Camp Mutalib, Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte – NO road from anywhere or to anywhere connects this certified Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) camp. A lushly forested coastal village surrounded by mountains on one side and the sea on the other, accessible only by seacraft or by foot, it seems to float like a strange and distant world of Dr. Moreau Yet, it is only five hours away by small boat from Zamboanga City, and 30 minutes by pumpboat from the urban center of Siocon municipality. The one and only evidence of Philippine government presence here is an elementary school, constructed from a fund set up by the 1996 RP-MNLF peace pact.
Every family member in this village – a.k.a. Barangay Balagunan – belongs to the MNLF. When MNLF chairman Nur Misuari visited Camp Mutalib last August 7, some of the women were proudly wearing military fatigue uniform, complete with badges and a white patch with the black letters “F.M.” on a sleeve. FM stands for “Female Moro”.
MNLF Zamboanga del Norte State Revolutionary Command chairman Hadji Samah Wahi led the villagers, including some 200 fully-armed rebels in camouflage uniform, in welcoming Misuari and his wife Tarhata as they landed on the white sand beach. Three effusive streamers and a 3-by-2 feet portrait of Misuari cradled by a beaming woman completed the warm welcome, the heavy, mid-afternoon drizzle notwithstanding.
After a meal of beef “kulma” and fried fish for the guests in the schoolhouse, a short program was held. Misuari talked for almost an hour, his speech spiced with anecdotes of the MNLF struggle and a few jokes, too, that made the rain-soaked crowd laugh each time, anyway. The gathering was called, in a printed program, “ZANORTE Peace Caravan Summit 08”. Its theme was “Unity, Solidarity, and Commitments for Peace in Building a Nation for Bangsamoro”. Siocon Acting Mayor Ceasar Soriano was scheduled to speak in the program, but begged off in the last moment.
In the past month, Misuari has been going around Mindanao to meet with local politicians as well as his rebel commanders and loyalists. He was released from a years-long house arrest three months ago, though the rebellion cases against him have yet to be dismissed by the Department of Justice.
MNLF’s Task Force Merdika National Command chief Habib Sharif Sabrie Jul said Misuari is in the process of reorganizing his remaining fighters. Some had joined the Armed Forces of the Philippines as integrees under the 1996 peace accord. Others had been resettled by the accord’s development programs as farmers, fishermen or small-time entrepreneurs in hundreds of villages in Mindanao.
The aging founder of the Bangsamoro movement would visit Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Basilan, via his current trip to Zamboanga City. On his first day in the city on August 6, he had met in private with City Mayor Celso Lobregat at the Garden Orchid Hotel. In the burning backdrop of their meeting was the aborted signing by the government and MILF negotiators of a new, highly controversial peace agreement. Like Lobregat, Misuari – the man who started it all 40 years ago – is known to quietly oppose the deal but for different reasons. So, as he goes around Mindanao, the crescent dream of a Bangsamoro nation and a Mindanao peace would travel, too, a long and winding path across a starless, endless night sky.