I am living in the midst of so much violence that it overwhelms me sometimes. Violence assails me from many different directions and penetrates my consciousness until I have dreams that I am staring down the barrel of a rifle. Dangers near and far, grim realities and glorified myths all blur together until I have trouble distinguishing between Mindanao and Iraq, between Hollywood action films and the violent situations I encounter face-to-face.
I'm here on the south Philippines island of Mindanao as a United Church of Canada overseas personnel volunteer on an internship with our partner, The United Church of Christ in the Philippines. I have been working in a Mindanao-wide peace movement, and Filipinos are some of the most friendly, hospitable and good-humoured people I have ever met. Yet most are held in the vicious grip of oppression and exploitation, and violence infuses every aspect of life.
I think of Manuel, a thoughtful and compassionate young man from the Manobo tribe -- a recent college graduate in forestry, and a peace-movement volunteer. One day I joined Manuel to help him build a small house on his family's few hectares of land. In a gentle, soft-spoken manner typical of his people, Manuel shared his dreams of holding clan meetings and seminars in this hut to promote sustainable agro-forestry and strong community values.
He also spoke of his duties in the local militia. There are nightly attacks here by Muslim rebels on the militia outposts. The rebels see the Manobo people as puppets of the military, the enemy. Manuel does not hate Muslims; he only wants to defend his tribe and their land. My heart aches for this gentle young man in a quest for peace who is caught in a deeply violent reality.
Other examples of violence confront me daily. I brush past the M-16 rifles of armed guards every time I enter most civil establishments, from the post office to the McDonald's restaurant. The front page of the newspaper features a virtual running "scoreboard" of the latest body counts in the insurgency wars across the country: "Eight More Muslim Rebs Slain"... "Three Government Troops Fall to Rebel Fire."
The second page of the Mindanao Daily Mirror reports that Muslims in Davao City are being "rounded up" by government officials, their houses raided and marked. In one incident, 300 so-called "anti-terrorism" troops riding atop tanks "swooped down on 50 residents of a coastal Muslim village.... Some residents claimed they woke up from their afternoon nap to the muzzles of M-16 rifles."
I go to visit evacuation centres, which are mostly filthy warehouses or row upon row of flimsy wood frames covered with blue tarpaulins. There I talk with poor peasant families who have spent the greater part of their lives fleeing to these dubious havens, each time leaving behind homes, belongings, animals, land and livelihood, to be ravaged by yet another round of fighting in this 35-year-old conflict.
Outside my window, military helicopters rumble across the sky on their way to bomb more targets in the countryside.
I find a different kind of violence while hiking along the scenic mountain ridges. I am horrified to discover huge patches of eroded wasteland -- bare hillsides completely denuded of all vegetation. Poor farmers have cleared these ecologically fragile areas because there is no room left on the fertile plains. Meanwhile, big companies such as Dole and Del Monte control tens of thousands of hectares.
I see a woman's shanty hut and vegetable garden literally engulfed and demolished by an overflowing mountain of garbage. A landfill site next door has been filled far beyond its legal capacity by private contractors.
I pass an elementary school with no students because the military are using the building as a temporary camp while they launch operations nearby. Khaki uniforms hang in the classroom windows and a tank is parked in the front yard.
The newspaper reports that 1,200 American troops are arriving in the Philippines to conduct their annual "war games" with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. For months, both forces will practise and hone their skills in guerrilla warfare in the most hostile areas of the country. To "graduate" from these "exercises" Filipino soldiers must engage in real combat against rebel fighters.
It's all part of life on Mindanao, where indigenous people, many of whom are Muslims, have resisted both Spanish and American colonization for close to four centuries, even though the massive resettlement of other Christian Filipinos now accounts for 75 percent of the island's population.
The armed independence struggle has been ongoing since 1968; it's currently led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Criminal groups often take advantage of the instability to initiate kidnappings for ransom and public bombings in markets, malls and airports. The Indigenous peoples are blamed by both sides as enemy sympathizers, and are harassed and killed by both armies, while rapidly losing their land to the Islamic front, the government and to large companies exploiting the situation. A 2001 ceasefire agreement was broken by the government in February when the military launched a new offensive to capture rebel territory.
Although peace advocates are often accused of being naive or "hopeless romantics," actually, it is usually the so-called "realists" who clothe violence in the language of romance and excitement. They treat it as a game, a sport, entertainment. We hear talk of "conquering heroes" and "wars of liberation," but do these words really have any meaning? Does God really exalt the conquerors and the military empires? Does God use war to liberate anyone?
For me, reality snapped into focus when I saw the drawings of child evacuees, done during "play therapy" sessions. The crayon sketches showed helicopters raining bombs, trees and houses on fire, lots of people coloured red for blood, lots of people crying and screaming. There was a picture of a child dragging away the body of her wounded father. Another girl drew herself in a box. She had spent a day hidden in a garbage can to escape the bullets and bombs. These perspectives on violence are as honest and as real as it gets.
How do we overcome the culture of violence? I despair at the prospect of tackling it all at once. If we can identify the place where violence most touches our own lives, we can begin changing language and attitudes, connect with others on related issues. The most important thing is to find somewhere to begin that is real to us.
I used to think that praying for peace was a cop-out, or a desperate last resort when all else had failed. Filipinos have taught me that praying is not the same as wishing. It can be very meaningful.
The other night a small group of us held a simple candle-lighting together to affirm that God is with us in our struggle for peace. Violence may be an all-pervasive part of our reality, but our God of Love and Peace will always be more powerful and more real.
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