By Hazel Aspera, 29 September 2012
“This is a very nice place. It doesn’t look like a conflict-affected area.” Said Chariya “Aya” Om, one long breath after the big, red Rural Bus dropped us off by the highway in front of the Aleosan Public Market. I had to agree. Even I had been struck dumb by the beautiful, rolling grass-green hills and the quiet, cool morning breeze of that early September morning.
I remembered that earlier this month, some of our colleagues from the Balay Mindanaw Group (BMG) had meant to come to Aleosan. However, armed clashes between the military and the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the nearby province of Maguindanao, as well as sightings of BIFF members in the area, made it a no-go for them. Before we left for Aleosan, the situation had reportedly become stable. Yet I still expected some tension in the area.
Sheltered middle class brats such as yours truly have a tendency to visualize “war-torn areas,” as they are called, as places completely separate from our own reality. I thought of depressing descriptions of ravaged, abandoned houses. I thought of pictures I had seen earlier, of scared-looking people walking along the road, away from their homes with whatever possessions they could carry. I thought of those photographs of hungry children with tattered clothes and fearful eyes.
What I failed to imagine was this: In the middle of the lush, green scenery is the hustle and bustle of buyers and sellers going over fresh vegetables and sweets in the palengke and not-so-fresh clothes in the ukay-ukay. It was like a peaceful little town in a children’s story book. I said that I wouldn’t mind living in a place like this. Aya felt the same. Later that night she would tell us, “I like Aleosan better than the city. It seems like a very peaceful place.”
And those photographs of desolate-looking children? Reality could not be farther than that. They were the reason that Aya and I had come here, after all. As part of her graduate program in the University of Peace in Costa Rica, she had helped the Balay Mindanaw Foundation organize a Peace Painting Workshop with the theme “Building Peace in my Home” for Aleosan’s International Day of Peace celebration. Balay Aleosan Area Manager Rosario “Popot” Baldevia had helped us invite high school students from Aleosan National High School and Pagangan High School to participate in the said activity.
The students who greeted us on the morning of September 21 seemed no different from ordinary teenagers elsewhere. The polar personalities of shy and rowdy, of eager and reserved reminded me of the kid I was some 10 years past. Their frustration and struggle to handle their brushes or get the right blend of colors reminded me of the art workshops I had gone through back in those days as well. I hadn’t planned on sitting down to paint with them, but nostalgia is a powerful drug and so I did.
Not forgetting my responsibilities as a co-facilitator, I would occasionally go around to check if everyone had supplies or to help them mix those elusive browns from the primary colors. One kid named Allan did not need my help on that matter, however. He was masterful at mixing and blending colors. Three hands that spread over the center of his painting were painted in a variety of skin tones, ranging from pale to dark brown. He was silent in his work, confident as he used short strokes of his brush to highlight his painting with a warm yellow.
Later, I came upon a group of girls painting on concrete tables on the other side of the basketball court that separated our official assembly area from the market. Like typical high school students, they were self-conscious and reluctant at first.
Among them was a girl named Mayua.
“Do we have to explain our paintings in front of everyone later?” she asked, looking very uncomfortable with the idea. “I don’t know what my painting is about.”
Her painting depicted several figures in three different colors, hands holding over a globe painted in blue and green. “What do these people stand for?” I asked.
She answered, without hesitation: “I painted Muslims, Lumads and Christians holding hands, because we all have to work together.”
“See? You do know what your painting is about!” I replied, eliciting a smile from Mayua.
See, like typical high school students, they were eager to impress. They thought we were expecting something grand and deep and unusual from them, not knowing that they were so without even trying. Mayua’s words were simple, but the message is profound. Older people sometimes get jaded by the seemingly irreconcilable differences between people, not to mention peace talks that sometimes seem like they aren’t going anywhere. For these kids, love and understanding is not that complicated. As a girl named Criscel Calianga put it, and in big, bold vibrant red letters at that: “Peace starts with a smile.”
Yes, these were ordinary kids. But it also hit me hard that they have had more than their fair share of experience with conflict, war and displacement. As they wielded their pencils and paintbrushes that day, despite all their worries that their work would “not be good enough,” what they were really doing was painting what they believed were the solutions to the problems they had identified at the beginning of the activity.
Some of the problems were those you would see even in the city: pollution, food shortages, water shortages, poverty and misunderstandings between neighbors. Others spoke eerily of the challenges that some of us should be thankful not to worry about. “Giyera! (war)” a voice yelled from the crowd during the forum. “Kidnapping!” cried another. When asked if they had bakwits (internally displaced people) in their area, the answer was a resounding “YES!”
To think, I couldn’t tell that things were that bad. Not from one look.
If I learned anything from our visit there, it is this: This “war torn” and “conflict-affected” place is only so by accident. Otherwise, it is one just like anywhere else, with its own beauty, its own charm, and its own variety of people who still find reasons to smile in the face of these problems.
As Ate Popot had told us earlier, Aleosan was indeed a beautiful, even peaceful, in times like these. Had we come during the height of tension, perhaps I could not have painted so flattering a picture of it. The way things were at that moment, though, an unpeaceful Aleosan was quite hard to imagine. That Aya and I could say that it “didn’t look like a conflict-affected area” is proof of its resiliency. That the students could paint beautiful pictures of unity, love, understanding and forgiveness is a sign of hope.
That night, I would tell Atty. Aying Asis that I would soon be going to Basilan, another place with a sinister reputation for us sheltered city folk.
Her reply was unexpected but not surprising: “Oh, Basilan is a beautiful place!”
As we sat around the table, listening to the bats chirping in the peaceful night of this “conflict-affected” area, with the memory of laughing children proudly holding their paintings at the back of my mind, I didn’t have a single doubt that that was true.
Hazel is a Volunteer for Peace Research at Balay Mindanaw Foundation’s International Center for Peace (ICPeace.) Her job includes gathering material for peace courses, writing articles about peacebuilding activities and, occasionally, chaperoning interns around Mindanao as they add their own voices to the collective cry for peace.
OTHER ARTICLES ON THE INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PEACE IN ALEOSAN: