Monday, June 12, 2006


I grew up most of my life as a city boy in metro Manila. I only knew of Christian versus Muslim hostilities in Mindanao reading the newspapers and watching television clips. When I started working in Cotabato, I saw the violence and the animosity firsthand, even within my own company.

We set up our first base camp in a town called Baguer. It was a nice almost bucolic town, but the main reason why we decided on it was because it was a peaceful Christian town, and the chief of police was a no-nonsense guy who welcomed the business the road construction would bring to his town. Baguer went from a quiet, nondescript town to a bustling hub of construction activity.

Among other equipment, my company had a fleet of earth-moving dump trucks and stake trucks for long-distance hauls, bought from Hino from Japan. There was a long line of applicants for the numerous jobs available, but the premium jobs were still the drivers’s jobs.

A couple of months into actual operations, the construction superintendent proudly pointed to one of our trucks and said, “That is our first Muslim hire. He is an excellent driver and a good guy. And he is from Matalam.”

The significance of that last statement was not lost on me. Just as we were now operating out of a forward base camp, we were scheduled to operate out of a final camp out of the town of Matalam towards the end of the construction. Matalam was a Muslim town, and considered a security risk. We needed all the goodwill we could get for that stay in Matalam. I commended my construction superintendent for such a pro-active move.

A couple of days later, one of my assistant superintendents approached me with the Muslim driver in tow. My employee introduced the Muslim driver to me and said the Muslim driver had an urgent matter to discuss with me. The driver requested if I could pay him whatever salary was due him, so he could leave for his hometown.

I asked him if there was any problem. He said that he had been threatened that if he did not leave that day, they would shoot him. When I pressed him who made the threat, he revealed that they were drivers who were on the waiting list. I told him this was against company rules, and I would take care of the problem. He said he would just prefer if he got paid and just leave quietly.

There was no doubt in his mind, and there was little doubt in my mind, that if these guys made such a threat, they would carry it out. Some of them did not even need a reason to shoot a Muslim, much less if the Muslim was actually taking a job from them.

I had been informed that I had in my employ, several notorious “Ilaga” commanders or former “Ilaga” commanders. The “Ilagas” were the para-military Christian commando units that waged wars against the Muslims. By day they were farmers, drivers, mechanics, laborers, etc. At night, they suited up in combat fatigue or dark clothes, took up their weapons and conducted clandestine raids into Muslim villages or murderous attacks against a Muslim individual or family. It was brutal fighting with numerous civilian casualties and usually involved atrocities committed by both sides.

As I was figuring out how much was due the driver and actually counting out the money from my wallet, I was profusely and genuinely apologizing to him. He said, “ Please, sir. Do not worry and there is no need to apologize. I know you are a good guy and you run a good company. That is why I wanted to work for you. But I promise you that I will take care of these guys when the construction gets to Matalam.”

If I was not afraid operating in a Muslim-controlled town or territory before, now I was. I could only keep my fingers crossed that months from now, he would still be able to remember and distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.


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