"I want peace because I want to sleep." Five-year-old Michael John knows about fleeing his house in the night. In a violence-plagued region of the southern Philippines, a military raid drove his family—and everyone in his village—from their homes. "It was dark. We didn't have any lights."
Bombings, cross fire and evacuations are part of everyday life for children growing up in regions of Mindanao, a large island in the Philippines. There, three groups—Christians, Muslims and indigenous people—have struggled for decades with each other, and among themselves, for land and power. Surrounded by people with guns and grudges, children sacrifice their childhoods—it is no longer safe for them to meet friends outside or attend school.
Larry Lahing, now 23, remembers the first of three times his family, members of an indigenous tribe, had to flee. "I was 5 or 6 years old. There was a massacre—more than 30 people killed. We heard gunfire from a nearby village, so we evacuated," he says. "We were running in the dark. I was carrying rice and three cans of sardines."
After a year, the family was able to return to its village and raise corn again. But the land was overgrown, and for 3 years, Larry had to help his parents with farm chores instead of studying.
He eventually began school, but the peace that made an education possible didn't last. When Larry was 12, hundreds of armed men marched through his village, starting yet another conflict. Without time to run, "we hid a whole night in an irrigation canal that was dry," he says. The next day, his family fled to a nearby town, finally landing at a school turned makeshift evacuation center for 300 people.
Conditions there were miserable—hard to bear for the strong and impossible for the weak. "We slept on cement. We were sandwiched, sleeping side by side," Larry remembers. "At home, when you wake up, you feel refreshed. At the evacuation center, when you wake up, it's difficult to stand. Your whole body aches."
The authorities would not let the evacuees return to their village, where fighting continued. So the hot, crowded center was the family's home for 6 months. "We heard people crying, and kids were sick," Larry says. "My baby brother was 9 months old. A little over a month after we arrived in the evacuation center, he died."
It was then that Larry realized there had to be another way.
'All One Humanity'
"These kids see violence all around. There are so many guns and bullets," says Sister Telma Argate, a nun working in the city of Cotabato. "They'll see people carrying weapons; they'll see their own families involved in kidnappings and theft."
Sister Telma runs a preschool that is part of Catholic Relief Services' peacebuilding program in Mindanao. By reaching children through schools, camps and village centers, the program works to break the cycle of fear and suspicion that has led to so many deaths.
Sitting in a room decorated with brightly colored words for peace in all the local dialects, Sister Telma recalls the time bullets whizzed by a river about 300 feet away. "You had to duck," she says.
Partially funded by CRS, the preschool serves more than 200 children from impoverished families—children who are so immersed in violence that it seems normal to them. "During the Ampatuan massacre, there was a mass grave for the bodies, and the TV showed a backhoe," says Sister Telma. "Some of the kids were asking their parents for a toy backhoe."
The Cotabato preschool brings together Christian and Muslim children in "an environment where they can cooperate," says Sister Telma. "We are all one humanity." The school's teachers—both Christian and Muslim—talk about and celebrate differences, rather than keeping silent about them and letting stereotypes fester.
"We'll make Muslim prayer beads and rosary beads together," says Sister Telma. "We take the children to visit houses of worship: mosques, churches." At the preschool, an Islamic class takes place at the same time as Catholic catechism.
'Peace Means to Listen'
The young students learn sensitivity to each other's needs. Before a joint celebration at the school, one 6-year-old Christian girl says to her parents, "We will not bring pork because we will be eating together."
An inescapable feature of each preschool room is the Peace Table, a kid-sized table with a green tortoise pattern. When two preschoolers argue, they must sit at that table and discuss how to resolve their differences amicably. It's worked so well that "children sometimes invite their angry parents to use the peace table," laughs Sister Telma.
"Sometimes, they'll say, 'When I grow up, I want to be a soldier,' or 'we have to fight, to get revenge,' " she continues. "I let them talk, but then later, I'll say, 'Well, that happened. There was a lot of fighting. Did it work?' "
Sister Telma also knows she needs to practice what she preaches. "If we want to teach them good writing, our writing has to be better than theirs. It's the same with teaching peace."
