That was back in 1997 when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)'s Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) project hired her, a Filipina local, to help them distribute aid to Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels. The MNLF, a Muslim insurgency here in the southern Philippines, signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996. USAID wanted to make sure that peace held by giving former fighters a stake in it.
But Amalia's tough childhood memories complicated her new job. When she was fourteen-years-old, MNLF combatants blasted Amalia's hometown, forcing her family to evacuate. Amalia grew up a refugee, thinking all MNLF rebels were “violent, irrational, unreasonable people.”
So how did she feel distributing aid to these former combatants on behalf of the U.S. government?
In August, 1997, Amalia boarded a rented car with local women and USAID personnel and ventured to places she’d avoided her whole life. Off the main highway, she turned up a dilapidated dirt road, traveling over rickety bridges toward the hills of rural Mindanao.
Buildings were strewn with bullet holes. Farms were overrun with weeds. Stray children eyed her strangely.
Amalia became one of the first non-combatant civilians to visit the MNLF headquarters of rebel leader Datu Dima Ambel, also known as Commander Aladin. He was taciturn. She was terrified. Men with long hair and beards ambled by beside veiled women in camouflage fatigues. They all carried AK-47s, M-16s, and what looked like rocket-launchers.
A Bangsa Moro woman and former MNLF combatant named Adel Ditucalan introduced Amalia. “They are here with the U.S. to bring you aid,” she told the commander. Amalia hardly spoke, worried she might upset the rebels. One thought kept replaying in her mind: America had better come through with the aid it promised. “Otherwise, I was afraid they’d kill me."
Even Commander Datu Dima was skeptical. He'd seen other do-gooders come his way, promising lots, delivering nothing. Anyway, aid workers might be spies.
But exactly one decade ago, Amalia and America kept their promise. On her fourth visit back to the MNLF headquarters, she brought seeds of corn and fertilizer to the former combatants. “You could see their look of surprise,” she remembers, “Tears on their faces…the combatant’s wives brought their guns and laid them down,” taking her seeds instead.
Both Amalia and Datu were convinced: this was for real. It was the beginning of a deep friendship.
Since 1997, USAID has provided direct aid to former combatants in the form of "livelihood projects." Unlike other international donors that help the Philippines government build infrastructure for the war-torn areas, America is visible at the personal level. Aid packages come with letters to commanders. New farming projects have American flags plastered on their ready-made signs. These are things the former rebels appreciate, Amalia says.
USAID has helped turn run-down farms into fruitful cooperatives. Former combatants grow mangos and corn to feed themselves, and GEM project helps them sell produce for profit.
One former combatant’s wife, Gianida Lumanggal, now leads the Moro United Multi-Purpose Cooperative farm, supported by GEM. Speaking purposefully, she sounds like an USAID spokeswoman: “Because of livelihood projects of the government of America…the peace has been kept,” she says confidently, touring me through a banana grove.
Datu Dima agrees, adding, “If America had been here in 1972, perhaps we would never have taken up arms.”
Amalia says America made a big difference to her too. After a decade of working with these MNLF combatants, Amalia’s view of the Muslim insurgency here has changed. “I thought it was a religious fight,” she says. But since the U.S. pulled her from her old job with the Philippines Department of Agriculture into her new job helping former rebels face-to-face, she’s sees that the "violence was about poverty."
USAID's media shop shows me a parade of beneficiaries from their work. But I have a few lingering questions. First, why help these combatants who led to the deaths of hundreds of Filipino soldiers and citizens? Second, aren't there impoverished Christians living nearby who do not receive USAID? Third, is this advancing U.S. interests? Will these former combatants stop kissing America’s hand when America stops buttering their bread?
Datu Dima affirms that he didn’t think the U.S. had anything to do with their decades-long fight with the Philippines government for political and economic rights. As a side note, he says, the U.S. just manufactured some of the weapons that both sides used. Nothing more.
He adamantly supports U.S. troop presence in the area, even though they are attacking some of his former comrades who didn't sign onto the peace accords in 1996. "We love the Americans [military presence] here," he says, "they will make the others seek peace too."
Gianida agrees. She doesn't think America is at war with Muslims; she never has. This is about local stability, she says. No newspapers come this way. There's no internet either. News for her is, and has always been, entirely local.
Then one last question. The cooperatives still have weapons, guards, and an undisclosed stockpile of ammunition. “Why don’t you give it up?” I ask Datu Dima's aide, Fred Edillor.
“It is for protection. We all have it,” he replies. Amalia explains that the arms are meant to help protect these former combatants from loose commands and renegade factions that haven't yet acknowledged the peace accords.
I ask Gianida, whose husband works at one of these warehouses, “If aid suddenly stops, is there a risk of you taking up arms again?”
“No, I don't think so,” she says, then adds, “I don't know. But we have come very far. And America has promised to stay with us... They have promised.”