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Susan Ople: Life in Basilan

Susan “Toots” Ople is the youngest daughter of the late Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas F. Ople. She has a Sunday column in Manila Bulletin’s Panorama Magazine and Tempo and two public service radio programs, “Bantay OFW” at DZXL RMN 558 every Monday to Friday, 12.30-2 pm and “Global Pinoy” at DWIZ 882 every Saturday from 5.30-6.30 pm.

Life in Basilan
by Susan Ople
First posted in susanople.com

I read a news story about South Sudan. Warring political factions have resorted to excessive violence, sparing no one even those in the intensive critical unit of a hospital. They shot hospital patients dead and even razed an entire hospital to the ground. It was brutal, the doctors who were on duty, said.

Stories such as these should serve as a reminder on how fortunate we Filipinos are. While peace and order remains a major concern, we are still able to freely go around and stay out late, as long as we know how to take care of ourselves.

This has not always been the case for Nurkisa Alidain, a resident of Lamitan, Basilan. Fifty-year old Nur works as assistant to the provincial administrator in the provincial capitol. I met Nur during a summit of civil society organizations on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and its Annexes held in Davao City.

I asked Nur a lot of questions about life in Basilan, having never been there at all. Just the mere mention of Basilan, I said, evokes fear as well as images of violence and terror. “Unfair,” she replied. Nur said that reports about kidnappings and violence in Basilan are grossly exaggerated. She regrets that such reports have contributed to the lack of investors and tourists going to her province.

“I have seen Boracay. Our beaches are much better because you have the mountain and the sea, with clear waters and powdery sand,” Nur said. The bad reputation that has been attached to Basilan has scared away investors that could give her jobs to her provincemates.

She said the conflict in Basilan was much worse during the martial law days. Three barangays camped out in an evacuation center in Lamitan, living in shanties, to escape being caught in the crossfire between Muslim rebels and military forces.

“My mother only had 40 pesos in her wallet. We experienced lining up for relief goods at the evacuation center. My parents would leave the evacuation center at night to go back to our village when they need to get more clothes and supplies from our house. They had to travel at night because during daytime, the soldiers might see them. During those days, the soldiers were very much feared by the civilians,” Nur recalled.

What was life like in the evacuation center? She said that they had three teachers who kept the children in school so Nur’s education was not interrupted by conflict. “I am so grateful to these teachers. They made sure we received an education even as evacuees.”

Of course, life in the camp was far from ideal. “We slept with our pants on so we could get up and run at the first sound of gunfire.”

As a child, she saw how her uncle was beaten up by the military. Her grandfather was shot dead by soldiers during Ramadan. Nur and her family lived through it all, and is now a leading supporter of the Bangsamoro peace agreement.

In one of the forums that she attended, a participant sent her a written question. “Why can’t people in Mindanao be like those in Luzon and the Visayas and just be content with what they have?” Her answer was simple: “What we have gone through in Mindanao is very different from the people of Luzon and the Visayas.”

With two children now in college, Nur wants them to have a brighter future. “It took me fifty years to heal and overcome the wounds of the past,” the proud mother said.

Today, Nur is more hopeful about the future. She cites the near completion of a long pending road project in Lamitan City. The local governments staff also noted the increase in health services for their constituents.

“Under President Aquino, everybody moves to complete these projects because there are very specific performance indicators that have to be met,” the provincial administrator’s assistant said.

Like other wives and mothers, Nur is praying hard for the success of the peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). She is part of a team that goes around to explain the contents of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and its Annexes.

Nurkisa Alidain, a resident of Lamitan, Basilan.

“I do my best to explain that the peace agreement is a political settlement, it’s not about religion, but all about governance,” she said. The peace agreement contains technical details and jargon that are difficult to explain to ordinary people.

“Once I was asked by a bank teller if it were true that once the comprehensive peace agreement is signed, she will have to wear a veil or a hijab. I said no, of course not. These are the concerns that we have to address as peace advocates,” Nur said.

Today, Nur said that she is no longer the frightened child gripped by fear at the sight of a soldier. The military has changed a lot, she said. With the signing of the GPH-MILF peace agreement, both sides – the military and the MILF – are now partners for peace in Mindanao.