At a Peace Zone daycare center run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, preschoolers nod when asked if they've heard guns being fired. "I want peace so I won't be afraid," says a boy named Cedric. "I want peace so I can play," chimes in a girl named Felene Joy.
Sitting next to them, 5-year-old Michael John knows it's not just about wanting; it's about work. "Peace means to listen," he says.
The CRS program is unique in that it focuses on very young children. "I'm glad you're working on the elementary school level," says a municipal administrator in the town of Pikit. "The only peace education I've heard of here is a master's degree. You have to start molding minds young. We have to make sure the next generation is different."
'Can You Make This a Win-Win Situation?'
Molding the next generation of leaders is the goal of CRS' Peace Camps, weeklong sleepover trips for students ages 10 to 23. Young people from all three of Mindanao's groups—indigenous, Muslim and Christian—play games together, sing karaoke and share their experiences of violence or prejudice.
At one Peace Camp held at the local Girl Scouts center, both students and leaders mostly use the local language. But a few phrases keep popping up in English: one is win-win.
A facilitator splits students up into three teams, then gestures to a pile of 60 colored balls and three hoops. Each group is supposed to get as many balls as they can into their own team's hoop. The first time around, kids scramble for the balls and wind up with 18 in one hoop, 22 in another and 20 in the third.
The facilitator asks them to think hard. "How can you make this a win-win situation?" Eventually, the children put their hoops together to make one circle, and put all 60 balls in it.
Another ball game about cooperation involves buckets. Eskak Esmael—an adult Muslim leader who, with CRS staff, is joining the Peace Camp— watches the play intently. "I want to learn this game so I can teach it to kids at my madrassa," he says.
Looking Beyond Revenge
Sharing stories is a painful but eye-opening part of the camp, and reveals just how widespread and varied the violence is. It's not only broad political wars but local conflicts that affect these teens.
"Killings and ambushes are rampant in our area. We have a 5 p.m. curfew," says John Vito, who is 16 and Christian. "If there was no violence, I'd go to my friends' houses at night."
Bombs have exploded near his town's bus station and cathedral. Asked about ambushes and private disputes over money, he draws a picture of a hired killer shooting a man on a motorcycle near his house. Ruby, a 19-year-old girl who lives in his neighborhood, nods at the picture and carefully draws an arrow she labels "gun."
Shara, a 16-year-old Muslim girl, remembers violence surrounding a 2004 election. "I heard the firing and saw the tanks going into the village to secure the ballot boxes," she says. Her cousin, the father of four young children, had gone out to buy milk. "The military started strafing. After, my mother went out and saw his body on the ground—he was still holding the milk."
"When I was younger, I wanted revenge," says Jesam "Jes" Galmak, a 20-year-old Muslim. But when young people start hearing each other's stories—their losses of schooling, homes or relatives because of the fighting—"they realize they are all victims," says Cecilia Isubal, a CRS program manager.
'We Were Like Brothers'
When that clicks, young people from Mindanao's three groups understand they don't have to be enemies. "During my first time at a Peace Camp, I was so afraid of the Muslims," remembers Larry, the young man who spent so much of his childhood running from battles between the government's army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. "I didn't know I'd be sleeping in the same place with the people I feared the most."
It was May 2006. In the dorms, the beds were close together. "On the first night, I was beside a Muslim guy. I couldn't sleep," says Larry. "We didn't talk. It was in my head that Muslims are killers."
But after a few days of the camp, "I realized that not only indigenous people, but Muslims, are the victims of these conflicts. Not all Muslims are bad."
The 5 days at camp changed Larry's life—and his fear. The boy in the next bed had become a friend, one with whom Larry still keeps in touch. "On the last night, we were like brothers," he remembers.
"I slept well that night."
Laura Sheahen is CRS regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.