(Cotabato, 26 July) –UNICEF national ambassador and pop star Gary Valenciano came to Cotabato eager to hear stories of people rising from the ashes of war. He left profoundly changed by a people’s resolve to wage in war no more.
Every year, Gary Valenciano visits communities all over the country to speak about the rights of children. Recently, he went to the province of Cotabato to learn more about the plight of children caught in armed conflict and to encourage people to observe “Days of Peace.”
With his wife Angeli Pangilinan-Valenciano and UNICEF officials, Gary visited villages in the town of M’lang where local initiatives have helped people to build a more peaceful environment for children.
“Peace is possible if we are able to set our differences aside and really put the well-being of children first and above all things.” Gary spent an afternoon in Barangay Dugong, a village where Christians and Muslims live together without animosity.
“I have never seen Muslims and Christians comfortably studying, living, or working together until today. Your community is a shining example to all.”
During the government’s all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in early 2000, Dugong became an evacuation area for families fleeing the conflict in neighboring Maguindanao. Many Muslim families stayed to re-build their lives.
Himself a devout Christian, Gary admits at first being anxious about meeting people in a largely Muslim community.
“I came with images of our Muslim brothers and sisters that have been influenced by biases. I will leave with a profound change of perspective. I see here my Muslim brothers and sisters who are working, who care for their children and neighbors, who are peace-loving.”
Gary spoke highly of Muslims like Taya Talib, 33, a father who volunteers his time during local immunization campaigns. Taya would take his service truck to go to remote parts of his Barangay Dungguan, another village affected by armed conflict, and take children for vaccination at the health center.
“Your deed humbles me. Please continue your selflessness for the children of your village,” Gary told Taya in Filipino.
Gary also met young people like Sulman Odin, a high school senior from the town of Pikit, who have benefited from the local government’s “Children of Peace” project. At an advocacy meeting with local officials and civil society organizations, Sulman recalled how as a 10 year old child, he would cower in fear in the midst of gunfire, running for his life, growing hateful of Christians.
“I did not see my parents. I stopped schooling. I was hungry and sickly,” cried Sulman.
Sulman would have grown up, believing that Christians were the enemies of his people, had he not joined the government’s “Children of Peace” campaign. This project provided bright elementary students from Christian, Muslim and indigenous communities the opportunity to live together at a leadership summer camp. Participants soon would know that a culture of tolerance is possible in a province that has grown weary of the war in Mindanao. The “Children of Peace” participants later became college scholars of the Cotabato government.
“Sulman’s story is an eye-opener. Here is a child of war in the flesh. And his dream for a better future astounds me. He had suffered so much and yet he believes that peace is still possible,” said Gary.
Colin Davis, UNICEF deputy representative, lauded the Cotabato government led by Governor Jesus Sacdalan and Vice Governor Emmanuel Piñol for the Children of Peace initiative. “This is one peace campaign that should be launched in all of Mindanao.”
Singing his hit songs and speaking on behalf of children, Gary also urged local Cotabato officials to continue working for peace and development. “Music is about harmony. So is working for a lasting peace,” he said.
Aware of the current tension between the military and the MILF in the aftermath of the Father Bossi kidnapping, Gary hoped that peace will prevail.
“I do hope that the stand-off will be resolved to make the Peace Process work. Our children should no longer suffer wars that we, adults, create.”
Gary’s visit to Cotabato is part of the “Days of Peace” campaign supported by UNICEF. The campaign aims to bring basic social services to communities affected by any form of conflict in Mindanao. In April, UNICEF provided funds and resources to help increase immunization coverage rates in selected barangays. In October, UNICEF will provide additional resources to support the government’s measles campaign and possibly launch a birth registration drive in 1,000 barangays.
Gary also visited a remote Manobo community in the town of Magpet to bring goodwill to villagers and school supplies to elementary school children.
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