“When our first child was born, my husband said, ‘Now I have a son to avenge my family.’ He named our baby boy Rambo.”
I usually associate the birth of a baby with fuzzy booties, not machine guns. But I was in a southern area of the Philippines called Mindanao, where vendettas out of Sylvester Stallone movies happen — a lot.
I was talking to a woman named May; she’d married into a family that was haunted by the years-old murder of a grandfather. May’s mother-in-law couldn’t read or write, but would send audiotapes to her son when the couple lived outside the country. “She’d say they needed money for guns. She’d say, ‘Come back to the Philippines and kill these people!'”
In Mindanao, three groups — Christians, Muslims, and indigenous people — have suffered for decades at each other’s hands. All three groups have valid grievances rooted in the area’s seriously troubled history. But at this point, learning to get along — to stop the massacres, abductions, bombs, and hijackings — is pretty much the only option.
Effects of violence
Nuns are supposed to forgive. It’s kind of their job. But few nuns have had to face what Sister Emma Delgado has during her life on the island of Basilan, one of the most violence-plagued parts of the Philippines. She grew up in a devout Catholic family, surrounded by Muslim friends and neighbors. When her friends couldn’t play because they were learning Arabic, Emma joined the classes too. All the children witnessed terrible bombings caused by the political strife there. “We kids would see body parts like legs in the trees, headless bodies. It was normal scenery.”
That violence eventually hit home. When Emma was in her 20s, her family got a call: her brother had been kidnapped by a militia. For eight days he was on a forced march through the jungle, hiding in daytime and walking at night, eating only the fruit he could find and drinking river water.
“It was the beginning of pain and hatred in my heart,” she remembers. “When I was little, Muslims had eaten and slept in our house. We’d been friends.” The sense of betrayal was overwhelming — even when, through connections, her brother was released unharmed.
Emma went on to become a Dominican nun, serving her order in various countries. But she couldn’t shake off the past. At one point, she was assigned to Australia and worked on a peacemaking project with Aborigines. “I was wearing a button that said ‘Reconciliation,’ but was I really open to it in my own heart?”
In a village on the mainland of Mindanao, the question didn’t occur to a Muslim woman named Alma. Her whole life had been colored by the death of her father when she was a toddler. “They shot my father in a banana grove — we found his corpse floating in a river nearby the next morning,” she recalls. Norhaya, a young woman in Alma’s village, summed up what most of their fellow villagers believed: “I thought all Christians were bad. I thought Christians and Muslims couldn’t work together, we were too different.”
Datu, an indigenous man in a mountainous Mindanao village, felt the same way about non-indigenous people — they couldn’t be trusted,; they were only there to steal his people’s land. When a logging company arrived and he was accused of being a squatter on his own land, he became angrier and angrier. Eventually he joined a paramilitary group, fighting back.
In their anger and pain, these people were the same as thousands of people in Mindanao pitted against each other. One thing made them different: they were willing to change.
For Sister Emma, the change started when she was watching the news and saw a face from her childhood. “They showed some of the rebel commanders on TV. One commander — he was from my village,” she recalls. She knew the suffering he had gone through as a boy because of the violence.
“I couldn’t feel anger because I knew their lives.”
She realized she had to handle violence and loss in a new way. “There was a knocking at my heart,” she remembers. “I said to myself: ‘I am ready to confront what’s inside me.'”
Sister Emma found her way to a program called the Grassroots Peace Learning Center (GPLC), run by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid agency. So did May, Datu, and Alma. In a way, you’d call the GPLC deep group therapy — the “therapists” are the other people in the room, people who have suffered the way you have. The difference is that these therapists are people you’ve hated and feared for most of your life. People whose stories you just don’t want to hear.
Finding a way to reconciliation
The course takes weeks of baring your heart and reliving some of your worst memories as you share them with others. There are breathing exercises, trust-building exercises, and plenty of activities with index cards and magic markers. An important step is learning how to understand what led up to a conflict, even charting it to make sure all the elements are clear. One “conflict map” that participants drew shows a timeline of the feud destroying their village:
April 2008: Land dispute.
July 2008: “Refusal.”
September 2009: Killings.
As the stories go on and the paper trail mounts, participants realize all three sides — indigenous, Muslim, and Christian — have suffered, not just their own. “Before the GPLC, I thought all Muslims, except my friends, were really killers,” Sister Emma says. “But we are all victims.” It’s a pretty good lesson for all of us, even those who don’t live in Stallone land.
Datu’s time with a paramilitary group is also behind him. Instead, he mediates conflicts in his village so they don’t escalate. “I was a violent person in the past, a warrior,” he says. “But now my attitude and behavior have changed. Because of my GPLC training, I’ve become a builder of peace.”
In the course, May learned things she passes on to her children. Her son Rambo, whose father expected him to be an avenger, went to a peace camp for young people in 2006. “I felt my son was changed,” says May. She’s thrilled that he’s now involved in peace-building work too — and that he hopes for other transformations. “Recently he said, ‘Mom, can I change my name?'”