As dawn breaks, amidst the pounding rain, my Boss (fondly called Doc Lit) and I stepped in the waiting van that will take us to the lair of the 4 rebel commanders who have returned to the folds of law: Kumander Ismael, Kumander Benjie, Kumander Saidumar and Kumander Limbona. We are going there to assess their farms which ATI is funding as a Learning site for organic production of rice and vegetables. As if by coincidence, we never informed our wives of our destination for the place is known as a “no man's land”.
We reached the 15IB headquarters (also known as Molave Warriors)in Lanao del Norte around 9:00 A.M. The sun is now shining bright. We were greeted by Lt. Sagario and Lt. Hicar. We then transferred to a military truck. Its seats has no cushion – it is plain wood and very uncomfortable. We were joined by 3 Agricultural Extension Workers (AEWs) from the Municipality of Kauswagan and 7-battle ready soldiers of the 15IB. There are two other military trucks, full of armed soldiers serving as our security. I can see machine guns, M16s, Caliber 45, and some weapons that i can't identify. It is as if we're going to war. While our companions were fully armed, I have only my camera with me. On the background, I can hear Lt. Hicar briefing his men. I paid not much attention for I was busy praying. We burned tires immediately after the briefing. Travel wassmooth as the roads are concrete. We stopped at Munai Municipal hall for a courtesy call to the Mayor but the mayor was out. The Municipal Agriculturist and 2 LGU officials joined us instead. We continued our travel after some FB photo ops infront of the municipal hall.
Despite the fear, I cannot help but admire the scenery. Mountains are still covered with trees unlike the bare ones that I usually saw. The air is cool. The view is simply breathtaking.Then I was awaken from my reverie as the truck began to bounce. The road became narrower so that 2 vehicles can hardly pass each other without the other giving way or stopping on a wider section. Boulders on the road are loose. Our butts are starting to ache. These situation took hours. We passed lumbers along the road, ready for delivery to the city. Speedometer reads 20-30km/h. After sometime, we reached Barangay Tampayan known as the Military’s last frontier. It has a bridge which serves as the boundary to MILF territory. Soldiers can wander up to the bridge only. We stopped temporarily and the soldiers were briefed again. We had emissaries to request the MILF to allow the group for a safe conduct.
Then, we crossed the bridge and I told myself, this is it! We are travelling to Barangay Liningding, a place controlled by Kumander Ismael. Along the road, we passed some MILF combatants carrying M16s. I think my companions can hear my heart pounding. I looked at my fellow civilians. Their faces show fear and uncertainty.To combat our fears, we made "kaway, bati, ngiti” which were returned by those whom we meet. We then reached an MILF detachment. One of the men (MILF) asked where we are going. Amenah, one of our companions answered in their vernacular. I heard the name of Kumander Ismael. Then our ride continued. The road is bad. Some sections are slippery. The road seems to cling to the foot of the mountain. Speed now is 10-20 km/h. At some point, we dropped 4 soldiers along the road, armed with military radio, M16 and Machine guns. Then further along, another 4 soldiers. We crossed another river and then many more.. There is no bridge. Rocks are bigger this time. As we go deeper, the risk for an ambush is high. We are in a valley and surrounded by mountains, albeit beautiful ones.
As my watch read 11:16, we reached Liningding and were greeted by Kumander Ismael. Happiness and satisfaction showed in his face. He said it’ is only the second time that government representatives reached his lair. The first was Ms. Dearlie, an ATI Scholar who was also working for ATI at that time. Even the children from the nearby school can't resist but peep through the windows. Some went out to say "good morning visitors". Then I saw the wall of the school peppered with bullet holes and I can’t help but imagine the horrors that happened there. As I looked around, I realized that here lies a community full of potentials for agriculture. The stream that runs beside the barangay hall have crystal clear water, that even if you drop a needle, you can find it. The water is cool, the air from the mountain is cool, people are friendly. Chickens, particularly the basilan breed, caught my eye in every house we passed. There is no electricity in the barangay although I see cellphones. I asked them where they charge their phones and they told me that they have solar chargers.
In Kumander Ismael’s farm, rice is newly planted. A nursery was already established courtesy of the knowledge he gained from the training jointly conducted by ATI, LGU - Kauswagan and the 15IB. For lunch, we had aromatic upland rice, chicken randang, sotanghon, sweetened cardava (for dessert) and even softdrinks (imagine the long haul!). We ate with our hands. Immediately after our meal, we trek for about a kilometer forroad is unpassable even by 4-wheel vehicle. We crossed again another river on foot. To cross, you need to hop from one rock to the other until you reach the other side. It's good, we learned to hop when we were young. Hours passed. Assessment of the area is finished.
Modern Technology never reached the area. They still use 5 cavans of seed per hectare instead of 20 kilos and transplant 45-day seedlings instead of 18-21 days old. Timing of fertilizer application and water management is poor. Post harvest facilities is lacking. Our recommendation is to have a Farmers Field School in the area. Livestock and poultry should also be incorporated in their farm. Also, vermiculture as source of fertilizer is suggested. Since water source is unlimited, fishpond is feasible. The road however, should be improved. The list seems limitless but we can only help as much since our funds do have a limit.
If only, a drop from the Napoles scam was allocated to Liningding...