Seven years ago, Camp Abubakar in Barira, Maguindanao was a place of lost opportunities, ruined lives and wrecked infrastructure.
Houses, schools, buildings — even the mosque — were destroyed by artillery fire and bombings, the result of the all-out war between government troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in 2000.
Residents living in the camp — a mix of natives, different tribes and MILF insurgents — were forced to flee to other provinces.
Rashed Diron and his family were among those who left Camp Abubakar at the height of the war. Before the assault, Diron had his own house and small business to support his family. In minutes, his home and business were destroyed after the military launched air and ground attacks and captured the camp.
Today, both Camp Abu-bakar and Diron tell a different story.
The once-embattled camp is now a peaceful community. Emptied bullet-riddled houses have been replaced with clean, sturdy and beautifully colored homes.
Diron has long since returned to Camp Abubakar and lives in one of the Gawad Kalinga (GK) houses. He’s slowly trying to rebuild his life and has started a small business.
With the assistance and partnership of the Gawad Kalinga, Barira town Mayor Alex Tomawis, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and Smart, Christians and Muslims have built peaceful GK communities in Camp Abubakar and other communities once torn by strife, like Datu Paglas.
Today, a total of 230 houses stand in Barangay Tugaig’s Smart Amazing Village and Lipawan in Camp Abubakar.
Tomawis said rebuilding the lives and rehabilitating the homes of his fellow Muslims in Camp Abubakar has always been on his mind. There were some 1,200 Muslims who were displaced by the war, Tomawis said.
When he was elected in 2001, Tomawis embarked on a rehabilitation program that focused on wooing back Muslims who fled the camp at the height of the war.
First, Tomawis began to repair the road networks with the help of the national government. Then he sought the assistance of the DSWD in building 178 houses, but there still weren’t enough homes for the people who needed shelter there.
Tomawis then sought a partnership with Gawad Kalinga (GK) and was glad to know that GK also wanted to partner with his municipality.
Gawad Kalinga is a Couples for Christ (CFC) movement to build homes for the poor. It provides a concrete plan for rebuilding the Philippines by aiming to build 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities in seven years, a concept referred to as GK 777.
Each GK village, composed of 30 to 100 poorest of the poor families, is created by volunteer caretakers and the poor themselves. Through the bayanihan spirit, the recipients of GK housing grants build each other’s homes as well as a peaceful community free of crime and vice.
In April last year, hundreds of Christian volunteers, Muslims and representatives from Smart, picked up shovels and built the houses that have changed the face of Camp Abubakar.
The following month, Smart completed the 100 houses it sought to build in what used to be the largest Muslim rebel camp in Mindanao.
Tomawis credits GK, the government and private sector for transforming the former battleground into a peaceful community where Muslims and Christians have forged good, solid relations.
This effort focuses on providing Camp Abubakar residents with decent homes and livelihood opportunities to help transform the lives of many Muslims affected by poverty and conflict in Mindanao.
Tomawis said he was also gladdened at the goodwill and friendship between Christians and Muslims: "You can see the good rapport between Muslims and Christians.The spirit of bayanihan is alive." "The people don’t talk about religion and they are not afraid to go there. They don’t think about being a Christian or Muslim, but (about) being one as Filipinos," Tomawis said.
If Christians did not dare cross or tread the path to Camp Abubakar before, now they come and go to the place — and even help residents landscape and beautify their homes. The Christian volunteers also help with community-building projects.
"GK volunteers/students go there often and they sometimes teach or commune with the children. It has become peaceful now, " Tomawis said.
What truly gives the Muslims ineffable joy is the beauty of their homes, Tomawis said: "The houses make them very happy. They feel loved by and important to their Christian brothers. It was their first time to have a decent house and you can see how much they want to take care of it. They don’t arm themselves anymore and they don’t want to trigger any fighting because they don’t want the houses destroyed by war. It’s very heartwarming. You can see the happiness in their eyes."
His next priority is to provide the people with livelihood and send the children to schools. Now they are planning to build water systems, mosques and Madrasah schools. Tomawis said they need to build about 300 to 400 more houses.
"There are no schools yet but we are in the process of building one." he said. "With regard to livelihood, there are training programs going on for the Muslims. We send the people to other places to train them in food and vegetable processing."
He credits GK and its partners with changing and rebuilding the lives of the residents of Camp Abubakar: "Even when they know the danger, they set this aside to be able to help."
He also commended the participation of the private sector, President Arroyo and the World Bank in funding development projects in Maguindanao.
"I want to thank Gawad Kalinga (GK), the government, President Arroyo, the World Bank, private sector and everyone who pitched in for the rebuilding and rehabilitation of Camp Abubakar, " Tomawis said. "On our part, Muslims are always willing to cooperate and unite with their fellow brothers — Filipinos. We are all brothers here."
Besides the community in Camp Abubakar, GK villages were also built in Datu Paglas (250 homes in four barangays), for which town Mayor Totoy Paglas provided land and gained support from the DSWD, League of Local Government Support (LGSP) and the friends of Gawad Kalinga (GK) from the Middle East and Canada.
GK also plans to expand to the next town, Buluan, in partnership with town Mayor Toto Mangandatu.
GK has also begun spreading into Bangsamoro village in Kidapawan, Sultan Kudarat, Pook Isla and started building houses in Lanao del Norte with the help of town Mayor Angking Dimaporo and in Sulu with Gov. Ben Loong.
GK is hiring Muslim teachers for the pre-school and tries to integrate, health, livelihood, production in the villages.