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First Person: A most beautiful way


The site of the August 18, 2008 attack in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte where 21 civilians were killed and 20 houses were burned down.

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Youth relief workers
Darnell Barkman (in the green head-covering) with Kauswagan youths at one of the relief distribution sites. Notice the makeshift tent in the background that now serves as a family's home.

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Women standing in line waiting for their food packages
Women standing in line waiting for their food packages at one of the relief distribution sites in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte.

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November 28, 2008
- Christina Bartel Barkman

DAVAO, Philippines — Burned out homes, evacuees tenting along the beach, helicopters flying low overhead and soldiers patrolling the streets; hard evidence of a community devastated by war. These scenes greeted me as we drove into the municipality of Kauswagan in Mindanao with Peacebuilders Community Inc. (PBCI), a ministry supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness, to distribute relief to internally displaced people.

Kauswagan is one of the many communities affected by the recent escalation of armed conflict in rural regions of central Mindanao, resulting in roughly 400,000 displaced people throughout the area. War broke out in July after the failed signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), an agreement that would have increased an existing Muslim autonomous zone and enhanced peace talk efforts between the MILF and the GRP. An attack by rebel forces on August 18 in the municipality of Kauswagan killed 21 civilians and burned 20 homes.

With the looming threat of further civilian raids in Kauswagan, I assumed a solemn and gloomy atmosphere would permeate the air, but instead, I was welcomed with smiles and playful laughter. Soldiers carrying their rifles grinned and waved hello with surprising enthusiasm as we drove through checkpoints. Local volunteers welcomed us warmly, happily preparing feasts and providing us a place to stay.

As I listened to the victims’ stories, I wondered what it would be like to wake up to the blast of a gun shot and see your world crumble in the fire around you. How would you recover?

Amidst my disgust at the capacity humans have to bring devastation to one another, I glimpsed the beauty and wonder of the human spirit. What compelled an armed bandit to clean and bandage the gunshot wound of a young man he had just shot? And what made rebels show mercy to a pleading family who offered them food if they would be spared? How was that same family able to invite the rebels into their home for karaoke? This astounded me. How do you sit across the table from a rebel who set your village ablaze and took the lives of your friends? How are rebels and victims able to join together in song?

After witnessing the devastation inflicted by the conflict, we met with our field workers to help distribute relief to 270 displaced families. With their farms now used as a battlefield, these families have pitched makeshift tents along the beach and are ready to escape by boat to the nearby city of Iligan if they hear any gunshots.

With fluttering hands and broken English, a mother who had just received her food package expressed her fear that rebels would attack again. As her hands depicted an exploding bomb, I sensed her terror and quietly prayed that she and her community might someday experience peace and no longer live in fear.

Yet despite their apprehension, the people of Kauswagan seemed remarkably joyful. Women chatted happily with wide-eyed smiles as they waited in line to receive their food packages. Youth giggled as they eagerly gathered around my 'foreigner' husband, Darnell, to have their picture taken. Even the face of an elderly woman, crippled by a recent stroke, shone with delight when we greeted her.

My ‘Lonely Planet’ guide to the Philippines says that, according to a 2005 global survey, “Filipinos came out as one of the world’s happiest people.” With 70 different dialects, the article claims that Filipinos don’t even have words for depression, anxiety, anguish or even boredom. How is this the case in a country stricken by war, poverty, colonialism and corrupt leadership? My Western worldview tries to tell me that material security brings happiness, but here in the Philippines I have been moved by the human ability to love, to show mercy and to experience joy in desolate situations.

We can choose how we react to calamities and trials. As Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” The Filipinos have a wonderful capacity to choose a most beautiful way.

Christina and Darnell Barkman of Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond B.C., are serving in Mindanao, Philippines, for ten months on an internship assignment with Mennonite Church Canada Witness. Following the outbreak of fighting in August, the Barkmans assisted Peacebuilders Community in relief distribution to persons displaced by the fighting. Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Central Committee both contributed funds for relief.