It is a hot noonday at this crucial bridgehead near a center of Moslem rebellion and the Philippines government are asleep in their guardhouse.
Their colonel does not approve."You see," he says, prodding them awake during a surprise visit, "now that it's the cease-fire, everybody takes it easy."
It is the third day of the Moslem-Filipino agreement that has stilled, at least for a while, one of the most vicious little wars left on earth. The colonel is on an automobile trip across 50 miles of this fertile battleground, where John Pershing once fought these same rugged Moros. The midday journey tells something about the strange Filipino mix of the gentle and the ferocious, and how a rich land is now tentatively pulling itself together.
It begins in Cotabato City, where 34,000 people live on a riverbank not far from the broad Moro Gulf on the west coast of the island of Mindanao.Buildings have collapsed or lean crazily from the massice earthquake that struck this region in August. Philippine soldiers, looking scarcely of age but carrying man-sized M-16s with the clips in, are everywhere. They talk, shop or stroll with girls their age.
If they were searching for their bitterest enemy, the rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), they would not have to look far. An official representative of the front, Hatimil E. Hassan, 27, is calmly eating a plate of fried eggs in a hotel restaurant. He is a former medical student sent by the rebel front to bring news of the truce to rebels in outlying villages.
He is no rifleman, but a diplomat and propagandist, travelling secretly between the Philippines and the rebel headquarters in Libya via the Moslem islands of nearby Malaysia.
He wants no soldiers or reporters with him as he visits his Mindanao comrades. "The cease-fire is in its early stage," he says, "and we want to prevent any untoward incidents."
A philippine army colonel says about the same thing when I mention a drive I plant to take to the inland town of Pagalungan. "But we'll take you," he says and ushers me into his Dodge Colt. In front is another car full of armed troops, rifles sticking out the windows, and behind is an armored commando vehicle, with machine-guns fore and aft.
Rice and sugar fields and neat rows of coconut trees fly by. There are occasional clapboard churches, and less frequently small, domed mosques. Only a third of this region's population is Moslem, a fact that leads some local Christians to charge that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has given the Moros too much in the way of guarantees of autonomy. But Marcos and most of his constituuents here want peace badly.
"This is ambush alley," says the colonel. The convoy slows and descends into an unpaved wreck of a road bordered on both sides by high grass and cliffs."The worst time is about 5 to 7 p.m., when the rebels are moving from the markets through here to the swamps," he says.
Three days before the first day of the cease-fire, the colonel lost one man killed and six wounded but he says there have been no incidents in his area since. It is quiet under the hot sun as the convoy returns to paved road. Broad, green rice fields march off to the horizon, where there are a few low hills, sometimes favorite spots for guerrilla activity.
Little wooden huts are clustered near the road. Many of the occupants are underpaid laborers.
The colonel and his soldiers keep a lookout. Guerrillas and private armies have ranged across Mindanao for centuries. Even when fighting the Japanese during World War II, rival resistance fighters here often came to blows. Old blood debts are strewn everywhere.
"Many killings may be caused by personal grudges but are attributed to the MNLF or the military," said one officer. "Thirty per cent of the rebels are just bandits," said Col. Isidro G. Callejo, commanding the 800 men of the 27th infantry battalion in the roadside village of Kabacan. "I think they will keep doing what they did before. We hope the MNLF will help stop them."
The convoy has pulled into the dusty courtyard of Callejo's headquarters for lunch. There is scrawny, but nicely spiced, barbecued chicken and rice, will coke and the ever-present national drink, San Miguel beer.
Callejo, a dour man, is dressed in Saturday sports clothes like the rest of his officers. He mentions an ambush the month before, on the road the convoy had just traveled, in which his nine-year-old son and two of his soldiers were wounded.
"My son's was just a flesh wound, but one of my men got it through both legs. He is still limping," Callejo said. Soldiers, women and children mix freely here. Soldiers sent south to fight the rebels often marry Mindanao girls.
The convoy goes down the road to a cluster of huts called Patadon. In late December, 13 villagers, including two childrens, were shot dead in night-time attacks. That is not so many in a war that some estimates say has been killing at least 100 people a month, but then Patadon doesn't have 100 people.
"They killed them right in front of the BPI," the bureau of plant industry, said Andrea Patadon, a school-teacher. She took her children and fled to the safety of Kabacan and has just returned, one of thousands of refugees who have been roaming Mindanao during the three-year-old war.
The attackers, some villagers say, wore uniforms. "Rebels dressed up to look like PC," the public constabulary, the national police force, suggest one of the army officers. But it is no secret that Mindanao residents often fear the government forces as much as rebels.
The convoy turns back to Pagalungan, where it had earlier surprised the sleeping guardhouse troops. Datu Udtog Matalam, the Moslem patriarch of the area, lives here and is one of the biggest landholders. The Christians who populate the towns and run the commerce of this region sometimes reminisce about the days when the patriarchs kept their people under control in exchange for a percentage of the profits. For Matalam, 87, and others like him, the rebellion has torn that system apart, perhaps never again to revived despite the ceasefire.
"He has some extensive lands," said one of the soldiers, "but he can't harvest the coconuts and his cows were eaten by rebels or maybe soldiers."
In June a pitched battle erupted when the rebels attacked Matalam's home. Callejo counterattacked and repelled the rebels but he lost 16 men, including nine of the former rebels he has been training as pro-grovernment troops.
Matalam, still strong and healthy in white skull cap, jokes about his lost cows, but seems to have little hope for a real end to his troubles. He talks about a bandit leader, Disumimba, who is nominally part of the rebel front. "He has never surrendered to the government," he says. "He could come in any time, but he hasn't."
The army troops, at unguarded moments, seem to share his skepticism about the end of a war that has, with periodic lulls, ravaged Mindanao for 300 years. The convoy heads back to Pikit, a hilltop military post where three artillery pieces now sit idle after being used against the rebels in the battle of Pagalungan in June.
The colonel, waiting for the helicopter to arrive and take him back to Cotabato, looks out over the rice fields spread out below. "This was an old American army base, you know," he says. "Seventy years ago you were here fighting the Moros."