Mamasapano, three years after the tragedy

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A photo of the old Mamasapano bridge taken in 2017 while a new bridge is being constructed. Photo from MARRIAN PIO RODA CHING

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “I know people say this all the time, but it’s true. It’s been a while since it happened, but it really feels just like yesterday,” Norombai Utto says when asked how she feels about the Mamasapano encounter.

Utto lives with her family in Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, in a house no more than three kilometers away from where members of an elite police force, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other armed groups found themselves in what the government once called a “misencounter.”

On Jan. 25, 2015, more than 60 people died in the fields of Mamasapano, with the image of its old and once unknown bridge seared into the minds of many Filipinos.

What followed was weeks of intensified military operations against the BIFF, leading to the displacement of more than 120,000 people in Maguindanao.

But things have now changed for the better, Utto says.

Working towards a dream

From being an evacuee who graduated at the top of her class and delivered a valedictory speech in the middle of a war, Utto is now taking up BS Education in the Maguindanao campus of the Mindanao State University, and is set to graduate next year.

And yet she says it doesn’t take much for her to remember what happened to them in Mamasapano.

"When you go through conflict, it stays with you like a nightmare. For the rest of your life, whenever you hear gunfire, the first instinct is to run even if you don't know where you're going. Fear is always the first instinct," she says.

Mamasapano March 2015.jpg A sign hanging in a house in Mamasapano a few weeks after the 2015 clash. Photo from MARRIAN PIO RODA CHING

But things have changed, she says. The most remarkable change, she shares, is that her old high school, which used to be made of sawali, is now housed in a new school building funded by the regional government and constructed back in 2016.

Her dream has always been to teach in her hometown, where getting an education used to mean studying in makeshift classrooms out of storage rooms, with hardly a blackboard for lessons.

“I found myself crying the first time I saw the new classrooms, and again when I saw students from the lower years attending classes in them,” she shares.

"As for me, I’ve always wanted to teach, but seeing those classrooms … It gave me another reason to look forward to a life of teaching, you know? It was encouraging," she says.

New breed of teachers

Hadji Salik Kalaing National High School, the school from which Utto hails, is just one among eight schools in Mamasapano that are now housed in new school buildings funded by the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao’s Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH-ARMM) and Department of Education (DepEd-ARMM).

Apart from school buildings, the ARMM government has funded ₱2.3 billion worth of other infrastructure and livelihood programs in Mamasapano and nearby municipalities through the Humanitarian Development and Action Plan (HDAP).

Musarafah-Ebrahim-and-Johaira-Ali.jpg Teachers Musarafah Ebrahim and Johaira Ali. Photo from MARRIAN PIO RODA CHING

The regional education department has also just signed the appointment papers of a new batch of teachers to be deployed in Maguindanao. Among these teachers are Johaira Ali and Musarafah Ebrahim, both of whom will be teaching high school students in Mamasapano.

Ali was assigned to teach senior high school classes at Datu Tahir Ampatuan National High School, her alma mater. She says she’s always wanted to teach because she was “inspired” by the teachers who taught her, many of whom continue to teach in the said school.

For two years, she worked as a volunteer teacher and eventually developed a close relationship with many of the students.

“I can’t imagine how life would be if we have to live in conflict again, if we have to evacuate again. After years of not going to school, my brother has finally decided to go back in 2016, and he really likes studying there.”

Ebrahim was assigned to teach at Maulana National High School. However, teaching wasn’t something Ebrahim chose for herself.

“My parents were initially the ones who wanted me to become a teacher, but everything changed when I experienced the joy of learning with my students. I didn’t expect it to be that life-changing. Suddenly, I was sure that teaching was my destiny,” she says.

Teaching against terror

Ali notes the existing challenges in the region, many of them unique. The rise of terrorism in the region especially threatens the youth, given the focus of local terror groups’ attempts at recruiting new and young members.

