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Women commanders speak: ‘How do you suppose the battle raged on if there was no BIWAB to support the men fighting?’

She is a daughter, sister, wife and mother. And for the past 42 years, she was a mujahidat with the rank of battalion commander in the Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB) of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s soon-to-be-decommissioned Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).


“I was a child soldier,” Wilma Madato, now 52, candidly said in this interview held at a charming café in downtown Cotabato City. Her booming voice echoing in the small space, one would expect government soldiers barging any moment had the circumstances been different, for such a bold revelation.

The interview transpired at the sidelines of a BIWAB decommissioning conference at a hotel in Cotabato City on March 12 this year.

Wilma Madato, 52. BIWAB Battalion Commander. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO BUENO

“No one recruited me. I volunteered,” she added.

It was 1976, in the early years of the vicious and bloody attempt of then President Ferdinand Marcos to quash the Moro rebellion, when she decided to join the training for women called the Bangsamoro Women Auxiliary Course under the Moro National Liberation Front. She volunteered because “mothers hide the young girls or let them wear old women’s clothes in great fear that when the soldiers come, their daughters will be raped or sent to faraway places, never to be seen again.”

The Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade: “How do you suppose the battle raged on for days and weeks if there was no BIWAB to support the men fighting?” Photo courtesy of BIWAB’s FB page

“I didn’t want that to happen to me. I volunteered at a young age thinking that maybe in the future, I can protect myself or other women if I knew how to fight.”

She trained at a jungle camp in Datu Odin Sinsuat town for 45 days under cadre officer Badtrudin H. Malik. A cadre officer, Wilma explained, was someone who was foreign-trained. She learned basic military tactics and discipline with the rest of the group but segregation was practiced when the training was on physical fitness as their faith does not allow women to be seen by men under a state of dishabille.

“There was no BIWAB then. We just trained to defend ourselves and to fight. It was not well organized but what was important was that women were trained militarily,” said Wilma, who later on would be the training officer of the entire brigade.

It was not until 1984, after the MILF split from the MNLF, that BIWAB became part of an official structure, with headquarters and battalion formations in the 32 BIAF camps in Mindanao, she said.

Ling Gumander, 67, is the brigade commander of the BIWAB. She was the first woman who trained in the jungle in 1972, following the prodding of now interim Chief Minister Ebrahim Murad who was a friend and a fellow athlete in their elementary years in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat. Slight of build and surprisingly agile for her age, Ling said she initially trained for three months in the jungle where she was taught how to handle firearms and ammunitions, how to fire a gun.

“We were not allowed in the firing line, but we were the reserve force. If something happened to the men in the field, we were next in line,” Ling said.

Ling Gumander, BIWAB Brigade Commander. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO BUENO

Backbone of the revolution

Both women have many stories to tell about life at the frontlines of battle, even if they themselves were not combatants. “We surely will be talking long after sunset if we tell you stories of the battles we fought,” Wilma said.

“How do you suppose the battle raged on for days and weeks if there was no BIWAB to support the men fighting?” Ling said. As the men fought at the frontlines, the women ensured that there was food and water, and medicines were readily available for the wounded. They sought refuge in foxholes when the military started to rain bullets on the camps, never leaving the area until they were told to do so by the commander.

When the shelling stops, they continue to do their tasks.

One incident stands out in Wilma’s memory probably because it tested her leadership skills as battalion commander. In 1997, Camp Rajamuda in Pikit town, North Cotabato was attacked by government soldiers. The battle was so fierce and sustained that they suffered severe casualties. The women were always ready, with their packs filled with basic survival tools, water and biscuits in case they were commanded to retreat.

“We were in the foxhole when I saw a woman in the other house who was still combing her hair when the shelling began. I just saw the cat jump out of the window when all hell broke loose. Hit by a mortar fire, the house close to us burst into flames,” she recalled.

When everything was quiet, they ventured out and started looking for the woman. They first saw a scrap of malong buried under a mound of debris. When they started digging, they saw that the woman was spared from death when she landed on a grove of bananas that cushioned her fall and covered her.

They regrouped and a short while later, a comrade came to inform them to retreat as there were no more warriors left in the battleground and the wounded were needing medical attention. The BIWAB fled towards the Pulangi River but couldn’t find bancas to bring them across to safety. Wilma had to think on her feet to keep them all safe as it was daylight and they were vulnerable out in the open.

She connected all the ropes they could find and tied it to the tallest person who knew how to swim and ford the treacherous Pulangi. Those who had difficulty crossing the river, including two children, had to be towed and assisted by men waiting on the other side.

“At the temporary camp there were many who were wounded, and even if we were not actually the medics, we had medical training so we immediately went to work,” Wilma said.

What was important, she emphasized, was that they were all there together.

“Unity,” she emphasized.

Estrada’s all-out war

In 2000, President Joseph Estrada declared an all-out war against the MILF.

At that time the BIWAB was already in place with general headquarters in Camp Abubakar. This camp was the target of the government soldiers as it was the headquarters of then MILF chair Salamat Hashim. Fighting went on for days, weeks and months. Intensive fighting between the MILF and the soldiers started in April and lasted until July of that year. For as long as the fighting continued, the BIWAB was there supporting the BIAF, shoulder to shoulder as Ling would say. They did not leave until the camp was overrun.

