Bai Linda Eman, The Peace Builder
[Date Created: January 11, 2014]
I began serving with a Muslim rebel group since I was six years old. Since my father was one of the leaders and key decision makers, I was asked to be a messenger, to carry important letters to and from the city and the rebel camp. I would often leave home at 6 PM, traveling through mountains alone and in the dark, and I would reach the camp at 11 PM and head home alone too.
Once, when I was with my family, our camp was attacked and I was separated from my parents in the battle that ensued. One of my father’s men took me with him, and I lived in a different camp for over six months, not knowing whether my family was still alive or not. The conflict between the rebels and the military intensified, and our camp was again attacked. I was only a small child but one of the soldiers – a Christian – tried to kill me with a big knife. The edge of the blade touched my forehead, and I carry a scar from that wound to this day. Fortunately, my uncle was there and he tried to rescue me. I witnessed the brutal death of my uncle as he was chopped to pieces. I grabbed a gun and tried to shoot the soldier, but I never found out if I was able to kill him or not.
One of the men took me and threw me on a boat and we escaped. From then on, we traveled by boat because it was safer, but we barely had enough food and were sometimes shot at by soldiers. All these experiences fueled my anger towards Christians.
In 1985, a ceasefire was declared and I was reunited with my family during a meeting of the leaders. I had no idea that they were still alive, and they were worried that I had also died in the numerous encounters. An aunt decided to bring me to Malabang, Lanao del Sur, and it was there that I first saw kids my age who were playing. I asked myself then how come these children were free and innocent of all the suffering I had come to know at a young age.
I continued to serve in the Muslim movement and my anger towards Christians intensified as I saw the suffering of my fellow Muslims in the hands of soldiers. My family had some land, but we were never able to utilize them because the soldiers would use them as camp sites, stealing our cattle and poultry, and hurting our people. This is what I knew about Christians, and I vowed to become a strong rebel commander, with enough men to be able to fight back and protect my people.
When I was thirteen years old, my parents decided to move to Kidapawan, North Cotabato, a predominantly Christian town. It was a difficult adjustment, since I only spoke Muslim, and did not understand Tagalog or Bisaya. I also did not know how to read and write. But I was determined to educate myself, and I asked my six year old cousin to teach me how to read comic books. That’s how I learned to read and write – from comic books. In two weeks, I learned the basics and decided to enroll myself in school. I was accepted into Grade 4.
Even while I was in school, I continued to be active in the movement. This time I was no longer a messenger but a transporter of goods, bullets and guns. But I also saw how uneducated my fellow Muslims were. Many of them were unschooled and did not know much about the world. I made a decision then to finish school, to learn as much as I could so that I could help further our cause.
When I finished high school, all my dreams had come true. I was already one of the commanders, leading over 300 men. My parents had already given me land to use, but I was not happy. After many years of fighting, I began to search for meaning, for the true purpose of Allah in my life.
I decided to enroll myself in Notre Dame, a Catholic university. I was the only Muslim to ever attempt to enroll there, and the administration was very hesitant to accept me. I requested to speak to the President of the school, and explained that all I wanted was to get the best education, which I believed I could get from the school. After much prayer to Allah, I was accepted. When the fighting intensified, I would just take a short leave of absence from school and fight, then come back to study. I was committed to finish school because I knew I needed a good education to become a better Muslim leader.
While studying in the library, I came across a large, old book – it was the Catholic Bible. I flipped through the pages, but a working student took it from me, saying that I was not allowed to touch it since I was a Muslim. When she left, I tried to borrow it from the librarian, who also told me that it was no use to borrow it since I was a Muslim. Determined as I was, I decided to take the book without permission. I stole the Bible from the library so that I could search for the true reason for the conflict between Muslims and Christians.
I took the Bible home and put my Qur-an beside it. My father saw me and argued endlessly that I was being converted to Christianity by my school. But I knew better. I read the whole Bible, and did not sleep.
When I finished, I cried because I found
that the Muslim and Christian teachings were very similar –
we shared the same values.
It was clear to me that the conflict was not religion,
but a lack of understanding of each one’s faith and beliefs.
It was a turning point in my life. I began to gather fellow Muslims and tried to convince them to reach out to Christians, not to talk about differences but to find common ground and ways to live together in peace.
