Diary of a Peacekeeper in the Philippines: Lemuel Artiaga
Weapons are everywhere in the municipality of Pikit in North Cotabato province on the conflict-affected island of Mindanao. And so are people who yield them. When violence erupts, it is often the civilian population that suffer the most.
I have worked in NP’s field office in Pikit since 2009. Prior to this I worked in the conflict-affected island province of Basilan. As I am not local to Basilan, and the language and people relatively foreign to me, my move to Pikit was welcome due to the deteriorating security situation on the island at the time.
Just after moving to Pikit, our team of UCPs, which included colleagues from Ghana, India and Kenya at the time in addition to my Filipino colleagues, received a call from a distressed civilian who, with about 20 families, approximately 120 individuals, were caught in an exchange of gunfire between elements of the MILF and soldiers from the AFP.
In August 2008, the ceasefire had broken down and there were large-scale firefights resulting in some 750,000 displacements and roughly half a million in 2009. This was the context within which we were working at the time. NP was the only international organization present in the area at that time.
I remember it was a rainy early evening when we received that call, after which we immediately set out to make an intervention. With the assistance of our operational headquarters in the hub city of Cotabato, we contacted all the actors involved including the AFP and the MILF, both the local level commanders and those commanding them from above. Fighting was momentarily halted and we received clearance from all to proceed, thereby ensuring our own security. We went with our local partner organisation, Bantay Ceasefire, which translates to Ceasefire Watch.
The group of trapped civilians were out in the rain, in the middle of a rice-paddy field close to where the fighting had taken place just moments before. It was the safest place they could manage to reach at the time. And they bore all the tell-tale signs of a hasty retreat – carts were packed high with their belongings, drawn by farm animals some carrying children and elderly. They were desperate.
With the assistance of a local village leader, we led them to safe-ground – a school that had agreed to open their space to assist. The following day we contacted the Department of Social Welfare and Development and they were able to provide some basic assisnce – some tarps for shelter and food like canned sardines. They were able to return home in about a week’s time, after the fighting had ceased.
Living and working in a conflict-affected community is challenging but It is days like this that make my job as a UCP fulfilling. In the evenings after work, it can be a bit boring as our movements are very restricted due to security concerns and one has to find hobbies to keep him or her mentally fit. To this end, I enjoy cooking masarap, or delicious, local Filipino dishes.
PHOTO CAPTION 1: Lemuel Artiga, National Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeper, Pikit, North Cotabato province, Philippines. 17 January, 2013.
PHOTO CAPTION 2: Lemuel Artiaga with local civil society representatives, Pikit, North Cotabato province, Philippines. 23 October 2012.