– For his entire 18 years, practically all Kamama Dimasalang has known is war or the threat of fighting. It has cost him any real education – and the comforting presence of his beloved Auntie Tatang.
“There’s only one thing all villagers knew growing up – fear,” the young man says, taking a break from drying the kernels of corn he sells to tide his parents and seven younger brothers and sisters over for one more day. “We grew up witnessing disputes, gunfire, kidnapping for ransom.”
His village of Dado – “barangay” means village – is on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines, home to a Muslim separatist rebellion that first flared in the 1970s, but subsided in recent years. Fighting escalated again in 2008, sending Kamama and his fellow villagers into evacuation centres; today some 100,000 remain displaced across Mindanao.
What still hurts is that his aunt, to whom he was particularly close, never dared return with her children when most Dado villagers came back over six months beginning in August 2009. To get the palm-fringed village going again,
UNHCR gave the women sewing machines and the men fishing nets and timber to build traditional long-prow fishing boats.
Kamama, a muscular, compact young man who loves playing with children and usually is quick with a smile, is constantly confronted with the empty shell of his aunt’s house, a sight that just reinforces how much he misses her.
She settled in another Mindanao village, a three-hour drive away. But the way he talks about it, you realize that for this poor, uneducated village boy, it’s just as emotionally and geographically distant as if he said Paris – or Mars.
Life has never been easy in Dado, a village of some 1,800 farmers and fishing folk. Kamama is the third of 11 children, the youngest of whom is only six months old. His mother, Elma, married young. His oldest brother has gone off to the Philippines capital, Manila, more than 900 kilometres to the north-east, to try to arrange a job abroad so he can send home money.
Kamama only completed four years of school because he needed to work to support his siblings. Wistfully, he says his fondest dream is for more education because “I think I could excel in computers.” More realistically, he just longs for any job that would free him from farming or menial labour.
It was just before the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan in August 2008 that everyone in Barangay Dado fled fighting between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the armed forces of the Philippines, a day Kamama remembers only too clearly. “We left everything to God,” he says. “Because of our fear, we could not hope for anything.”
Carrying the smallest children in their arms, he helped his parents shepherd the whole family towards a school in the nearest town, Buayan. They were so intent on reaching safety, they didn’t even realize until nightfall that they had not eaten a morsel all day as they trudged the six or seven kilometres on foot. There were more shocks to come.
“We were happy just to get there,” he recalls. “They gave us a piece of plastic sheeting. It did keep the sun off us, but it didn’t have any sides, so when it rained, we got wet. We were glad to be alive, but during this time, all we wanted was to have a house with walls.”
They also never expected to have to stay in the school-cum-evacuation centre for some 18 months, during which time Kamama rode a pedicab and did any odd job he could to help his father support the family.
“Although I am a man, sometimes I felt that I was weak. The only thing that made my strength come back was the hope that some day my family and I could have a better life,” he recalls. “I did everything I could to support them,” though he was just 15 or 16 at the time.
Now his own village is gradually recovering, thanks partly to UNHCR projects that gave returnees a way to make a living quickly. But life has not been kind to his beloved Auntie Tatang, a single mother of three.
Kamama understands she and his cousins have been plagued by financial and health problems and his eyes fill with tears as he recounts her troubles. “It was because of the war,” he says simply.
Before he goes back to raking the corn and rice kernels drying under the intense noon sun, Kamama shares his modest hope for his future in this long volatile part of the Philippines: “It’s really hard to be an evacuee. I hope it won’t happen again.”
By Kitty McKinsey
In Barangay Dado, Philippines