18 April 2007, Cotabato City --- Elders call it a history drawn in blood. But today, many residents of Barangay Dugong in the town of M’lang in the province of Cotabato have vague memories of how their village came to be.
Failing to remember, this time, may not be bad at all.
Long ago, early Bagobo and Manobo natives reportedly fought a bloody war over the settlement, a vast fertile valley beyond the Liguasan Marsh. “Madugong laban” (Bloody war) it was called, hence the name “Dugong”.
Today, there are no more Bagobos and Manobos in Dugong. Residents are now mostly Christians from other Visayan-speaking provinces. But a good 30 per cent of the population is of Muslim descent living on the periphery of the village.
There are also no more stories of bloodshed in Dugong. It has remained conflict-free for many years. A sense of tranquility seems to hover over Barangay Dugong despite its proximity to the Liguasan Marsh, a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
But conflict in Cotabato villages like Dugong may spring out of nowhere, and if unchecked, may spiral into yet another bloody war.
Thus, barangay captain Edgar Panza, 47, a Christian, believes that the government’s aim to provide access to children in conflict-affected areas through the Days of Peace campaign is a welcome help to keep Dugong strife-free.
The Days of Peace campaign is a series of massive service delivery activities in communities not commonly reached due to fighting. Various agencies like the Department of Health (DoH), Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) teamed up make peace a reality for children in Mindanao.
The campaign has gained the support of the MILF, the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Peace and Development Communities (PDC) Initiative.
Since 16 April, special health teams have started going to over 500 villages across Mindanao, ensuring that children are vaccinated, given vitamin A supplements and de-worming tablets and that mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months. This special strategy forms part of the routine Garantisadong Pambata campaign of the government. Many of these villages for the special Days of Peace outreach are occupied by the MILF and the MNLF.
Dugong is bound on the west by the MILF-occupied Liguasan Marsh and the town of Pikit, site of the bloodiest war in recent years. At the height of the Pikit conflict in 19xx, evacuees fled to nearby villages. Many of those who sought shelter in Dugong were Muslims.
Barangay captain Edgar has nothing but good words for the Muslims in his village. “We have learned to co-exist peacefully, Muslims and Christians, alike.” The focal person for peace and order in the village is a Muslim, local councilor-elect Masullah Pangan, 52.
Masullah says that his job has so far been easy. “Our people recognize that our lives depend on how much we are able to eradicate tension and to respect our differences.”
“You may find it strange but we no longer seem to label one another as a Christian or as a Muslim,” says Edgar. “We simply regard each other as a neighbor, a drinking buddy, a farmhand, or a friend.” Despite living on subsistence farming and getting by without electricity, many residents are content with life in Dugong.
Salik Gubay, 70, who fled from the Pikit conflict that spread to his village of Dungguan, north of Dugong, says that his land is in Dungguan but his home is in Dugong. Everyday, he walks two kilometers back to his birthplace to do farm work on his ancestral land. He goes home to Dugong where “life is simple” because they live in peace.
Life in Dugong may be idyllic for many Muslims but midwife Iluminda Alanda says that encouraging Muslims to get access to basic health services is anything but simple. “Many Muslim mothers still don’t take their children for routine immunization because babies often catch a fever after a shot.”
“If you don’t give free paracetamol tablets or syrup, Muslim mothers in Dugong won’t have their children vaccinated.”
Addressing deeply ingrained beliefs is one of the challenges that health workers like Iluminda face. In villages where conflict has made it harder for basic health services to reach children, community health workers face a more arduous task.
The aim of Iluminda and her support network of two barangay health workers is to reach 90 per cent of approximately 570 children below six years old during this April’s Garantisadong Pambata and Days of Peace campaigns.
Barangay captain Edgar thinks that the goal can be reached and that proper information can change how caregivers think and behave. “We have been successful in breaking barriers of religious differences. We can also be successful in bringing health services to the most in need.”
This may well turn out to be another Dugong story written no longer in blood but with words of peace and acts of tolerance.