3 JANUARY 2007
Everything was different yet the same. The smell of early morning cooking — fish stew called tinowa simmering in an earthen pot — was a welcome greeting as we crested the last hill of the village. The same puny shrubs snagged our pants and the same emaciated dogs sniffed our legs. But where were the furtive glances, the scurrying away at the sight of strangers, the palpable presence of fear, or the guns openly wielded by almost everyone?
This was, after all, North Upi, a Maguindanao mountain town only 36 kilometers away from Cotabato City with a long history of war and conflict. We had been here in the late '80s doing a story on internally displaced persons, victims of war. It was also here, in a small schoolroom with bullet-pocked walls, where we were held overnight by armed men incredulous at the tale of two journalists who walked for a day but wished only to do a story and nothing else.
We've always had this fascination with what's going on in faraway communities, lured by the idea of living out of a suitcase. But we'd inevitably find ourselves repeatedly crossing the line between journalism and development work and, along the way, seeing little difference between the two.
As most journalists go, we had been trained to nose around, dig deep, unearth wrongdoing, write about problems, tell the public what's wrong as truthfully as possible, especially about governance. But our journeys revealed that there was more to what we were reporting on, that some things were working in many small communities, that citizens and leaders were by themselves finding solutions to problems — that governance, at least in those places where our footloose nature took us, seemed to be working well. We were doing only part of the whole story.
Now we were retracing our footsteps, trying to bear witness to the transformation we had written about earlier. In many ways, our trip back was to validate in our heart of hearts that what we had seen years before had translated to self-sustaining, autonomous, and forward-looking communities. But the truth was, we weren't really sure what we would find.
AND SO there we were, back at North Upi. We listened to the coughing of a truck engine, half-expecting a burst of gunfire to erupt at any moment. That was how we got stuck in that school up in the mountains years ago. But instead of gunfire, we now heard the gay chatter of children at play. We turned to look at them; behind the children, we noticed the newly painted office of DXUP FM, the station that Upi townsfolk proudly referred to as "our Peace Radio."
Mayor Ramon Piang said the establishment of the radio station in North Upi was pivotal in addressing "our town's most pressing concern…peace and order." People need to know what's happening the quickest way possible about local initiatives to bring peace to a seared land, he said. The programs do not focus on conflict like clan wars, but discuss the indigenous ways by which these can be resolved. "It is sort of facilitating," explained the mayor.
The radio was only one result of Piang's efforts in reshaping the governance landscape of North Upi, not through gunfire, but through dialogues and community consultations. After his election in 2001, he had asked the help of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), church leaders, lumad elders, Muslim clerics, and businessmen to form the Mayor's Advisory Council to arbitrate local conflict — but "not act as a court" — by integrating formal justice mechanisms and indigenous justice systems.
It didn't take long for citizens to explore other avenues for participation, which Piang encouraged. They put up a Kapihan ng Sambayanan (community roundtable) to debate local issues and to examine and assess local government performance. What is not surprising is that discussions tended to focus on how to meld peace and development in the town. The Kapihan had limited impact, though, and larger implications of the issues discussed did not get wider public attention. So was born the Peace Radio through the formation of the Community Media Education Council composed of multi-sectoral representatives and chaired by the vice mayor.
The council sets the policy direction for the station and brings in multicultural voices into its programming. Many of its staff members are volunteers who were sent to training workshops around Mindanao.
It's a good thing people in North Upi simply love to talk. By around 10 in the evening of our return visit, we were ready to call it a night — but people were still chatting around the town plaza bathed in light. A stiff breeze blew into the valley carrying the whispers of distant mountains. We spent the night in North Upi lulled to sleep by the stars we could see from our open window.
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