“We lost many lives in that war,” Wilma said, including an infant who was born inside a foxhole.

“But little do they know that by leveling Camp Abubakar, many small Camp Abubakars mushroomed in the region led by different commanders who were dispersed in that war,” she added.

4 Principles

According to Wilma, BIWAB has four principles: Islamization, military build-up, self-reliance and strengthening of organization.

Wilma said that at the core of their principles is their faith. Islamization is continuous and guides them in all their actions whether on the battleground or in the home. In all their trainings, they follow the Aqidah which is the deep belief in the scripture of the Holy Quran. They are taught the proper rules of war that do not violate the rules of the Quran especially on the codes of conduct. The tenets of the Aqidah is similar to what Geneva Call, an international humanitarian organization, is espousing. Wilma said she has joined a training conducted by Geneva Call on International Humanitarian Law.

Birds store food to prepare for the coming rain, Wilma said. Just like the birds, the women revolutionaries spend their time planting and storing food so that when war breaks out, they will be ready. They have a supply and logistics group that ensures food and other support materials are handily available. This is the principle of self-reliance.

“In 2003, we were no longer in Camp Abubakar, but as I said, new camps were built by the commanders with the chain of command still intact,” Ling said. This is the principle of military build-up. In that same year, Buliok was attacked by government soldiers when another all-out war was declared by Pres. Gloria Arroyo. The women were prepared for it, just like the birds during summer.

From 1984 to 2012, BIWAB training was vigorous and incessant – the principle of organizational strengthening. Wilma, as the training officer, had by then organized 140 women trainers in the 33 BIWAB formations in the 32 BIAF base commands and in the main headquarters in Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.

The military trainings ended in 2012 when the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front forged the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro which was signed on October 15, 2012 paving the way for a new autonomous political entity, the Bangsamoro, to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Wilma says BIAF Chief of Staff Sammy Al Mansour (now known by his real name Abdulraof Macacua, the BARMM’s Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Energy), declared an end to military training of the BIWAB after the FAB signing but capability trainings on “Islamic perspective and advocacy” continued until 2015, a year after the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

On the peace process

BIWAB was not visibly in the frontline of the peace process but their work was no less crucial in sustaining peace. The women commanders ensured that agreements on the peace process were not violated by the MILF combatants and they were in charge of explaining updates each step of the way as the nuances of the various agreements were hammered out by both parties.

Now, with the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, BIWAB will be decommissioned even though they do not have firearms to surrender. They are after all, the wings of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces. In the meantime, they are just waiting for instructions from their leaders.

Riding on the crest of this new dispensation, Wilma said they are aware that not all of the BIWAB members will be absorbed in the police or military. What will be in store for them?

“We hope that the women will have the opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their family. They need upgraded skills to enhance production in the sector that they belong, whether farmer, fisher folk or trader,” Ling said.

Education is a great leveler. Ling advocates scholarships for children especially at the orphanage of the martyrs so that they will have better options in life.

Women commanders long to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Ling said Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam that they are mandated to do at least once in their lifetime. She hopes this is going to be a reality under the administration of Chief Minister Murad.

Settling down

Unlike most of her peers, Wilma has a degree in Political Science at the South Christian College of Midsayap, and has in fact worked for five years as employee of Pikit town with normal working hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., without breaking stride as mujahidat. When war broke out in Pikit in 1997, she had to resign from her job to respond to the demands of war.

After the decommissioning, the women look forward to a new life with their families. For Ling, it would mean spending more time with her husband, also an officer of the BIAF. For Wilma, now a grandmother, this is a time to renew ties with her four children who are now professionals and working with government.

There are other women who have dedicated their lives to the movement and who did not marry, or those who married but have no children like Ling.

No tears then                          

War exacts a great toll on the soldiers, family and the community. Wilma said in all her years working as battalion commander even under extreme difficulties, she has not a shed a tear.

“If you’re a soldier, you do not cry,” she said. “You can’t think of being afraid or to feel sorry for yourself in the middle of the battlefield. We have accepted the fact that we will die anytime.”

But when she was preparing for a barong to wear for an MILF commander and helping him try it on for the oath taking of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority in Malacanang, her tears fell.

“I could hardly believe that our commanders who fought on the field for so many years would now be wearing nice clothes for a ceremony in Malacanang,” she sighed. “I never thought I would live to see the day.” Those were tears of happiness, and wonder, too.

Real sacrifice

“The real sacrifice is eating one boiled banana in the morning and one in the afternoon. Or going hungry for days during war. This is not to mention the lives lost and the misery we all have to endure for years,” Ling said.

“But if we all did not sacrifice before, then there would have been no Bangsamoro Organic Law and no Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao today,” she said.

Ling looks forward to the transformation of the BIWAB into a social movement that will continue to take care of the women in the Bangsamoro.

(Amalia B. Cabusao is editor in chief of  Mindanao Times in Davao City. She is also the training director of the Mindanao Institute of Journalism which runs MindaNews. This piece is part of a series on Women in the Bangsamoro, produced by MindaNews with support from the Embassy of Canada)


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