Prayers of Justice for the Bangsamoro Children this Ramadan

Apr. 12, 2021

Depending on the sighting of the new moon on Tuesday and the declaration of the Darul Iftah (Islamic Advisory Council), the holy month of Ramadan this year will start on April 13 and end on May 12. Muslims all over the world are already greeting each other “Ramadan Mubarak” which means “have a blessed month of fasting”;”Ramadan Kareem” which means “have a generous month of fasting”; or simply “Happy Ramadan.”

Growing up in a Muslim community, we always look forward to this time of the year. We all wait for the recitation of the takbeer (Takbeer Tashreeq or the proclamation of the greatness of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala) at the nearest mosque, which signals the start of the fasting. We will again hear this on the last day of the fasting month, calling us for the congregational prayer of the Eid’l Fitr.

The first thing we do is to express our intention to perform the fast for the whole month through a dua (prayer) and ablution or taking a bath as a symbolism of purifying ourselves for this religious obligation. Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the pillars of the Islamic faith.

This is the time of the year where our world is turned upside down. We are wide awake in the evening hoping to catch some sleep for at least half of the next day. After having our Iftar (Arabic) or Lapis (Iranon), the terms for breaking our fast in the evening, we wait for the call for prayers (Azhan or Bang) for the taraweeh or one of the special prayers for the whole fasting month, done in congregation and usually inside the mosque. This prayer is performed after the Isah, one of the five obligatory daily prayers.

We must wake up at 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning to prepare our meal for the Suhoor (Arabic) or Sawol (Iranon), the pre-dawn meal. We must stop eating and drinking at 4:00 or 4:15 in the morning and wait for the Azhan signalling the Fajr, the pre-dawn obligatory daily prayer.

During the last 10 days of Ramadan, we are encouraged to pray the Tahajjud, prayers performed voluntarily at any time of the night but best performed at midnight and in our homes or at the mosque. You can just imagine us wide awake the whole evening until dawn in the last 10 days of Ramadan.

Taraweeh and Tahajud are prayers based on the Sunnah or practice of Nabi (prophet) Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wasallam). Through these two special prayers, Muslims are expected to recite all the Surah (chapters) of the Noble Qur-an.

Although Ramadan is supposed to be about sacrifice, cleansing ourselves physically and spiritually, this month is also one about unity, being close to your ummah (Muslim community). Whenever we break our fast and pray in congregation, we can always feel that Muslims all over the world are also performing with us.

Ramadan is also the best time to give our sadaqah, the voluntary giving of any form of charity, whether through action, monetary amount or giving of food. Before Ramadan ends though, we are obliged to give or pay an exact amount for a charity generally equivalent to a meal, called Zakatul Fitr or Sadaqatul Fitr, aimed at purifying our spirit from vanity and excess by feeding the poor. Annually, we still have to pay the obligatory Zakat, one of the five pillars Islam, by giving a certain percentage of one’s asset and earnings.

Eid’l Fitr or the Hari Raya Puasa is the most festive day that we look forward to every year, not only because we are now allowed to eat the whole day but more so because it is the time where families would gather and celebrate with the rest of the ummah through a feast.

Ideally, we are with our families during the time of Ramadan, especially on the day of the Eid. Some of those living in Manila would even go the lengths of flying home to Mindanao just to be able to celebrate with their families and clans on the Eid’l Fitr.

Ramadan brings out the children in us

I remember when I was a child, fasting during the month of Ramadan was like a test for us. What age do we start fasting? Who among us would be able to finish fasting for the whole month? Who among us could finish the Taraweeh and Tahajjud and wake up until Fajr? It was like our participation in the Muslim ummah (community) is our baptism.

I remember waking up to the sounds of boys shouting Sawol in the streets, even banging on pans or cans, at 2:30 in the morning. During taraweeh time, it seems that most of the children are in the masjids (mosques) rather than at home. Because there are only a few of them during Tahajjud, they can’t help but boast of performing it the next day.

It is also the children who are really looking forward to the day of the Eid, expecting to see relatives and eat special Bangsamoro dishes. They look cute all dressed up for the Eid’l Fitr prayer, girls donning hijab (covering) such as mukna, t’ndong, kombong, abaya, and sometimes malong. The boys look like the junior versions of their fathers, donning taqiyah and keffiyeh head scarves, or Arabic thobe. After prayer, you will see them lining up outside the masjid, waiting for relatives and rich patrons to give them sadaqah.

This is the ideal scenario when we picture Ramadan and Eid. However, in areas of conflict in the Bangsamoro region, this is far from happening. In areas of conflict, Muslim families are forced to evacuate their communities because there is no respite in military operations. They stay in evacuation centers, and attempt to pray in makeshift mosques.

