A child forced to drop out of school. "Bakwet" (refugee) status spanning maidenhood to grandmotherhood. Siblings who have had to "sweep bullet casings from their yards."
"The devil is in the details," President Benigno Aquino III acknowledged minutes before chief negotiators of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace framework that needs to hurdle Congress and a plebiscite.
Aquino, MILF Chair Al-Haj Emrahim Murad, Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak all highlighted the human cost of war.
Decades of conflict have killed an estimated 150,000 people in Mindanao. Alienation has pushed a "lost generation" into the embrace of the Al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiya. The vicious cycle of violence on the island once called the Land of Promise has left many affected provinces as the poorest nationwide -- though peace activists will point out that social and economic injustice are the roots of conflict.
In framing the peace discourse in intimate, dramatic portraits of lives interrupted, they wrested the debate -- however temporarily -- from bellicose belligerents, paving the way for a dialogue among stakeholders.
Deles set the tone with a narrative about a girl named Salama. "She was in grade school in the town of Kabuntulan, Maguindanao, when, one day in August, 2008, the first sounds of gunfire broke out as military and rebel forces engaged in battle."
The Peace Adviser read Salama's words: “I was so scared that I cried. Our teacher yelled at us, telling us to take cover, but we wanted to go home because we were worried about our parents and sibling. I was a grade three pupil then. I had to stop my schooling because of the war.”
Deles' voice broke with emotion as she paid tribute to "women in communities ravaged by conflict, women who valiantly clutched their babies to their chests to hush them in the din of gunfire and the scream of falling bombs; who stayed and tended to the children, the sick, and the aging through days and weeks of seemingly endless nights."
She also talked of "men forced to gather their families in refugee tents and reassuring them in whispers that it will be better tomorrow. It will better tomorrow. It will be better tomorrow… even in the darkest days of despair."
Women in jewel-toned Moro outfits wiped off tears as Deles spoke of the fallen, "those who have died without seeing the sunlight of peace—those felled by bullets, and those cut down by hunger because of the ravages of war—we bow our heads in offering you this day."
The government's chief negotiator, Marvic Leonen, sat quietly mid-way across the hall from the speaker's rostrum. He would not get up until the actual signing. At points in Deles's speech, he closed his eyes and bowed his head.
Two rows away, popular actor Gerald Anderson listened rapt. There was barely a trace of the celebrity, just the open face of a young man from General Santos who says his best friend is Muslim.
“Galing po ako sa GenSan at naranasan ko rin ‘yung violence and ‘yung bombing doon. And this is the first step na to stop things from happening,” he said in an interview.
Deles was in teasing mode as she introduced the President to "media and activists, meddlers and kibitzers."
The President, in a bouyant mood, made jokes at his expense and a subtle dig at opposition politicians who often portray him as less than diligent.
He drew laughs on admitting that Deles and Leonen "not only had to work tirelessly with their counterparts from the MILF, but also had to exercise great patience in the face of probing inquiry—from me especially." At this line, Leonen smiled as he shook his head.
Aquino said the two officials "produced voluminous memos that thoroughly threshed out all the issues—and which I then had to wade through thoroughly also." Deles, however, praised the Chief Executive as the moral compass of the peace process.
The President can sometimes seem distant. Personal tragedy can be a unifying factor, however. He sketched this in simple, easily understood words:
"I understand the temptations that can be borne of anger. I myself lost my father to an oppressive system; I myself thirsted for justice, and was deprived of it then by the dictatorship. I empathize with our Bangsamoro brothers and sisters," he said.
Many Malaysians may not agree with their prime minister when he explains the big number of illegal Filipino migrants in Sabah as an offshoot of war.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak was the most eloquent of speakers, and injected a dose of hard reality into the proceedings.
Malaysia has been a refuge for Filipinos fleeing the war in Mindanao, he said. "For Mindanao, there can no longer be a lost generation," he told a hushed hall.
After speaking of a woman he met who claimed war had left her homeless as a maiden and still made her a refugee as a grandmother, Razak warned, "the ink on this paper will not save a single life, unless it is matched by a true and immovable commitment to peace."
Murad and Aquino shared some light moments when he presented the President with a gong for peace. There was little of the fierce fighter in his speech, which tried to reach out to the rival Moro National Liberation Front, whose peace pact with the Philippine government was called as a failed experiment by the incumbent leader.
“Let me have this opportunity to call on our MNLF brethren to support the Framework Agreement, to take this historic journey with us and rebuild (our homeland),” Murad said. “This is not the time for recriminations, this is the time for unity, the time to think and act as one Bangsamoro, as we summon all our strength to face the daunting task."
But he betrayed some bitterness at the all-out wars launched by previous Philippine presidents, saying it was hard for the MILF to stay true to founder Hashim Salamat's belief that negotiation was the most civilized and practical way of solving the Bangsamoro problem.
The signing of the peace framework, Murad said, "is not a victory earned by war, but by the inner nobility of people to return justice to a troubled land."
With Murad in Malacañang were 200 MILF veterans who beamed smiles at each other and revelled in taking souvenir photos in a building they had never dreamed of entering.
Some of them joked about having to scour ukay-ukay (bargain stalls) for their formal suits. While their leaders chatted with journalists, most of the fighters were tongue-tied, refusing to give their names or even how long they have been fighting for self-determination.
"Saka na, saka na," a dimunitive MILF member waved me off. "Mahaba pa" was his cryptic explanation for remaining silent.