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‘Shelters of Hope’ rebuild lives in Mindanao

Pamana shelters
NORTH COTABATO (Mindanao Examiner / Jan. 31, 2012) – For almost two years, the gently sloping terrain of this once ancient seat of Islamic civilization in southern Philippines had been a picture of lost dreams and uncertain future.
Tents – which housed some 2,000 families displaced by war – used to line up the paths and the hills of Libungan Toretta and families, who found refuge in this peaceful, far-flung village, fled from Northern Kabuntalan, Midsayap, Datu Piang and other areas affected by the conflict, with nothing but hope that they will soon rise above the dilemma.
But today, the desolate image has been replaced with that of renewed conviction and just recently, a total of 295 shelters were formally turned over by the Aquino government to the displaced families who decided to settle in Pigcawayan town, as well as in the village of Dunguanin Aleosan town.
The aid is part of the government’s Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (Peaceful and Resilient Communities) program or PAMANA, through its Internally Displaced Person (IDP) Shelter Assistance Project, which is being implemented in collaboration with the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the municipal governments.
PAMANA is a framework for peace and development in conflict areas and communities covered by existing peace agreements. It aims to reduce poverty, improve governance and empower people through interventions that enhance peace and socio-economic conditions.
Instead of tents, small white houses made of ply board, stand in neat rows on the 10-hectare land lent by the municipal administrator. Now that they are homeless no more, the IDPs are ready to face their dreams and rebuild their lives, praying that no violent conflict will disrupt their lives again.
Reuniting with family
Tauntik, a 42-year-old father, thought he will not see his pregnant wife and two children anymore. When mortar bombs hit their neighborhood in Kabuntalan in the afternoon of August 18, 2008 at the height of the debacle on the Muslim homeland deal, people frantically ran towards different directions to escape from the warring forces.
He said: “We got separated. I brought with me three of our kids, boarded a fishing boat and headed to Libungan Toretta, which is just across our village. My wife with our two other children went to Cotabato City.”
Hearing no news about her husband, Tauntik’s wife Mamot, thought that he was killed. “I didn’t know whether he’s still alive or not. But after seven days, we were reunited and whole again as a family,” she said.
For the couple, the PAMANA shelter unit they received from the government is their family’s triumph over the unforgettable ordeals. “This is where we have been brought back together,” said Tauntik.
He prays that his children will finish school someday and have a job in the future and raise their own family.
Mamot expressed their gratitude and said they are very grateful for this government’s initiative. “With this PAMANA shelter, we are now protected from the scorching heat of the sun and the cold rain unlike those days when we were living in tent,” she said.
Healing the spirit
Even before the armed clashes between government and Moro rebel forces erupted in their area, the 34-year-old Alenith and her family took off from their home in Ganta village in the town o9f Kabuntalan and travelled to Cotabato to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
Returning after a few days, they found their community deserted and many houses destroyed.  “I suffered a nervous breakdown. My children were traumatized, always seeing armed men crossing the river,” she said. “We fetched some things from our house and went to Libungan Toretta to stay.”
Alenith said that various government and non-government assistance poured in Libungan Toretta and among them was the trauma healing program of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s. “Finally, my kids and I were healed from our trauma. As a volunteer, I also helped other IDPs suffering from the same problem,” she said.
She also narrated how difficult it was to live in a makeshift tent made of scraps of wood and other materials. “But now, we have our own house. I am really thankful,” she said.
Dreaming that someday her children will live better lives, Alenith said she hopes that a peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will be forged soon. “So that there will be no more bloody clashes,” she said.
Holding on to dreams
A 12-year old girl, Salama, said she does not mind being in third grade again as long as she is able to continue her studies, and eventually realize her dream of becoming a teacher to help educate the children.
When armed skirmishes erupted in her hometown in Kabuntalan, her family escaped to Cotabato. “I was a grade three pupil then. I had to stop my schooling because of the war,” she said.
Salama recounted that fateful day in August when clashing forces entered their school grounds. “I was so scared that I cried. Our teacher was screaming and telling us to take cover, but we wanted to go home because we’re so worried about our parents and siblings,” she said. “My family went to Cotabato where it is safe. My aunt and I followed them there and after a while, we decided to go in Libungan Toretta where we lived in a tent for several months.”
After two years, Salama was able to resume schooling in third grade. With a house to call their own and new found friends, she said she feels contented and safe. “I want a happy life and I want to live here because nobody is fighting against each other,” she said.
Pursuing a just, lasting peace
The Philippine government, while addressing the needs of war-torn communities, continues to pursue a negotiated political settlement with rebel groups, particularly with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines.
“This administration is bent on resolving the decades-old armed conflict in the country,” said Secretary Teresita Deles, the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.
In a regional peace forum in Malaysia, Deles stressed the urgency to have a peace deal with the Moro rebels. “We must have a signed agreement with the MILF as soon as possible, hopefully before 2013 or the midterm or we will run out of time for properly implementing what we have signed,” she said.
“The Aquino government will persevere because we know that status quo (of existing armed conflicts) is not an option. We will continue to toil in the search for peace,” she added. 

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