“We can all peacefully coexist despite crises in the region,” said Josie Toico, a Muslim woman from Muntay, a village in the Kolambugan area, Lanao del Nord (Mindanao).
About 70 per cent of the local population fled the area in August, mostly Christians, finding refuge in nearby Ozamiz City.
In late July and in August MILF rebels seized many predominantly-Christian villages in North Cotabato. The army responded with massive attacks.
These events represent a setback and a potential blow to an agreement setting up an autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao that would have brought to an end the region’s 40-year war.
Some 100,000 families for a total of about half a million people have fled the fighting, often without food, water, clothing and shelter. About 60 people have died and another 100 have been injured, mostly civilians, since the violence flared up again.
Abdulcamid Dimalapang, an ethnic Maranao from one of the 56 Muslim families who along with 262 Christian families call Muntay home said that many people have fled in the last few days.
“We always thought that if we didn’t take up any arms, no one would harm us,” said Dimalapang, who is the village secretary. “Army, Moro rebels, civilian volunteer organisations and other armed groups; they are all here. But we thought if we had no weapons, we would not be involved in the clashes.”
Clashes also took place in the cities of Kolambugan and Kauswagan on 18 August, he noted. And armed men from the MILF got as far as the bridge at Sitio Kulasian near Muntay. Locals observe them for a long time until they left.
According to official sources, 43 people died on that day, 41 were wounded and 36 houses were set on fire.
No incident occurred in Muntay so far and those who had fled made their way back. But now Muslims and Christians are a bit weary of each other.
For this reason the authorities summoned the community to a town hall meeting.
Participants agreed that Christians and Muslims should not fight each other, but instead work for peace despite the growing tensions in the province.
In an agreement made in the local Visayan vernacular people agreed to ban all weapons and share all security-related information.
“We all agree that the conflict is between the army and MILF groups,” said Dimalapang. “We are not taking sides. If Moro rebels or armed Christian groups should come here, we shall inform village heads, and talk with the fighters to persuade them against attacking anyone.”
Should violence break out, Christians and Muslims have pledged to take each other in.
Ultimately, said Toico, “all of us, Muslims or Christians, want to live in peace in our community.”
In the meantime Muntay has become a refuge for people who fled the towns of Tangkal and Munai.