Divided by war, united through dialogue
Story and photo by Arianne Gijsenbergh
Esmeralda Oropiano’s community has been plagued by the armed conflict between the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Philippine military for as long as she can remember. In 1978, when Esmeralda was only 6 years old, the NPA accused her father of being a military asset. “The NPA would always come to our house to harass my father,” she recalls, “They wanted to recruit him, but he refused.” Fearing repercussions, the whole family fled to Manila, where they lived with relatives for 7 years.
In 1985, Esmeralda and her family returned home to Barangay Rojales, where she eventually became a barangay councilor. Barangay Rojales is part of the remote upland area of the municipality of Carmen, in the Caraga Region. It has historically been a hotspot for communist insurgency, with NPA troupes regularly passing through the area, prompting residents to flee to the lowlands until it is safe enough to return.
As a barangay official, Esmeralda experienced frequent threats throughout the years. But although the experience was very difficult, she refused to move again. “We have done nothing wrong,” she points out firmly. In 2010, there was a particularly strong wave of threats and harassment, this time from a group of military soldiers. They conducted house-to-house visits, coercing families into pointing out suspected NPA supporters among their neighbors, who could then be arrested. “When I first experienced these threats from the military, I lost all my trust in the government,” says Esmeralda.
Creating safe spaces
Esmeralda’s story illustrates how civilians in the northern and eastern parts of Mindanao island get caught in the crossfire of the conflicts between the communist movement and the government. In the Caraga region, these conflicts lead to short-term but recurring forced displacement of rural families, as well as divisions in society as people are forced to choose sides.
The project ‘Strengthening capacities on conflict-induced forced displacement in Mindanao’ of the German Government implemented by GIZ aims to support regional and local government actors in Caraga in dealing with the impacts of conflict-induced displacement. In Carmen, one of the project's 7 pilot areas, two dialogue activities have been organized to promote mutual understanding and trust between displaced persons, members of affected home and host communities, and representatives of the municipal government.
The dialogue facilitators emphasized the importance of confidentiality, non-violent communication, and deep listening to ensure a safe space for expressing experiences, ideas, and emotions. A range of creative methods, such as games, role-playing, and storytelling, were used to make the participants feel at ease and to lower their inhibitions.
Esmeralda participated in both dialogue activities. Her contagious laugh and positive attitude during the introductory games revealed little of the challenges she had experienced in her life. But during the actual dialogue, it became clear that she and every one of the community members had a story to tell. Stories of violence and displacement. Stories of harassment and fear. And stories of helplessness and neglect.
The local government actors were also invited to share their perspectives and challenges in dealing with the situation. After consolidating the main issues, the different stakeholders discussed possible ways to work together to address the concerns and to enhance social cohesion in the communities.
Empowered communities, capacitated state actors
The dialogue process in Carmen promoted greater awareness among the affected community members about their rights and the government services they are entitled to. Through the activities, the participants were empowered to express their needs and assert their rights.
One woman shared that her son had been wrongfully accused for rebellion and detained. She discussed the issue with the participating state actors, who worked together to find a solution. The case was brought up to the relevant authorities, which finally led to the release of the son. This tangible example of successful collaboration motivated other community participants to reach out to government actors and voice their own concerns.
“The dialogue activities helped to increase my self-confidence”, said Esmeralda. “I am not afraid anymore to ask the government for help, because I now trust that somebody will listen to our concerns and take action.”
While the community members were empowered to express their needs, the local government actors received support to better respond to those needs. A core group of 8 representatives from various government offices — the Department of the Interior and Local Government, frontline offices of the Municipal Government of Carmen, and three conflict-affected barangays — received trainings on Do No Harm and dialogue facilitation. These trainings enable them to lead dialogue processes and implement activities in a conflict-sensitive way, without feeding into existing sources of tension. Two members of the core group, a nurse and a social worker, received additional trainings on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), which equipped them with knowledge and skills to support victims of conflict and displacement in dealing with traumatic experiences.
“We learned many strategies in the MHPSS training, like how to encourage IDPs to express their feelings and how to help them cope with trauma. I am now able to support them better when they visit the rural health unit,” said Gertrudes Gonzales, a nurse at the Carmen Rural Health Unit.
The way forward
During the dialogue sessions, a number of practical measures were identified to address the needs of the affected communities and to improve social cohesion. One priority measure will be to activate and strengthen Barangay Human Rights Action Centers (BHRACs) in the three barangays most affected by conflict and displacement: Rojales, Manoligao, and Poblacion. The BHRAC is a government mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights at the barangay level. Activating this mechanism will allow community members to report human rights violations and gain access to the services of the Commission on Human Rights.
Another priority measure will be to include the topic of conflict-induced displacement in local planning processes. Currently, the barangay development plans in Carmen contain procedures for dealing with people displaced due to natural hazards, but there are no clear policies on displacements induced by armed conflict. Incorporating the topic into the local plans will allow the allocation of funds and support measures to address the needs of the victims of conflict-induced displacement and the affected home and host communities.
The core group of government actors has committed to implement the measures in close cooperation with the communities. The activities in Carmen highlight how conflict-sensitive dialogue mechanisms can serve as catalysts for strengthening relationships, building trust, and fostering collaboration towards the common goal of building peaceful and inclusive societies.