Thursday, February 12, 2015

Peace bridge over Mamasapano river

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

If only it were “across the river and into the trees” (to borrow the title of a Hemingway novel with reminiscences of war in it), the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police that suffered 44 dead could have had fewer casualties. In their case it was across the river and into the cornfield, which provided no cover at all. It was, in fact, the water lily on the river that gave cover to the lone survivor of the SAF’s 55th Company, sniper PO2 Christopher Lalan, in the battle with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters last Jan. 25. His survival was a miracle.

War movies, among them “The Bridge at Remagen,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “A Bridge Too Far” have in their plots strategic bridges, the conquest of which spelled life or death, victory or defeat.

I have watched a video clip taken from a drone that flew over that area. It was posted online by Raffy Tima of GMA 7. The video shows a wide, open field with nary a tree, a river that runs through it, and a long makeshift footbridge across it. Parallel to a portion of the river is a dirt road.

I examined the bridge on the Inquirer’s banner photo that shows Commission on Human Rights head Etta Rosales watching her step on the footbridge’s two logs and holding on to the bamboo railings. A policeman behind her and another one in front of her keep her steady so that she does not plummet into the water. The bridge is made of rough logs, tree branches and bamboo poles tied together with wire. A close-up of a video clip shows bark on the logs, proof that the bridge was made out of felled young trees and constructed by the people of the community and not by the Department of Public Works and Highways. It is quite a long bridge, obviously a much-needed one in that area. The river is wide, wider perhaps during the wet season.

I have a decades-old photo of myself crossing a similar but shorter bridge (photographed by someone behind me while we were on our way to a rebel hideout in Central Luzon). The hand railings of such bridges are not of the same height; the one on the right is higher than the left. Only now did I realize that the higher one is for taller people with longer arms; the lower one must be for children to hold on to. Mamasapano’s children crossing this kind of long bridge on a windy day? The hanging, swaying bridges in the Cordillera look safer. To make light of it, the bridge in Mamasapano is one for television’s “Survivor” series. It is not for people with acrophobia.

Seeing that photo of the CHR’s Rosales walking on the long, high bridge supported only by tree trunks and with only two horizontal logs (not flat lumber) to walk on made me think of the many, especially the very young, elderly and disabled, who need to cross the watery distance out of necessity especially during the wet season. I don’t know if the river dries up in the summer. Mamasapano is not far from Liguasan Marsh in south central Mindanao, which is noted for its biodiversity and ecological significance. Among the marsh’s inhabitants are crocs.

Mamasapano is a fifth-class town of Maguindanao and part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It used to be part of the town of Shariff Aguak but later became the 11th town of Maguindanao. According to a 2010 census, the town has a population of 22,354. The mayor is Benzar Ampatuan, and the vice mayor is also an Ampatuan. Four of the eight members of the Sangguniang Bayan are surnamed Ampatuan.

Here’s a reminder: Maguindanao was the site of the 2009 massacre of 58 persons, 32 of whom were media workers. Members of the Ampatuan clan, suspects in the massacre, are standing trial. But that is another bloody story that continues to cry out for justice.

I don’t know if the river in the photos is Kabunlan River. I’ve searched online but could not find its name on the map. Whatever it is called, the river was where SAF members waded in and crossed on foot with much difficulty to get to their prey, namely the two terrorists (one Malaysian, the other Filipino) believed to be coddled by the BIFF and MILF. This was in keeping with the PNP’s so-called Oplan Wolverine and Oplan Exodus.

Recent photographs and TV footage of that bridge and people crossing it—fearfully, bravely—have a way of conveying how difficult life is in those parts. And how residents took it upon themselves to build something so basic but so primitive so that they could cross over to the other side and back.

I wish that a bridge could be built across that now-familiar river. A bridge over troubled water, so to speak. There have been suggestions to put a marker there, similar to the one placed at the site of the Ampatuan massacre, also in Maguindanao. But why not a marker—with a bridge? What would be written on the bridge’s marker should not spark more animosity. Should the individual names of the 44 SAF troopers who died in battle be written on it, to the chagrin of their enemies who might blow it up? Or should it simply be a “Bridge of Peace”? A bridge for everyone, a no-fire zone.

This suggestion may be considered simplistic and naive, but so are calls for peace at this juncture of our search for it. Well, if not a “Bridge of Peace,” then just a bridge with a name that would replace that rickety one and make life easier for residents of that area of Mamasapano, the corn farmers whose field soaked up the blood of valiant fighters. And for the children.#