They could barely eat a good meal for iftar and suhoor because of the limited supply of relief goods. Some even attempt to harvest their crops in their farmlands declared as “no-man’s zone” by the military, only to be killed because they were mistaken for being enemies of the state.

Injustice during Ramadan

When I started documenting human rights violations committed by the Philippine government against the Bangsamoro people, I am aghast at learning that the military continues to conduct operations during Ramadan, complete with mortar shelling and aerial bombardment. This meant reports not only of massive displacement of Bangsamoro but, tragically, death of residents due to indiscriminate firing and bombardment.

And that is what happened during Ramadan last year in Maguindanao, the province nearest the Office of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). All throughout the fasting month, the 6th Infantry Division (6ID) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) conducted a military operation against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it was military operations as usual for the AFP, the need to suppress “terrorism” is more important than the need to protect the people from the virus.

The region’s ministry of social work reported that more than 6,000 residents from the towns of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Shariff Saydona Mustapha, and Shariff Aguak were forced to evacuate because of the weekly, if not daily, clashes between the AFP and the BIFF.

But the military’s mortar shelling was the one that caused the biggest casualty, the death of two children in Barangay Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan on the day of Eid’l Fitr. Aslamiya and Sadima Tambak, ages 10 and 7 years old, were killed on May 24 last year when the military fired 81mm mortars in Sitio Amai Zailon, justifying that there were BIFF amassing in the area. The two girls were only visiting their relatives together with their parents and two brothers. Almost a year has passed and still no soldier or commander of the unit has been held responsible for the death of these girls. Worse, another child and a pregnant woman would again be killed because of mortar shelling in another area.

According to Kawagib Moro Human Rights, a six-year-old boy, Saad Abdulkadir Tumbi, died due to wound infections caused by shrapnels of mortars that the military fired towards the houses in Barangay Sambulawan in Datu Salibo, Maguindanao, allegedly against the BIFF in the area. On December 15, a pregnant woman, Rabea Lakim, died when shrapnels of mortar fired by the military hit her neck while in the process of evacuating their community in Barangay Pusaw, Shariff Saydona Mustapha.

This year, the situation is much worse. Last month’s firefight between the AFP and BIFF alone has resulted in the mass evacuation of more than 46,000 to 66,000 individuals in Datu Saudi Ampatuan and scattered in different evacuation centers in the neighboring towns in the second district of Maguindanao. Not all residents have returned and will probably stay at the evacuation centers this Ramadan.

Praying for justice

Children are always the most vulnerable in conflict areas. Despite almost two decades of documenting violations in conflict areas, I am affected whenever I learn that children were the casualties in military operations.

I remember listening to a frightened seven-year-old Tausug kid, Almujayal Padiwan, who had just survived and witnessed a military operation that killed his parents, uncle, and 14-year old brother on February 1, 2005 in Barangay Kapuk Punggul in Maimbung, Sulu.

I remember the photo of Asmayra Usman, a four-year old girl who instantly died after being hit by stray bullets fired by the military at an evacuation center in Barangay Salbo in Datu Saudi Ampatuan on August 21, 2012.

Fellow human rights defender Bai Ali Indayla of Kawagib Moro Human Rights has been presenting Usman’s case in forums and even lobbied at the United Nations to seek justice for Asmayra and other children and pregnant women who became casualties of the Philippine government’s military operations.

Women and children are the usual collateral damage in a war that legitimized the use of indiscriminate firing and bombardment. In pursuit of terrorists, soldiers and police often point their guns at innocent civilians, calling them collateral damage.

I remember the fact-finding missions and the public condemnation, the investigations conducted by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the presentation to the UN Human Rights Council and other human rights agencies. I remember the training and workshops initiated by UNICEF to which different Moro organizations in Maguindanao participated in to create “safe spaces” for children in conflict-areas and in evacuation centers. However, not one member or officer of the Philippine military was held responsible for these killings – not one was kicked out of their positions or imprisoned for their crimes.

We’ve seen the destruction of our mosques, madrasah, kitaab (religious books) as well as our houses and communities. We’ve witnessed how our hard-won rights were disregarded and our political belief, religion, and culture were bastardized in the name of fighting “terrorists” in the Bangsamoro areas.

This coming Ramadan, aside from praying for our own salvation, let us offer a prayer for justice for our Bangsamoro ummah, especially to the children and the unborn ones who were killed because of the relentless military operations. Let us continue to fight for the rights of our future generation.

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