and to link hands towards a hopeful future for other generations to come. * * *

POBLACION, Datu Paglas, Maguindanao – Before the official opening of the Caravan of Peace program, the national anthem started playing. A few voices picked up the tune. I remember thinking that it would have been better if they had gotten someone to sing along on mike with the recording – at least the voices wouldn’t have sounded so forlorn. I kept my silence – I rarely sing the anthem, or anything else publicly for that matter, as my voice sounds only a little better than a squawking seagull’s. Then little by little, from different parts of the crowd, people started singing. It was a gradual thing, but suddenly, the isolated voices became a swell of melody. It didn’t come from only one group – it was as if the people couldn’t help but sing. By the time the song crested, I was belting out the lyrics like there was no tomorrow. * * *

BULL MOUNTAIN, General Santos City, South Cotabato – It was a sight out of a storybook: houses in cotton candy colors marching down beside a steep stone path. A flat plain marks the end of the path, with a huge hand-painted sign taking prominence. "Chicago Village," it said, named after the Filipinos from Chicago who donated most of the homes.

It is called Bull Mountain, for the Chicago Bulls.

The mountain cups the houses and surrounds them with greenery. Frank Balayon, who spearheaded its creation, accompanied me down the path as I concentrated on not falling headfirst. Dressed in a pair of beat-up jeans and a sweater, he explained how they planned to make Bull Mountain an ecotourism area, with log cabins for visitors interested in the preserved forest, indigenous species and natural springs.

When Balayon (affectionately called Tito Frank) first launched the idea of a GK site in Bull Mountain, people said it was both impossible and unsustainable. Several projects had already been planned for the area but failed to come to fruition.

But Tito Frank pushed on. When the paperwork was done and they finally drove into the area, they were met by men from the local Civilian Volunteer Organization.

"They had their rifles pointed at us. Nagtatago pala sila sa talahiban. We were very nearly ambushed – I think they thought we were going to toss some salvage victim into their area."

These same people are now the beneficiaries of the Bull Mountain homes. * * *

We interviewed Rubencio Alim inside Bull Mountain’s open—air chapel. He was of medium build, a dark, silent man with strong hands and a face that seemed as if he had seen much and done much more.

Mang Ruben was around during the time the NPA penetrated Bull Mountain. He used to be an MNLF commander, and there is still something of the stalwart soldier in him. He said it was a bad time for the people back then, when they were obliged to pay taxes to the rebels in the area. Finally the people left the site for fear. By 1986, it was almost a ghost town.

In 1988, people started coming back. They were less fearful now, and refused to hand over their hard-earned money to the NPA. When Tito Frank and Gawad Kalinga came into Bull Mountain, they began building homes for the poorest of the poor. Manong Ruben was neither a resident nor a beneficiary of the Bull Mountain village. He heard about what GK was doing, and how the beneficiaries were supposed to help in the build.

When he came over to have a look, he was surprised that the beneficiaries were not helping.

"Nag-uusyoso lang talaga siya," Tito Frank said with a twinkle in his eye.

But they were surprised when the outsider pitched in and helped. Everyday, after Mang Ruben farmed from 4:30 to 8 a.m., he would find his way to the build site and pound away until four in the afternoon. Then he would walk the 200 meters back to his farm to work until six.

Little by little, the people started helping out. He became their unofficial chief, and people followed his example.

"Hindi ko in-expect na makakuha ng bahay," he said. "Hindi naman ako taga-dito talaga. Gusto ko lang magtulong."

Suddenly, one of the beneficiaries backed out. "Di siya naniwala na totoo itong ginagawa namin, ayan tuloy, ngayon ’yung bahay niya doon lang, butas-butas.

He said that there was no longer a problem with peace and order. He would tell the people quite frankly: "Binigyan kayo ng bahay, manggugulo pa kayo.’"

It was then that he spoke of the impact GK made in the lives of people living in his now adopted village.

"Madaming nagsasalita sa amin dati, pero walang nagagawa. Isang sakong salita dala nila dito. Ang GK, walang salita, gawa lang."

There are many who visit Bull Mountain now, from all over the country, even the world. It is a model of Bayanihan, and of good intentions following through to good results. We asked Manong Ruben how it feels to be seen this way.

"Halos hindi na kami makapagsalita kapag may bumibisita kasi lahat ng pupunta, isa lang ang tanong ngayon – kung paano rin sila magtulong." * * *

POBLACION, Datu Paglas, Maguindanao – I had only one occasion to be afraid during my stay in Mindanao. When the caravans started pouring through, soldiers in fatigues began to trickle in. They came in twos and threes, with cartridges crisscrossed on their shoulders and grim expressions on their faces. They were young, probably in their early twenties. Later, I found out they were AFP soldiers, sent by the government to protect us, just in case.

