By Keith Bacongco
Balo-I, Lanao del Norte – While their brothers in arms were engaged in a fierce firefight against the terrorists holed up in Marawi City, another group of Philippine Army soldiers took to a different type of warfare: winning the hearts and minds of the civilians.
Instead of assault rifles, this unit was armed with ladles, knives, cooking utensils, microphones and information materials.
On a sunny Tuesday morning of Sept. 19, two KM450 military trucks ferried about 20 soldiers to an evacuation center situated beside a barangay hall.
As the soldiers disembarked from the vehicles, smiles were on the faces of the internally displaced people (IDPs) who had fled Marawi City, their home. Even the assault rifles they carried did not seem to bother the villagers, who helped the troopers unload huge cooking pots, a liquefied petroleum gas tank, baskets of vegetables and few bags of rice.
For about three months now, this is what the Civil Military Operations Regiment of the Philippine Army has been doing –providing health-care programs, moral recovery for adults and psychosocial interventions for children and meals from the mobile kitchen.
At least 250 soldiers belonging to the CMO Regiment have been deployed to initiate non-combat activities following the conflict in Marawi City.
Guns to ladles
In this non-combat activity, rifles were substituted with ladles and knives, while battle uniforms were replaced with aprons.
Under a makeshift tent, the soldiers started peeling sweet potatoes, boiling water and chopping garlic and onions. In a little while, four Maranao women began to help the soldiers peel the sweet potatoes for the vegetable stew.
At another part of the camp, two soldiers, armed with scissors and razors, gave free haircut to the male evacuees.
Maj. Jeffrex Molina, of chief of public affairs of Task Force Tabang, told Manila Bulletin that they conceptualized the mobile kitchen to provide hot meals to at least 78 evacuation centers – 43 evacuation centers in Lanao del Sur, 34 in Lanao del Norte and one in Misamis Occidental.
The CMO is part of the joint Task Force Tabang, which aims to rebuild the embattled city.
“Under the mobile kitchen project, the CMO personnel provide hot meals to the evacuees. The mobile kitchen project is supported by the Marawi City government since these evacuees are their constituents,” Molina said.
While the meals are being prepared, some soldiers initiate parlor games for the children. After every event, the soldiers gave school supplies and other food items.
Not an easy task
Molina admitted that extending services to the evacuees is not an easy task, saying they have to extend their services to all the evacuation centers.
“The first two weeks of our deployment were the most difficult because the evacuees were not used to interact with us. There were instances that our soldiers were being humiliated by the evacuees. This task requires a lot of patience,” he said.
In Barangay Lumbaca Toros in Saguiaran town of Lanao del Sur, Capt. Rommel Panganiban said it is fulfilling to see what they accomplish each day.
“Mas masarap mapagod ng ganito pagkatapos ng buong araw na trabaho,” said Panganiban, who spent about a decade in the infantry before joining the CMO Regiment.
While they are grateful for the hot meals being prepared by the soldiers, 57-year old Anisa Panimba admitted to Manila Bulletin that they are already missing their native delicacies.
“Sana yung mga pagkaing Maranao naman. O di kaya adobong manok, bihon, mga pritong tilapia at may palapa. Nami-miss na rin naming kainin ang mga lutong Maranaw,” pleaded Panimba, a fruit vendor back in Marawi City.
She added that they are willing to teach the soldiers prepare Maranao cuisine.
Soldier, social worker
While the soldiers are preparing the vegetable stew, a group of adult males gathered beside the makeshift kitchen.
Panganiban set up a 40-inch TV for film screening on the ongoing conflict in Marawi.
After about 10 minutes, the CMO officer stood before the evacuees and explained the current situation in Marawi.
Moreover, Panganiban also urged them to prevent their children from joining a terror group. “Magkano lang yang P20,000 na ibabayad para sumali sa kanila, hayaan natin silang maging bata.”
Molina explained that these are just among the many tasks the CMO Regiment, whose personnel were specially trained aside from undergoing basic military training.
Molina said they are now doing what the humanitarian organizations are doing in times of crisis, thus, making the soldiers CMO Regiment as the “social workers” of the Philippine Army.