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Winning the War Against Despair

By: Rojohn L. Ented and Christine Biokong

Rojohn Ented was born on July 8, 1995 in Barangay Pandan in South Upi, Maguindanao. He was welcomed into the world in the ancestral land of his father. Most people there would call him by the shortened version of his name — John.

When John was just three years old, a group of assailants attacked some areas in Barangay Pandan. They burned houses, stole animals, and other personal properties. These types of attacks happened repeatedly.

Amid the hostilities experienced by his community, John nurtured his ambitions despite knowing that so many others in the community didn't get the chance to realize their dreams. John wanted to get higher education so he could chart his own path in life.

In a bid to escape the hostilities, John’s mother and father moved to Mt. Firis. It was where John’s maternal grandparents lived.

Unfortunately, the relocation of Rojohn and his family didn't bring them peace. Mt. Firis was also considered a conflict area. The had been skirmishes between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Philippines (GPH) since 1979. Rojohn recalls that the encounters between the two groups were particularly intense until around 2008.

Although there were peace talks and negotiations held throughout the years, these didn't really progress much. The parties involved always questioned each other's sincerity.The ceasefire agreements were always contentious. Thus, the skirmishes continued to wreak havoc in the villages.

In 2000, President Joseph Estrada ordered an “all-out war” against the MILF. It was being touted as the ultimate solution to wipe out the MILF and subsequently put an end to the insurgency in Mindanao.

The villages in Mt. Firis Complex were caught in the crossfire. People died and properties were destroyed. Multitudes of families were forced to leave their lives behind. They had to evacuate.

Aside from causing massive displacements, armed conflict has caused cultural, psychological, emotional, political, and economic devastation among the Teduray and Lambangian indigenous peoples. They have been enduring and continue to endure these burdens and disruptions for decades.

By the time that John was six years old, all the schools in the Mt. Firis area had been closed due to the hostilities that regularly happened there. John once again had to move to another town — his grandparents' place in Maganoy (later renamed as Shariff Aguak). It was just 18 kilometers away from Mt. Firis. Then again, if there was no transportation available, it could take as long as six hours of walking to get to it. John, along with his eldest sister, had to go there because schools were still open there.

But once again, war followed John. There came a time when his grandparents just chose to leave Maganoy and head back to Mt. Firis, which they had fled from during the “all-out war.” At least, they reasoned, there was space to do some farming in Mt. Firis.

John and his sister chose to stay in Maganoy because they wanted to go to school. They were in a tough spot and they had to fend for themselves. There were days when they went to school without eating breakfast. They didn't have any allowance either. There were many times that they went to bed without eating any dinner. When they did find food, they still found ways to save what little they had. They tried mixing rice with some monggo beans so it would be more filling. Given their already dismal situation, John and his sister weren't able to do school projects or assignments that required additional cash.

John's sister decided to quit school after about a month, so he was eventually left alone in Maganoy. He did his best to earn money during weekends and holidays by washing clothes, gardening, planting corn and rice, as well as looking for wild vegetables and fruits to sell. He used his earnings to buy his daily needs and the things needed for school projects.

During the times that John would go back to Mt. Firis, he had to walk 18 kilometers all alone. It was quite different from the times when his sister was with him. Amazingly enough, John never felt lonely. He never gave in to despair. Instead, the hardships he had to face made him even more determined to fight for his dreams.

Although John managed to thrive on his own, he was rendered practically helpless when he got malaria. He was bedridden for a week and nobody was taking care of him. He got weak and skinny. Fortunately, his aunt visited him. When she saw his condition, she immediately brought him to the hospital. After that, John went to live at his aunt’s home. He stayed there for almost four years.

The rampant killing of tribal leaders, harassment of residents, and the displacement went on in the conflict area. Despite this, John was able to graduate from Maringen Elementary School at Mt. Firis in 2019. He was the valedictorian. In 2015, John graduated as salutatorian from Salumping National High School in 2015. He searched for opportunities that would help him go to college.

Finally, John was accepted by the administrators of Cotabato City State Polytechnic College (CCSPC) under the Bachelor of Science in Community Development in 2015. Despite all the challenges that had had encountered — war, death, disease, and hunger — John had persevered. He was finally closer to his dream of getting a degree. His commitment to his studies paid off. He excelled academically. But he never forgot where he came from.

John has dedicated his life to empowering and strengthening indigenous peoples (IPs). He also supports advocacies for the environment and those that tackle climate change issues. His involvement in the grassroots movement gave him added insights to the struggles of the IPs in Mindanao. He realized that IP communities really need people who would stay and serve them. John had no doubt that he wanted to serve his community.

John joined many IP organizations while he was in college. He joined as many of them as he could handle. He wanted to learn from them, so he could help IP communities.

John became and has remained an active youth volunteer at Timuay Justice and Governance (TJG). He joined Teduray, Lambangian Youth and Students Association or TLYSA in 2017. In 2018, he became part of the Interfaith Action Network, the Bangsamoro Youth Network, and Youth for Peace. In 2019, he became a member of Amnesty International – Philippines and the Human Rights Youth Action Network.

John finished his Bachelor of Science in Community Development degree in 2019. He received the Certificate of Recognition as Service Awardee during the graduation ceremony, which happened on June 15 that year at CCSPC.

These days, John does work for several groups in his ancestral homeland. He’s passing on the knowledge he’s gained through war and struggle to make peace. He volunteers to teach the youth and children in the remote areas. He is hoping that no child from his community, or any other IP community, will have to suffer and struggle the way he did make his dream of getting an education come true.

John could have a quit many times, but he didn’t. He became one of the Teduray professionals who continue to inspire and help his fellow youth. He serves as a voice for his fellow IP youth.

Aside from his work at the office, John often finds time to initiate feeding, psychosocial empowerment, and capacity building programs. He also promotes awareness on environmental and indigenous peoples' rights within his community and beyond it.

John is one of the active indigenous peoples’ youth who fully support their traditional system of governance in their lobby and advocacy works. He also participates in the implementation of community-based undertakings through the Green Livelihood Alliance programs that are supported by the Legal Rights and Natural Resource Center (LRCs). John knows that the protection and promotion of indigenous peoples and environmental rights are crucial to stop the cycle of poverty and displacement.

John often donates money from his own salary to help in school building efforts. He also gives his full support to other initiatives focused on community development. From time to time, he is invited as a guest speaker and he shares the story of how he managed to finish school despite the challenges that he faced.

MORAL: We should value education because it helps us become well-rounded human beings and empowers with the skills to help our community — and, ultimately, our country — prosper.

A message from John:

"It’s never wise to give up on your ambitions if you encounter failures. Instead, use your failures as the stepping stones to success.

If you don't fail in life, then how will you feel what it is to be successful? So, prepare yourself for the worst and leave no stone unturned in realizing your dreams. There will be times when you experience repeated failures, but success will definitely come to you.

There may be days when you get up in the morning and things are not the way you had hoped they would be. That’s when you have to tell yourself that things will get better.

There are times when people disappoint you and let you down. But those are the times when you must remind yourself to trust your own judgements and opinions, to keep yourself focused on your own journey.

There will be challenges to face and changes to make in your life, and it is up to you to accept them. Constantly keep yourself headed in the direction that's right for you. It may not be easy at times, but in those times of struggle you will find a stronger sense of who you are.

So, when you experience days that are filled with frustration and unexpected responsibilities, remember to believe in yourself and all you want your life to be.

The challenges and changes will only help you to find the goals that you know are meant to come true for you.

Keep believing in yourself!"

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