One of them came up to me, a particularly armed man with his rifle swinging and various metal objects glinting ominously in the morning light. This was the first time I ever had the experience of having a gun pointing in my direction (albeit inadvertently). He stared me down and opened his mouth. I gritted my teeth. Was I smiling too much, or showing too much skin? When he finally spoke, the words came out clipped and harsh.

"Miss. Pwede ba makuha ang number mo?" * * *

PUROK ISLAM, Griño Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat – In 1971, a group of Muslims in Maguindanao were displaced by conflicts in the area. Oscar Griño, a wealthy Christian landowner from Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat, came upon them and asked how they were. On hearing about their situation, he told them to wait.

"Kukunin ko kayo," he said.

He sent a truck to pick them up, and let them stay on his land. In 1974, it became dangerous for them to even be living in the open in the face of extremist vagrants. The Griños opened a three-story warehouse on their land for the people to stay, provided them with food and dressing them like Christians to help avoid detection. The Muslims helped when they could.

The Griños say that to them, service to the poor is a family legacy that they hope to pass on to the next generations. It began when the father of Oscar Griño, a physician, who began taking in patients and providing food and lodging without pay. It is hypocritical, they say, to claim love for God and country without doing anything about it.

"We give part of ourselves – it doesn’t matter if they’re Muslims or Christians," they say.

Noel Griño is one of those who carries on the Griño legacy. It was he who plunged into some of the most dangerous areas in Mindanao to introduce Gawad Kalinga.

"If bravery means not feeling fear," he said, "then I am not brave." When he started, he was a father with two children and one on the way. He now has six kids – his 10-year-old Patricia intends to try her hand at teaching in one of the GK schools.

In 2002, the Griños, along with Gawad Kalinga, raised houses for the Muslims. The place is now called Purok Islam, a beautiful village in Griño land. The Griños, said the Muslims have given them a chance.

"Dati nagtatago kami, ngayon pwede na kami lumabas," said Mondi Mamangkas, the village head.

Noel said that the process was frustrating at first. The people were used to working only for themselves, it was survival that was priority. The Griños would go to the Purok Islam site with other volunteers and build, but the expected aid from the beneficiaries did not come immediately.

"I would go home to my wife Dina and complain. How could those people stand to see us sweat and work for them, then do nothing?"

Eventually, the sincerity and passion of the volunteers won the Muslims over. Noel laughs about it. "Actually it is a love story." * * *

RMK-Ville, Tantangan, South Cotabato – In New Iloilo, Tantangan, a small village called RMK is being built. A couple donated the land, and together with a small chapter of Couples for Christ, have successfully financed 12 homes. The donors were there, dusty from building and burnt from the sun, but they didn’t care. They had a cause.

They explained: "Ibigay mo yung pera para sa yero, para sa gamit, habang meron kang mabibigay. Hindi mo mararamdaman na mahirap gawin–nagugulat kami na biglang natatapos lang." * * *

POBLACION, Datu Paglas, Maguindanao – Mayor Toto Paglas is the mayor of Datu Paglas, the site of the Caravan of Peace. He came roaring into the site riding an enormous motorcycle, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. He is a bear of a man, a giant in every sense. To see him with his wife (they call her the first lady – we call her Tita Giget) is to watch a man with an enormous capacity to love. He seems unassuming – until he speaks. It is then that the leader makes his presence known.

In GK, the first half of housing must come through padugo, a bleeding of self by those who spearhead the building of the site. GK then matches the number of homes. The P1 million necessary (each house was worth P40,000) to build the first 25 homes were raised through a donor’s forum among local businessmen in Takurong.

Every night since the success of the building, he still wonders how they managed to pull it off. He can’t explain it; he can only say he is happy. Ever since the village was built, a great change came over the people. There is no crime, no thievery, and no murder – very different from Datu Paglas’ previous record. It was natural, he said, because it used to be that when the people came home from work, there was no rest, and every reason to commit crimes.

"Nagugulo utak nila, hindi sila makapag-isip. Paano nga naman, kung ang uuwian lang nila ay bahay na makikita nila ang buwan sa bubong."

He says there is a need to change the image of Mindanao. Everyone seems to think there is an open war between Muslims and Christians. It is not true, he claims. It is a war between government troops and rebels; the civilians are trapped in between. The kidnappings, the rape, these things are as possible in Manila, even more frequent, than in his beloved Mindanao.

It is true, he says, that back in the ’80s, every house had a gun, and Datu Paglas was literally a war zone. Not anymore.

To him, the answer to poverty is simple, "Kung hindi lang masyado namumulitika ang mga tao, gaganda ang Mindanao." * * *

In Purok Islam, there is a mosque that stands in the middle of the village square. Its building was spearheaded by the Christian Griños.

In Bunawan, a Christian GK village in Maguindanao, there is a chapel that stands in the middle of the town square. It was built by Mayor Toto Paglas, the Muslim mayor of Datu Paglas.