It is such a simple word, the kind we take for granted. We take it for granted, because it is easy to define, yet our definitions are limited by own experiences and understanding.
People easily define peace as the state where there is no conflict. But really, how many of us truly understand what it means to achieve this—and the harder question of maintaining it.
My latest trip to Sulu did not come without more than a few concerns, particularly from my dad. “Haven’t you been reading the news? They just had an encounter with the Marines and people were killed!” he said.
I just shrugged, “My ticket has been booked already,” conveniently forgetting to mention to him that I was headed to Patikul.
I could be branded reckless and insane, but Sulu has a pull to me that I struggle to explain to those who could only see it for the conflicts reported in the news. Perhaps I can explain it through the kids that I’ve been privileged to meet in the province.
At the Start, Classrooms for Hope
The main reason why I have been traveling to Sulu is for TEN Moves, a public fundraising campaign for the construction of 10,000 classrooms nationwide. TEN Moves builds schools not only in areas were overcrowding persists, but also in areas that have been largely underserved.
Brgy. Buhanginan in Patikul, Sulu is one of these areas, and Kaunayan Elementary School is located about three kilometers from the recent fighting between the Marines and the Abu Sayyaf Group. The school was almost forced to close down in 2004 for one reason or another, and vestiges of being forgotten were evident in the old school building.
The school is getting a new lease on life, with the unveiling of five new classrooms and a library. Prior to the turnover ceremonies, I met up with some “old friends”—Kaunayan’s football team, who I met earlier in Manila when they participated in the Football for Peace tournament.
They were all eagerly waving Philippine flags and gamely posing for the camera, recounting their experience in Manila in between. Little did I know that the boys were to perform during the turnover ceremonies with a couple of dance numbers. Talk about being the darlings of the show.
The teachers also told me the boys had been performing better in school, with at least three team members belonging to the top five of their classes.
This becomes an interesting counterpoint to the recent armed encounter—I’ve been told two of the Abu Sayyaf guys killed were dropouts of Kaunayan Elementary School itself.
I look at photos Nirhun Arbani and his teammates, and I really hope they have a brighter future, with football and new classrooms just being the start.
A Reminder of Sacrifices Made
We made a quick trip to Kan-Ague Elementary School, which could have well been a homecoming of sorts to my friends, Tops, who wrote the screenplay of “Patikul”, a movie that shares the story of Kan-Ague Elementary School’s beloved principal, Gabriel Canizares, who was beheaded by rebels in 2009.
A solitary marker sits in the middle of the school, to me a reminder of the great risks and sacrifices that teachers make just to provide kids in seemingly forgotten places with an education.
There was a little girl in the school with a smile I cannot forget. I hope she won’t be forgotten.
What Little and What Overflows
Brgy. Danag sits high up in Patikul, and we went there to witness the graduation ceremonies of the community’s summer school, with the Marines doubling up as teachers.
As the vehicle approached the site of the ceremonies, the kids were lined up on the side of the road, waving flags that bore the words, “I ❤ MBLT-6”, in reference to Marine Battalion Landing Team 6, whose men serve as their teachers. I got out of the vehicle to take photos of the kids, but the next thing I knew, they started handing me freshly picked flowers—more than a load that I could possibly carry, but there was no way you could refuse.
I honestly wanted to cry—perhaps the only time I’d ever consider crying over flowers given to me. There is no sweeter gesture than it. It becomes even sweeter when I learned that the kids had their parents help them pick out the best flowers.
It is humbling to realize what little they could offer, yet the offer what is possibly the best. The heart overflows.
The Little Team that Could
Indanan’s football teams from a couple of schools regularly visit Camp Bud Datu to play football, and their trek up the mountains where the camp is located is made easier by the Marine trucks that serve as school buses to ferry them between school and the best available football field.
These were boys that considered every game the biggest game of their lives, especially as they have seen what football could bring to them. The boys say that football has taught them discipline, friendship, and teamwork (they also like Phil Younghusband, “kasi magaling… at guapo!”). This, plus the honing of their skills, helped the boys finish third overall in the Football for Peace tournament.
They asked me if I could visit their school, I smiled and said I would the next time I visit Sulu. They also also asked me where they could watch more football games, since the only channel they could view didn’t air such.
I said I’ll try and send them some football matches to watch—after all, there’s no harm in fueling aspirations of representing the country in the international stage. (Any help in supplying videos of must-watch football games is also welcome.)
Revisiting What Has Been Put Up
Hadji Hassiman Elementary School sits on a crowded and bustling neighborhood in Sulu, and if not for the vibrant peace mural on the school’s wall, its existence may be easily forgotten. I visited the place to give Principal Bakil the books that his students have requested for their library.
Unlike the first time I visited the school, there were only a few kids present, on account of the summer break, but one familiar face was there—Alyannah, the girl who wrote to the community elders about the school’s need for classrooms, the girl who graduated valedictorian of her batch. She is now set to attend a high school that is just separated from Hadji Hassiman ES by a cement wall. One thing hasn’t changed, however—that bright, bright face.
One would be glad to know that Principal Bakil and the teachers have secured and maintained the new classrooms, even as these were used as voting centers during the recent elections.
There’s a newfound energy in Hadji Hassiman ES, and I felt it with the enthusiasm of the teachers geared up for the next school year.
It’s a brighter road ahead.
There is infinitely so much more to Sulu than what many people think it is. Yes, the reality is that it is not a safe place where you and I could roam freely (and this is probably the only time I get to have an armed security escort)—but if one dares, there are stories that need to be shared.
Someone once said I must love what I do to even dare do it—and I do. Not only that, I’ve learned to love Sulu and its people.
This is why the work is not yet done, and this is why I will return.
You can also read more about Sulu’s young football players here: In war-torn Sulu, football brings hope for peace and a better future.