SIMUNUL ISLAND, Tawi-Tawi – PEACE is indeed a long process. It has taken Babuh Ruhaila Sali almost four decades to struggle for this ultimate prize, and yet she still has to win it totally.
From being a teen combatant in the early 70s to a development worker in late 90s and now a peace advocate, Babuh Ruhaila, better known as Phibibi in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), slowly equate peace to physical and social development for her village-mates in this beautiful and historic island.
“Since the signing of the 1996 peace agreement,” she recounted, “I have been in the forefront of development work helping uplift the life of the people in this province.”
“I find real peace helping my fellow Tawi-Tawians especially the women in this island,” she told PeaceWorks in her mixed Sama and Tausug dialects.
Babuh Ruhaila sits as board of director in Tawi-Tawi Provincial Peace and Development Alliance League (PDAL), a coalition of organized communities of former combatants assisted by the multi-donor GOP-UN Act for Peace Programme.
“We examine project proposals and oversee their implementation,” she described her task in PDAL. “In more cases, we designed programs and crafted policies for PDAL,” she added.
“I believe in the philosophy of what we fought for (during MNLF years) and when we signed a peace agreement (with Manila). I know its victory for us,” she said. “So, I really committed myself to help work for the betterment of our people’s welfare,” she added.
Besides hear job in the PDAL board, Babuh Ruhaila, now in her 50s, also leads Tora-Tora, a women group she organized in her Bakong Barangay, way, way back.
She said their years in the jungle fighting convinced them to organize this group. Tora-tora is a local term for a fighter plane, which Babuh Ruhaila said “had been bombarding us with bombs in the ground, yet we survived.”
She has been in the MNLF’s Balolok Camp in Tawi-Tawi since she was 14. She also met and married her husband there, with whom she begot 12 children. She said life within that setting has never been easy and raising 12 children plus one she adopted later is yet another story.
“But I never let those concerns hinder me from helping others, especially Tora-Tora,” she said. And despite her hectic schedule, she was able to send all her children to school, most of them having graduated already from college. Her youngest is now in her second year high school.
From that sad shadow of war, Tora-tora has been transformed into a promising hope for its 50 member-women. It serves as their venue for unity at the same time engaging them in income-generating activities.
Just recently, Act for Peace Programme turned over to them a hundred-thousand pesos worth of livelihood package, which will assist this group in their production of local delicacies.
“We are very thankful. It will be another help to us,” said Babuh Ruhaila.
Since the signing of the 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement, the Act for Peace Programme (formerly United Nations Multi Donor Programme) has been assisting this province.
“We continue to keep that promise not only for Simunul but for the entire Mindanao,” declared Act for Peace Program Manager Diosita Andot during the groundbreaking of more than 600-thousand water system project in Bakong.
“We want to inform everybody, in the spirit of solidarity, together we will secure and maintain this project,” she assured. “This project is not ours but yours, so please take care of it.”
“We are very thankful for this, this would be of great help to residents of this village,” said a village chieftain of Bakong.
Act for Peace information officer Leah Bugtay said this project and dozens of others is a show of commitment of both the UN and Philippine government to support communities that are affected or mostly affected by conflicts. “Our main concern here is to make every community peaceful,” she said.
One of the initiatives they are doing, she said, is the launching of Peace and Development Communities (PDC) in a village which will come along with a package of development aid. In Simunul for instance, Barangay Bakong has been declared one while Doh Tong was named another just last November 6 in a ceremony attended by no less than Simunul municipal mayor Benzar Tambut and Undersecretary Virgilio Leyretana of Mindanao Economic Development Council (MedCo).
Leyretana said this initiative is aimed to bridge two distinct cultures in Mindanao – Muslims and Christians. “This is an effort of our government to connect these two distinct systems, philosophies, beliefs and ideology,” he said.
“This is very timely as you also commemorate the coming of Sheikh Makhdum to this island. This is also a testimony that Simunul is indeed a very peaceful place,” he added.
These activities are part of Ziarah Simunul, a multi-sectoral development effort of Simunul and other donor agencies in line with the commemoration of 628th anniversary of the advent of Islam in the country through an Arabic missionary Sheikh Karimul Makhdum in 1380.