Technology connects one hope, one dream for peace
MANILA, Philippines–While the sounds of soldiers’ gunfire fighting Islamic militants raged through parts of southern Mindanao on Nov. 14, there was an even louder sound echoing throughout Cotabato and Zamboanga cities: more than 3,000 voices singing for peace.
The voices belonged to war victims, former fighters, soldiers, high school students and out-of-school youth from the country’s conflict-affected regions, stretching from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) strongholds in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Basilan provinces all the way to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) communities in Central Mindanao.
What was interesting was that all these people singing for peace were sharing their dreams through giant screens in a massive video conference.
Called EPIC (Empowerment for Peace through Information and Communication), the video conference, held by the US Embassy in Manila and Philippine nongovernment organization PeaceTech Inc., was in stark contrast to the recent application of information communication technology (ICT) by the Islamic State (IS) and other groups using technology to destroy rather than build.
Connected by PLDT-Smart Foundation with a high-speed private line, the huge video conference used a variety of techniques to promote understanding, ranging from dialogues between guests from “opposing” sides of war to interactive games played through screens measuring 5.2 x 6.1 meters.
These were all done to connect the youth of Central and Western Mindanao, who had gathered in the gymnasiums of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City and Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City.
‘We are the same’
The purpose was to emphasize that whichever community these young people are from, they have more in common than what they have been taught.
Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Jamid of Tawi-Tawi, who lost his home and an uncle during the course of a conflict as a young boy, was glad to be in Zamboanga City for EPIC.
“I think the video conference is a good idea. Before I saw the people from Cotabato on the screen, I thought that they were always engaged in war, as that is what I see in the news. I saw it as a city of war,” Jamid said.
“I [saw] their faces and now, I see we are the same. Interacting with them made me realize we have the same fears, questions and dreams,” he said.
On the other side of the video conference in Cotabato City was 22-year-old Noralyn Lumbatan of Datu Odin Sinsuat town, Maguindanao province.
“I realized that if it [were] not for PeaceTech [and the US Embassy], my negative perception would not change—that the people of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi cannot be trusted. But then, when I participated in EPIC, I have learned that they are also joyful, that they can be trusted.”
Anizar Anapi, 22, was raised in conflict. He still suffers from the trauma he went through at the age of 12, when his family fled their home in order to save their lives while their town in Basilan was being bombed. But he recognizes the potential that ICT has for healing the wounds of the past.
“The Internet helps us to connect with other people so they can express what they want and share thoughts on peace. If people from other areas see they want peace, they will not fear,” he said.
These young people were joined by adult speakers who have experienced the horrors of the 40-year Mindanao conflict, which has taken as many as 150,000 lives and which the MILF and the Philippine government has vowed to end.
Master Sgt. Emilo Hemongala, who joined the video conference in Cotabato City, almost died in a MNLF ambush in Mindanao. “The moment we arrived at our assignment, the rebel forces immediately attacked us …. That was my first encounter where the field you trekked on was riddled with land mines,” he said.
In a powerful moment, Hemongala was bridged through the screens with his “enemy”—Edmund Gumbahali—a MNLF member who comes from the community in Sulu where Hemongala was assigned.
Gumbahali himself was held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf in 2011 and 2012: “For three months, I suffered a lot of mental and emotional trauma, especially the feeling of longing for my family …. They kept on telling me: ‘Tomorrow, we will behead you.’”
Despite their differences, the guests realized that they have a common vision for Mindanao. Said Major Singagandal, a former MNLF fighter from Sultan Kudarat who was in Cotabato City for EPIC: “Jihad has a different meaning under the circumstances …. In our current status, it’s a jihad where we have to avoid violating human rights. Instead, we help each other and unite to achieve peace and discuss the problems so our children and the next coming generation shall be educated.”
The video conference was part of a larger program the US Embassy is doing with PeaceTech, an organization that has pioneered using videoconferencing and ICT for peace-building in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Most of the three-month program focused on training 100 “at-risk” young people, like Jamid and Lumbatan, who are vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups or even radicalism because they are from conflict-affected communities without opportunities.
