Coming from a long bloodline of Muslim royalty from Sulu—I’m a Tausug—I’ve had the privilege to study abroad with the Australian Army as an exchange student representing the Philippine Army. I never thought that I would have such once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Allah had prearranged for me.
In my training, I was exposed to a sophisticated, modern army with contemporary operations, up-to-date hardware and doctrines on conflicts around the world, from theatres in the Middle East to Central Asia and parts of Africa. In the Philippines, confronting insurgency with limited logistics shouldn’t undermine the army’s core purpose of “Serving the people, securing the land.” Some modern armies, such as Australia, use the experiences of the Philippines in tackling the long-running Muslim secessionism and Communist insurgency to aid their research and studies on Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN).
Our military does not only focus on combat, it has also put emphasis on Civil-Military Operations, an approach that recognizes the indispensability of different stakeholders to achieve peace. Yabes notes, “I hear the Americans talk of asymmetrical warfare, of Full spectrum operations, and Kinetic Targets. I hear our military officers talk of a Whole-of-Government approach, and it sounds solid, promising, an improvement over the rigid Clear-Hold-Consolidate. More of them are talking less body counts and possibly thinking more in terms of the latest catch phrase: Nation Building, the ultimate step to winning.”
The stories and experiences of officers, soldiers and other key actors in Mindanao are carefully articulated. Yabes understands the dynamics of Mindanao as she was able to explore parts of it and got to know the locals, Muslim and Christians alike. She is able to paint a vivid picture of the Muslims’ struggle for their own identity, distinct from an ever-changing Philippine society. The diversity of cultures in Mindanao makes it unique among other islands of the Philippines. Yabes: “Mindanao is complex. Every village, every town, every province has a story of its own. Like a play, you must acquaint yourself with the characters; and to simplify the staging, the audience will have to know how to identify the good guys from the bad.”
I was able to relate to the experiences of the locals, on how they were affected by the conflict and violence that had claimed thousands of innocent lives. My family was part of an exodus from the small city of Jolo, Sulu to Zamboanga City, when conflict between political families erupted in 1995. We were forced to live in Zamboanga City, which is predominantly Christian, although I’d still go back to Sulu whenever I had the chance.
Yabes stayed with the soldiers in the field. She considered herself fortunate to experience a soldier’s “minimalist existence.” She notes, “I toured their quarters as though I was visiting a museum, feasting my eyes on the minute details of a soldier’s life in the field: how they hung their battle dress uniform, a wooden rosary and a romance graphic book and a pack of ear buds nestled on a pillow, the arrangement of their hammocks and bamboo cots, neat rows of combat boots and rubber thongs under their beds, their combat packs helmets, and knives slung over nail hooks on the wooden frame of their huts, their mosquito nettings left in a rush, their bathing tabo and face towels, their medicine kit in a supermarket plastic bag, a calendar poster of a girl in a bikini, their tin plates and spoons entrenched in the lattice of the sawali wall. I went from bunk to bunk, inspecting, examining their privacy, and envying their minimalist existence. It is an art of living to have so little and be able to face each day as though it is the last. I asked myself if I could survive like this, to be a soldier in spirit, seeking one’s higher self in nomadic quest. There is something about carrying a lesser load as you move on, walk the path, taking the road where you feel most at home, a journey that may take you back to where you started.”
This is a lucid portrayal of soldier’s life. After graduating from military college I reported to my field unit in Samar province. I found it a great, life-changing experience, a chance to make a difference. Soldiers might have a “minimalist existence” as Yabes notes, but their noble responsibility to their duty must be appreciated.
The recent success of peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government signifies that peace is almost at hand for Mindanao. People of Mindanao had long desired to achieve enduring peace and security, after decades of armed conflict that was propelled by political and religious schisms. I believe the peace process, given the sincerity and consistency of both parties, would have a feasible outcome. However, both parties should consider the inclusion of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has demands of its own, in the process. On the other hand, government should exert more effort to dismantle the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) through combat and non-combat operations with close coordination and involvement of local authorities.
This book has spurred my enthusiasm to make a difference in any way that I can. Now that I am a commissioned officer in the Philippine Army, it helps me realize my responsibility as a Filipino Muslim and a soldier in helping achieve peace and unity in Mindanao. Although currently deployed in a communist-infested area in Samar, this would not hinder me from doing my part as a Peace Warrior, like the parable used in this book: “During the low tide, the son of a fisherman was trying to throw all the starfish back into the water so they could live. But there were too many of them on the dry shore. What could he do to send them all back home? His father told him there was not much he could do. He could keep trying, but it would be impossible to take them all, one by one, so many of them, back to the ocean. Those that would not make it would eventually die. He could save as many as he can, but he must remember that each one he saves makes a difference to a starfish.”
Peace Warriors: On the Trail with Filipino Soldiers rings with poetry worthy of recognition. It depicts the significant relationship between soldiers and Mindanao in the realization of lasting peace. It provides an exceptional impression of people and places across Mindanao. Young leaders and students should read this kind of literature, realistic and poignant, that depicts true stories from people who do commendable things in the interest of peace. A note written on the last page of my copy, “Finished reading on 30 June 2012 onboard the Royal Australian Air Force airbus 330-200, destination Royal Military College-Duntroon, Australia,” always reminds me that, just like Criselda Yabes, wherever I am, Mindanao will always be in my heart.
2Lt. Al-Qatar A. Kamlian (INF) PA is a Platoon Leader, Scout Platoon, H&HCoy 63rd Infantry (Innovator) Battalion, 8ID, Philippine Army.