“I tell my students to always be critical and to refuse when someone asks them to join an unknown group and tells them it will lead to a better life. I constantly remind them that being a part of organizations promoting violence and terror will do nothing to help our community; instead it will only make an already critical situation worse,” Ali says.

Ebrahim, meanwhile, impresses upon her students the importance of education.

“I tell them that joining groups that thrive on terror will do nothing for their own future, let alone their families and communities. Failing to prioritize their studies will only result to them being left behind, as the rest of the community works towards lasting peace,” she says.

Mamasapano Bridge%2c Old and New - January 2016.jpg A panoramic shot of the old bridge and a bailey bridge that was built a few months after the encounter in Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, taken in January 2016. Photo from MARRIAN PIO RODA CHING

She’s also been working on her students’ social skills and sense of community. “For me, it’s important that my students learn how to socialize and interact with other people. I’ve already encountered students who were very shy but with constant guidance and the help of their peers, they’re now more open and work better in groups,” she shares.

It also helps that the people of Mamasapano now live in more peaceful times, Utto adds.

“I can’t imagine how life would be if we have to live in conflict again, if we have to evacuate again. After years of not going to school, my brother has finally decided to go back in 2016, and he really likes studying there. It took us a while to convince him, but I told him to study because if he doesn’t study then he’ll have no future,” Utto says.

“But if conflict erupts again, the students, including my brother, will have to stop studying again. They won’t even have a choice in the matter. It will be difficult because we’ve all moved on now, we’re living our lives in peace, and I can’t imagine how life would be if the peace is lost,” she says.

BBL and the promise of peace

At the heart of the discourse surrounding peace and development in the area is the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), a piece of legislation that has been stalled in the halls of congress in the last few years.

Following small triumphs in the peace process which led to BBL deliberations in the 16th Congress, support for the legislation has waned after the events in Mamasapano. The rise of anti-Moro sentiment proved to be too strong, leading analysts to declare the BBL as “dead in the water.”

But things have changed not only in Mamasapano, but also in the Senate.

Norombai-Utto.jpg Norombai Utto is taking up BS Education in the Maguindanao campus of the Mindanao State University. She is set to graduate next year. Photo from MARRIAN PIO RODA CHING

A hearing on the proposed legislation was held last Jan. 22, as Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri withdrew his initial draft and submitted the draft BBL authored by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission. In an interview a week prior to the said hearing, the senator said he is confident that majority of his fellow senators will support the measure.

Zubiri chairs the Senate sub-committee on the BBL.

Meanwhile, ARMM Regional Governor Mujiv S. Hataman said that the regional government “welcomes the renewed interest in the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, knowing the need for a relevant and meaningful BBL that upholds genuine autonomy.” He also said that “this long-awaited legislation will serve as the backbone of a stronger regional government — one that is stronger than the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.”

When Utto is asked if she sees the BBL as essential to peace in the Bangsamoro, she is careful and takes her time before answering.

“In my opinion, it’s really not just for my fellow Bangsamoros but for my Christian friends as well. I hear the BBL is called by different names now, but I really think the name is irrelevant,” she says.

Bridge in Mamasapano - 31 March 2015.jpg Residents crossing the wooden bridge in Masapano, a few months after the January 2015 incident involving members of the SAF against the MILF and BILF. Photo from MARRIAN PIO RODA CHING

“No matter what it’s called, if its contents reflect the sentiments of the people, and if it is true to our history — especially of the Bangsamoro struggle and not just the ambitions of a few — then I don’t see why it can’t help bring lasting peace,” she says. “Sure, it’s peaceful now in our community and I am thankful that it’s been that [way] these past few years, but I really hope it lasts longer, and I think the BBL could help us all.”

She then laughs a bit to herself, as if to break the tension.

“You know how people tend to say, ‘walang forever’? I really hope that isn’t true. For the sake of my family and our future, I pray that the peace in our community lasts forever,” Utto says.