Seventeen-year-old Hamad Taisher Hashim of Sulu is another out-of-school youth who participated in EPIC, a son of an MNLF fighter who has spent much of his life fleeing one home for another. “It was so hard to live because of the constant uncertainty and always being scared,” he said.
He said young people often joined insurgents because of the money. “If they help in a kidnapping, they sometimes get a part of the ransom. They can’t finish school and they can’t get jobs and have nothing to do,” he said.
These concerns had motivated the US Embassy and PeaceTech to hold EPIC. US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg flew to Zamboanga City for the video conference to reach out to the thousands of people.
“It was amazing—1,500 kids here, 1,500 in Cotabato all coming together because they are optimistic and, like kids everywhere, they want a good future, they want to get together, they want to train, they want to know what possibilities there are in life and that’s a wonderful thing.”
“The whole idea is to reach out to young people, especially the Muslim youth who may not see a brighter future, so they don’t fall into the same traps and they see that there is a better way in trying to deal with other communities, to give them an idea that there’s hope for the future.”
Jamid of Tawi-Tawi understood the ambassador’s words. “I will go home and tell others like me that there are more important things in this world than revenge and violence. We will not attain anything positive with this,” he said.
No room for vengeance
Anapi returned to his native Basilan with a clear mission in mind: “I will tell religious leaders what I have learned. And I will tell other young people not to exact revenge because their fathers or brothers are one. You do not have to follow them.”
“Many people join rebel groups because of revenge, because they do not know who the enemy is,” he said.
For much of the three months, EPIC focused on training on conflict management and the benefits of peace.
Hashum of Sulu said he was learning quickly: “If I am going to make peace in our community, I will start it in myself. I believe if we do not have peace in our own self, we cannot give peace to others.”
The out-of-school youth also learned skills in videography and reporting, with which they make videos informing other young people about their communities.
There was also training on project development so the out-of-school youth can create and implement in their communities projects that they feel will help spread peace and sustain what they have learned from EPIC.
Anapi went home to Basilan with funding from EPIC, which would build the playground he never had for others: “They have no playground in my place. The youth are bored; they have no time to enjoy themselves. So there, they will join violence even though they don’t understand why it’s happening.”
“Conflict is not a situation they necessarily want to find themselves in. It’s just that they have never known any other way until now. And with technology dominating the lives of young people more and more, the possibilities for greater understanding are limitless,” said lawyer Gianna Montinola, cofounder and president of PeaceTech.
PeaceTech staff Jonathan Husain in Central Mindanao and Kishee Dawabi in Western Mindanao led the workshops.
Dawabi said: “Most had low self-esteem, some were aggressive and had difficulty expressing their ideas and problems in a peaceful and acceptable manner. Some were apathetic or aloof, having their own prejudices against other participants coming from other places.”
Dawabi said the opportunity to express their thoughts was of great help: “They drew their ideas on peace, conflict and other concepts—this let them also discover themselves. Fun games taught the importance of a win-win perspective, resolving conflict instead of a win-lose deal. And that although conflict is something natural and part of our daily lives, it does not need to always escalate to violence.”
Jamid said he had seen himself change as a result of what he has learned in EPIC.
“I did not believe in the peace process nor peace; I did not think the world would get better. I was just concerned with my own world. I did not care about anything else. Now, I think peace is attainable if we all unite, if the groups involved will understand each other.”
Anapi now dreams of going back to school and becoming a professional. “I learned about respect, leadership and friendship, and to be true to yourself and to do good things …. Peace for me is all about understanding individuals despite cultural differences.”
Singing song of unity
PeaceTech founder Robin Pettyfer spent time with the participants of EPIC: “I like them all! And I am glad that EPIC seems to have the impact we aimed for. But what we are doing here is not difficult. We’re leveraging basic technology to empower those young people who are otherwise separated from one another and excluded from the mainstream. If we can do that—if we can use ICT to reduce ignorance, to show young people that what they are told about the other group is not true—then we can help reduce conflict.”
Jamid and Anapi listened quietly. But when Jamid was asked about his favorite moment during the video conference, he answered without hesitation: “I liked singing the PeaceTech song—it says ‘One Hope, One Dream.’”
His new friend Anapi agreed: “With peace,” he said, “We can dream again.”
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