By Amalia Cabusao .
“How do you suppose the battle raged on for days and weeks 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.
“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.”
“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 33 MILF camps in Mindanao.
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.
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.
(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)