The Tale of the Sack and the Hope of Muslim Women

Diana G. Mendoza


Yasmin Busran-Lao

Secretary Yasmin Busran-Lao of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos.

Secretary Yasmin Busran-Lao of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos who is also outgoing President Aquino’s presidential assistant for Muslim Affairs used to be a bakwit who was with her family every time they are whisked off by fighting between soldiers and rebels.

“My family’s experience of being a bakwit was during the siege of Marawi City in the early 70s at the time of Martial Law when my family had to cross the Lanao Lake in a pump boat to evacuate to my father’s relatives,” she said.

Many years later she would witness Moro women who have to hang on to a sack and to dear life during the all-out-war in 2000, when “many bakwit (evacuee) Moro women considered the sack their most precious luggage, where they put clothes, food, rice, utensils and everything that they think they can hold on to wherever it is that the war would take them.”

In 2000, former president Joseph Estrada declaration of an “all-out-war” policy in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had government soldiers overrunning the group’s camp. In the midst of chaos and the countless dead, families sustained the suffering that is joined to conflict. The state of war lasted through the two years of Estrada’s term of office which was ended by street protests dubbed EDSA Dos in 2002.

For Moro women who have experienced the resurgence of violence in their areas, the burden of tending to their households is multiplied many times over as they are forced to look after the safety and survival of their families from the time they leave their homes until they are housed in evacuation centers.

“Estrada’s all-out-war period was a very dehumanizing time,” she said. “Mas mabuti pa yung mga hayop mo, nasa coral mo (the animals are better off housed), fed and bathed, while the humans have nowhere to go.”

Busran-Lao said it has been 15 years since that all-out-war, but Moro women still hold on to their ubiquitous sacks. “Every woman in a family has one, and every younger woman or girl knows the critical importance of the sack – that it must always be packed and ready for emergencies – and this would always mean a firefight.”

“But every Moro woman is hoping that the sack would someday be used for its rightful purpose,” she said. “I hope the next generation of women will no longer have a sack ready but a woman’s normal bag.”

The sack is a multi-purpose item in rural households and agricultural areas – these hold rice, corn and other farm produce, even farm tools. But in conflict-affected areas of Mindanao the sack has gained even more diverse utility.

Busran-Lao said there is a standard size of sack, and this is the one being used by farmers. It is usually made of nylon, straw and other elastic fabrics. Over the years, however, some sacks have been manufactured in upgraded versions of thick textile that resemble the katcha or canvass bags, which are of course, more expensive than the straw-made sacks.

Buong buhay ng mga babae inilalagay nila sa sako pag tumatakbo na (Women put their entire lives inside that sack once they had to run),” Busran-Lao said of the ubiquitous container. “Women constantly carry them, drag them, and haul them because the sacks held the only things that mattered to them during those moments,” she recalled.

Families who have nowhere else to go ask for help from communities located some distance from conflict. They would have to walk miles for days in the sun and rain to find relief, temporary shelter and assistance.

Yasmin Busran-Lao with the NCMF staff

Secretary Yasmin Busran-Lao and the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos staff.

Femina Undaya, a woman in her 30s, moved her family from Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur to Marawi City in August 2008 after an attack by Muslim rebels. She recalls lugging her sack of personal possessions, including essential items for birthing in her first-aid and survival kit.

“I remember older women advising me to put (these items) even if I was only in my second trimester.” she said. Given the long journey and the conditions of evacuation, these women had to prepare themselves for every emergency.

After a few months of staying with a family of Maranao, the indigenous peoples in Marawi, Undaya said she gave birth assisted by Maranao women. Undaya went on to become one of the women volunteers of a group that provides counseling to people, especially children, who have gone through such difficulties.

Both Undaya and Busran-Lao believe that peace agreements are fragile undertakings that can be broken at any given situation especially in volatile areas in Mindanao where new conflicts evolve, giving rise to fighting not only between government and rebels, but also among warring families and communities.

Busran-Lao said this situation impacts tremendously on women, who have to provide for the children and the aged among them. The one-dimensional portrayal of women as victims fails to capture their multiple roles which they sustain as their communities’ peace makers, mediators and dispute-settlers, responsibilities added to or expanding their usual roles as mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters and daughters.

Undaya said “women also take care of peace like it is a child, delicate in an unpredictable environment.” Busran-Lao noted that all-women monitoring teams were mobilized by barangays to ensure that the ceasefire during the negotiations for the BBL, helping to create from the conditions of tumult a three-year period of peace.

Moro women have slowly recovered from their most recent displacement in the first quarter of 2015 with the Mamasapano incident, but they still long for peace.

Busran-Lao said peace to Moro women would also mean that rebel camps could be regained by the people and restored to their original condition — rich agricultural fields tilled by communities for their life-giving food and livelihood.

The sack that was once used for evacuation, carrying what one needed to survive the disruption of life, would once again be used for carrying rice or corn, sweet potato and cassava, hauled through the fields to markets; or perhaps, even tools of trade and livelihood, or even books carried to schools or universities by the younger generation.