No it's not a real gun. And no, I didn't join Abu Sayyaf. It's actually a bebe gun. This is actually a growing hobby in the Philippines: Airsoft.
This is the team from Marawi. They actually had their first Airsoft competition in Illigan.
Before going to Mindanao people warned me to be careful. I heard this from family, veterans I interviewed, friends, and even my relatives here in the Philippines. With so many warnings, I expected maybe some hint of violence that I heard so much about. But when I got to Cagayan de Oro and Davao, I was wondering where exactly is the Mindanao that people warned me about? Where is the Mindanao that is described in the media and through word of mouth as, “dangerous” and “full of terrorists?” I remember after 9/11, there were rumors of Bin Laden hiding out somewhere in Mindanao where one of his wives resides. But instead, what I found in Mindanao was probably the essence of the Philippines: it’s natural beauty in the people and in the land. It is VERY different from Metro Manila – not as commercialized, industrialized, colonized, Americanized, etc. And I’m not talking about the cities themselves, but within the people. The stories and history of the Philippines lied within the cultural dances performed, the music played through native instruments like the kubing and kulintang, the shops on the side of the road that sold bananas, papayas, mangos, dried fish, or any thing else that vendors sold to make a living.
Even if I had pleasant experience with Lakbay Aral, I knew I wasn’t quite exposed to Mindanao. So when given the opportunity to go for a second time – this time on my own – I took it.
Mindanao’s present reputation is a result of history, media, and ignorance. One must dig into the history books, back to the Spanish Colonization, which the people of Mindanao- Muslims (or Moros) but also the indigenous Lumad peoples - fought so hard against for more than 300 years. People of Luzon and Visayas looked upon the people of Mindanao as savages, but the people of Mindanao looked at themselves more as warriors trying to preserve their land and their culture.
After interviewing professors, students, peace-builders, and residents, I learned that there are several reasons to the conflicts of Mindanao. But I also learned that there are many people who are organizing and working for peace.
The Islamic City of Marawi has a population that is 92% Muslim. It is very different compared to the rest of the country, which is predominantly Catholic. In fact, the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia. So going into Marawi was almost like another part of the world. It was definitely not the Philippines I’m so used to visiting.
Day One in Marawi
Today was too overwhelming for me. I’m not quite sure how to put into words the appreciation I have for the Mandale family. Not only for Nagasura Mandale’s (or I call him Tito Naga) all the accommodation, but also for exposing me to the unique beauty of Marawi. Like he said, “It’s another world.” I see the Philippines, the jeepneys, the small tindahans, and my people….but I also see the majority of them wearing abayas. Instead of seeing “God is good” written on the back of Jeepneys– which I’m used to seeing in Manila – I saw the words, “Allah is good.” Instead of seeing churches and images of Jesus, I saw mosques and Arabic writing on signs in front of stores and on the side of Jeepneys.
An old tombstone:
It’s very interesting to be in a city that many people deem as dangerous. But all I have experienced was welcoming people… Especially at my visit to the first mosque ever built in Marawi, which is found on the shore of Lake Lanao.
I was taking pictures and a woman came up to me out of curiosity. She asked me… “What are you taking pictures for?” I told her about how beautiful Marawi is, that I’m from a photojournalism student from the States, and how I wanted to take a picture of her. After some bashful hesitation, she finally agreed to. Lily was her name. And she was a beautiful and welcoming person. It was nice to meet her acquaintance.
This first trip to Marawi was more like an introduction. I only had about three days to just barely scratch the surface. Having met a lot of individuals and organizations, I hope to return- next time for a longer time so I could visit Cotabato, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and other places throughout Mindanao.
Instead of finding what people told me Marawi is known for- Abu Sayyaf’s base of operations and their history of kidnappings- I, instead, found many people working for peace. I met the Executive Director of Peace and Development of Mindanao, Dr. Erlinda Hameedah Ola-Casan and several other professionals working towards the same goal. I also met alumni of ACCESS – a program where students from Mindanao go to Northern Illinois University for a month for workshops, interviewing, interfaith dialogue, visiting schools, and extensive training in conflict resolutions. They were from different places in the Philippines, and of different religious backgrounds, but they had the same vision.
Dr. Erlinda Hameedah Ola-Casan
Mindanao State University- Marawi
Before going to Mindanao, I knew there was more to what I HEARD. After actually going to Mindanao, I knew there was more to what I ALREADY SAW. But after going to Mindanao for the second time – this time on my own – I know for a fact that there is so much more to the beauty that I barely scratched the surface of in the Islamic City of Marawi.