Ironically, that was also when Former President Erap declared all-out war against the Muslims. Called upon to defend our brethren, I took up guns once again and served in the war. We fought bravely, and lost many in our ranks. When the military overtook Camp Abubakar, we saw how the Christian soldiers degraded what we held sacred. They shot our mosques, roasted a pig inside and even killed some of our comrades.
Despite the announcement that the movement had been quelled and there was no threat from rebels, I continued to serve. Many of the camps remained active, but much more low key. For more than four years, I dedicated my life to the service, and I did not come home even once.
My father, in the meantime, made a decision to help our fellow Muslims who had turned to illegal activities to survive. He gathered the group involved in carnapping, hold ups etc. and lobbied to the Congressman to help set up a cooperative and secure land for the families. When the proposal was approved, he decided to purchase land instead of distribute the money to each of the families. This ensured the security of tenure for their families, and my father decided to live in the same community.
Bai Linda Eman building hope and peace with Christians and fellow Muslims in Patikul, Sulu.
When I went home, my father told me about Gawad Kalinga, which was started by a Christian group, Couples for Christ. He said they wanted to build homes for our Muslim brothers, but they met resistance because they were a Christian group and we did not trust their motives for entering our community. I attended one of the activities to spy on them, and there I met Bai Giget Paglas of Datu Paglas.
I also met the Gawad Kalinga leaders speaking about their work
to build peace, and I saw that their intentions were pure.
When I went home, I told my father
that I saw no threat to allowing the group to enter.
Although I believed in their vision, it did not really make much impact, and I retreated back to the mountains. In April, I was again asked to go back to Kidapawan. I was surprised that it was already the groundbreaking of the joint project called GK Bangsamoro. I took it as another opportunity to learn more about Gawad Kalinga. So I dressed in plain clothes and carefully observed the movements of our guests. One of them, Issa Santos, approached me and began to ask me a lot of questions. Surprisingly, I felt compelled to tell her my story, and I myself was struck at how much I had gone through. It was the first time that I had reflected at my life and began to understand Allah’s plan for me. At the end of our conversation, she asked me to become a fulltime worker for Gawad Kalinga in Manila. I thought she was crazy, but something about her invitation touched my heart.
Less than two months after we met, I left the only life that I knew in Mindanao and traveled to Manila to become a GK fulltime worker.
At first, it was very difficult to relate with the GK workers
who were mostly Christians.
This was the group I had hated all my life and vowed to fight!
But their humble service towards the poor
regardless of race or religion
was something that I admired.
What made it harder was that my responsibilities involved using a computer, which I had no idea how to operate. I did not know how to turn it on, how to use a mouse, how to use the programs. But I was determined to show them that Muslims were educated, and that we were capable of learning fast. In two weeks, after much study and observation, I could use the computer and operate some Microsoft programs.
It was a difficult adjustment, but everytime I opened my Qur-an, there was always a clear message that I should persevere because Allah has a purpose for me. At the onset, I interpreted that differently, my role was to become a spy for my fellow Muslims, to observe and study the real intentions of this Gawad Kalinga group. I knew that a lot of groups wanted to have a political hold on Muslims, so I was very wary.
But as I began to do the work, all that I saw proved to me that Gawad Kalinga was indeed genuine – not just the work itself but the intentions of the people that did the work. From the top leadership to the local caretaker teams, I saw Christians really living out their faith, following the path of their leader, Jesus Christ and really giving their all for the service. It reminded me of so many in my group, passionate to serve but ours was a different path.
Gawad Kalinga showed me that peace can be achieved
even without guns, because love is the best weapon.
Some of my relatives think that I should not work here – what is a Muslim doing in an office that is predominantly composed of Christians? But not once have they asked me to convert. On the other hand, they have inspired me to become a true Muslim, because they are true Christians.
I understand now that Allah’s plan is for me to become a model,
not just to my fellow Muslims but even to Christians,
that we can all live in peace.
Although we may have different beliefs,
we are all human beings
and we all share the same values
and the same dreams and aspirations for our children.
I am very blessed to become part of Gawad Kalinga, and to be counted as one of the heroes, in my own little way. Although I am based in Manila, I am confident that the work that we all do impacts in a big way to peace in Mindanao, and one day, the whole world will see the message of peace that GK brings.