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Camp Abubakar, 9 Years After
By Dan Bercasio

Camp Abubakar used to be the main headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) then headed by the late Salamat Hashim. It covers parts of the Maguindanao towns of Buldon, Barira and Matanog. In April 2000, the Philippine Government launched an all-out-offensive to capture the stronghold. This prompted mass evacuations of civilians in the area. Three months after, on July 9, 2000, Camp Abubakar was captured, forcing MILF forces to retreat to a base in Buliok near the Liguasan Marsh. Most of the structures in Camp Abubakar were destroyed after days of heavy artillery bombardment.

In 2005, Gawad Kalinga, together with the local government of Barira (with the late Mayor Alex Tomawis), Smart Communications, Petron, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, volunteers and other partners, started to build a community and school buildings for almost 200 families inside Camp Abubakar. In summer of 2006, I had the chance to visit the place and spent time with a community that was wounded by years of war but was trying its best to move forward.

After nine years I came back and I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Salamat Hashim’s Residence

Back in 2006, the residence of Salamat Hashim seemed like a trophy, especially for the military. Almost all the walls had graffiti (some are quite obscene) -- marks left by the “conquerors”. Reading thru the writings on the walls, you could almost hear jubilant voices of soldiers celebrating their victory. Now, the structure remained almost the same but the graffiti were either erased or plastered with cement. Even the signage at the main façade was changed to simply “Residence of Salamat Hashim”. What used to be a mere spoil of war is now more of a historical place.




After the capture of Camp Abubakar, the

government renamed it to Camp Iranun, then

set up military base there.




The façade was repainted and the signage was





Graffiti left by some of the government forces
when they captured the residence of Salamat
Hashim in July 2000.




Graffiti were either erased of plastered.

Perhaps, this signifies respect. Genuine respect, regardless of race or religion, needs to be present even before we talk about peace.

Asima and Asmara

Nine years ago, I went around the GK community and took some photos unobtrusively. I chanced upon a girl, with her much younger sibling, doing household chores.

When I came back, I asked around how are the kids in the photo. The younger girl, Asima, passed away years back. She succumbed to dengue and did not make it.

Every day, poverty kills more people than bullets do.  But poverty does not only take away life, it could also extinguish hopes and dreams. It is good thing that Asmara, the older sister, haven’t given up her dreams yet. She just graduated from elementary last March 29, 2015. She is now in high school. Poor kids like Asima and Asmara need help to live and to sustain hope.




Asmara (right) doing household chores while
looking after her sister Asima (left).




Asmara after performing traditional Iranun
dance in school.

Salamona Hakim and her band of volunteer teachers

After the GK community was built in 2005, Salamona Hakim, a school teacher, dreamed of having a public school inside Camp Abubakar. With a team of 3 volunteer teachers, they set started holding classes in a makeshift tent. Each teacher held a mixed class of 2 elementary grade levels. For many years, the teachers had no salaries but they did not give up. Soon, school buildings started to rise. Enrollment increased. And more teachers volunteered. In 2011, they again made a bold move to offer a High School program. Against all odds, and against the fear that the high school program might not get the formal recognition by the government in time, the first batch graduated last March 29, 2015.




Volunteer teachers held mixed classes in a
makeshift tent. The only partition were the
movable blackboards.




The school now offers a high school program.
They dream of offering college degrees in the




Six years after the war, the kids now live in a
peaceful community.




The community believes that education is key
in breaking the cycle of poverty.

The principal and the teachers dream of offering college courses in the future. They believe that education is key in breaking the cycle of poverty.

From Guns to Pens (and Laptops)

During the war years, boys either got enlisted to the MILF or became farmers at an early age. School was not a common option for them. Also, because of rido (clan feuds) that targets male members of the family, it is only the girls who could roam around freely and go to school.

Last March 29, 2015, the school had its first batch of high school graduates. They had a male class valedictorian. The fathers of the graduates, many of them are former combatants, saw the fruition of their hard work and of their trust. These fathers have chosen education as their legacy to these young men.




During the war years, boys either got enlisted
to the MILF or become farmers at an early
age. School was not a common option.




In 2015, the school had its first batch of high school
graduates They had a male class valedictorian
(left standing). The fathers of the graduates, many
of them are former combatants, are at the back.

Having a community and a school that have big dreams for their students, it is not hard for organizations like Gawad Kalinga to come in and support their dreams. Last August 2015, GK came to Camp Abubakar and brought laptops, desktops, LCD projector, wi-fi sticks and a printer/scanner. More than 90% of the students haven’t had used a computer before. In partnership with Microsoft, GK taught the students basic computer operations and basic programming in a fun way by having them create their own computer games. Likewise, the teachers had separate sessions on basic computer operations that could help them improve their teaching methods. Also, some staff members were taught basic computer troubleshooting and repair.




Grade 1 pupil practices writing sentences in




Gawad Kalinga and Microsoft teach students
basic programming by creating their own
computer games.

A Culture of Caring

In 2006, I noticed that some toddlers where brought to school by their older siblings who baby-sit them. During recess, I noticed a girl patiently teaching a toddler what she recently learned in class! I was struck by the scene and captured it in photo.

Last August, when we taught basic programming, I saw how natural for older students to teach and share what they know to the younger students.  It is only now that I realized that such culture of caring and sharing is very strong in this community. Many students, after graduating from Camp Abubakar Elementary School, pursued High School education somewhere when there was no High School there yet.  A number of them took up education degrees and went back to Camp Abubakar to become volunteer teachers, even without decent salaries. Volunteer teachers only get as much as P2,000 per month allowance.




Toddlers are often brought to school by their
siblings. During recess, this girl in white hijab is
trying to teach English to the child.




Having learned basic programming the previous day,
high school students helped teach grade school
pupils make their own computer games.

The people in Camp Abubakar through the years have been building peace. Each day, they painstakingly nurture it. The parents knew the pains of war and they keep the memory of war to themselves. They pass on to their children, not hatred and indifference, but their faith in Allah and their hopes. They are literally fighting for peace by making sure that the children get quality education. By teacing the kids to dream and to aspire. By inspiring the graduates not leave other poor kids behind.
Yes, peace is possible in our lifetime. I experienced it in Camp Abubakar.

#WeSpeakCode #WalangIwanan #EndPoverty #HopePhotography #StoriesOfMindanao
I honor Team GK South Central Mindanao lead by Noel Grino for being a family to the people of Camp Abubakar GK Village and the Camp Abubakar Public School for more than 10 years now. And thanks to Lt Col. Ding Ampatuan for bringing us back to Camp Abubakar. Walang Iwanan!

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