By Claire R. Gigje
They were all seated side by side, forming a circle.
Some of the men wore baseball caps in an apparent attempt to hide a part of themselves from the crowd.
One could sense their discomfort every time a camera or cell phone was aimed at them. Some looked the other way to avoid being photographed.
But what was common among them was the look of determination on their faces. After all, these men and women are not ordinary village folk.
They are all former members of the dreaded ISIS-inspired Dawla Islamiya, which were responsible for attacks against government forces years ago.
However, they decided to lay down their arms and return to the folds of the law. They also underwent profiling as part of their reintegration into mainstream society.
The former extremists also joined their first peace conversation on May 26 spearheaded by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) in partnership with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ 103rdInfantry Brigade and 55th Infantry Battalion.
“Ito usa ka opportunity nga makabalik sila sa fold sa law. [This is one of the opportunities that they can return to the fold of law],” explained James Abdul, OPAPP Northern Mindanao area manager, in an interview during the peacebuilding activity.
“To engage them in peace conversations is para rin makita ilang views, sentiments [to also see their views, sentiments]. And then how do you sustain itong initiative para magkaroon tayo ng peace [this initiative so that we will have peace],” Abdul said.
The participants of the peace dialogue included 20 former Dawla Islamiya who were chosen by OPAPP to discuss ways on how to address pressing issues and concerns affecting their communities.
They are among the 118 former Dawla Islamiya members who have made the transition to peaceful and productive civilian life.
In partnership with LGU and local peace partners, these peace conversations are among the interventions being carried out by OPAPP under its Social Healing and Peacebuilding (SHAPE) Program, which aims to promote peace, mutual understanding and reconciliation among those affected by the 2017 Marawi siege.
In another conversation, OPAPP, together with the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), also engaged some of the former female members and family representatives who shared their narratives and experiences. The women representatives shared the challenges they have experienced and expressed their desire for opportunities not only for them but also for the women in their communities to help support their families and children.
The participants thanked OPAPP for organizing the activity, which has given them the opportunity to express their views and sentiments.
“Natutuwa kami dito sa pagdating ng OPAPP kasi malaki iyong natitulong ng kaunting pamimigay at nailalabas namin [ang aming damdamin],” shared alyas Daday, a former member of the ISIS-inspired Maute group in the area
“Kung hindi dahil sa mga agency na dumadating dito sa battalion tulad ng OPAPP, walang-wala talaga kami,” she said.
The participants of the dialogue hope that the initiatives being carried out by the government will continue in the coming years.
“Sana tuloy-tuloy pa rin ang tulong nila sa mga mahihirap tulad ng mga programang ito kasi minsan walang ng matatakbuhan. Malaking tulong ito na naibigay ng programa,” according to a former commander of the group and now the designated team leader of the reformed members.
[I hope that their help to the poor like this program will be continuous because sometimes, there is nowhere to run. This program is a big help.]
Meanwhile, the government, through OPAPP, the security sector, and LGUs, continues to reach out to surfacing former violent extremists in the region and convince them to become agents of peace and development.
“Sana sa nakipag-engage pa karon ay babalik na [I hope that those who are still engaged will already return] just like what these people are doing now kasi ngayon, part na sila sa pagdevelop ng kanilang community [because right now, they are already part in developing the community],” Abdul said.
“The government is always ready to welcome them and to assist them kasi iyon iyong programa ngayon. Sana magbalik-loob nalang [because that is what is in the program now. I hope that they just return to the fold of the law],” he stressed.
Aside from leading the peace conversation, OPAPP also distributed 118 sacks of rice to the former extremists as part of the weeklong observance of the Marawi Week of Peace. Philippine Information Agency