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This Marine’s weapon is a football
By Rick Olivares
The traditional way of determining the success of warfare has boiled down to body counts, recovered weaponry, and conquered land. Since the Vietnam War, military tactics dictated that one mustn’t only win the battle of arms but also that of the hearts and minds of the populace.
When a young Lieutenant named Stephen Cabanlet was first assigned to Sulu in 1997, he believed among many things that he was there to protect the young children from an insurrection. Years later, he found himself fighting those very same children he swore to protect. The experience, aside from the regular body counts, left him wondering about their tactics in dealing with what was then a 42-year old insurgency that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands.
The moment of clarity arrived not during a lull in combat or in some post-operation debriefing but during a pick up game of football.
“During our down time,” recalled Cabanlet who has since been promoted to Lt. Colonel and is currently the Executive Officer of the 3rd Marine Battalion assigned Marine Barracks Domingo Deluana in Bongao, Tawi Tawi, “we would play football in an open field on the nearby school grounds. One afternoon, there were some youngsters who came over to watch. And they would always be there whenever we would play. One time, we invited them if they wanted to play. We let them some balls and a lot of other children came over to play. I felt this spark of inspiration and thought, ‘why not win the hearts and minds of these kids and their families through football?’”
“That was in October of 2011 when I first came up with the concept for ‘Football for Peace’ with the tagline, ‘Our goal is peace.’”
“Football has this concept of fair play,” added Cabanlet. “We believe it is a wonderful concept and we took it further.”
The football program instilled discipline amongst the children. They were taught to follow and obey the rules, to throw trash in the proper disposal area, to queue for giveaways or buying goods from a store, and to study. The traditional Filipino words of respect and deference to elders -- words of “po,” “ho,” and “opo” – never used in daily life of the people of Tawi Tawi soon became embedded in their daily usage.
“The children can’t play if they didn’t attend or do well in school. We made them understand that doing well in school meant they get to play football. It was like a reward for their doing well so they take their education seriously.”
Yet school by itself was altogether another problem. Bandits and insurgents in the area were said to kidnap teachers. So any bold soul brave enough to impart basic education usually taught for one to two hours a day before hightailing it back home. “That greatly affected the children’s education,” notes Cabanlet who added that the marines themselves took it upon themselves to put aside their assault rifles and took a crash course in teaching basic English and Math.
The effect was astounding.
“Football for Peace” strengthened the relationship between the military and the local Muslim communities. And it was the children who convinced their parents that not only were the soldiers good and respectable people but they more importantly, a force for positive change.
“Gambling used to be a big problem among the children,” noted Lt. Ryan Gandeza, a colleague of Cabanlet’s who is a major proponent of the program. “After we started the program, we would still catch the kids gambling and hey would scamper at the sight of us because they felt guilty that they could not kick these vices. Nowadays, it is even their parents who have also taken on the responsibility of keeping their children away from these vices.
One child, Sharifa Mae Salip Jamuh of Panglima Estino in Sulu, is the first recipient of a “football scholarship.”
“At first, Sharifa was the taga-pulot ng bola when it went out of bounds,” related Lt. Gandeza. “After a while, we allowed her to join the boys and she quickly stood out. Her parents didn’t even mind it at all. In fact, she soon proved to be better than the boys.”
She was so promising that the Marines decided to help her get a proper education by passing around a hat (or the American ACH helmet that they currently wear) to pay for her high school education at Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga.
This past February, Sharifa Mae, playing the right back position, just completed her first season with the UST Women’s Football Team in the last UAAP tournament courtesy of a scholarship from the Football for Peace Program. She is also now with Kaya Football Club’s girls team. When she recently turned home to Sulu for a vacation, she was like a celebrity as her barangay mates mobbed her. “Para siyang celebrity,” quipped Gandeza. “People saw her pictures with Phil Younghusband and others. She got to share her experiences. And now every parent wants their child to get into the program.
Previously, when the Marines ventured out of their barracks, they always traveled in force and with a lot of firepower. “The impression you get from being assigned in Sulu is it is a dangerous place,” said Cabanlet. “Para kang kakainin ng buhay.”
Today, although precautions are still taken by every soldier in the area, there is relative harmony in the community. When they soldiers go out on assignment, the roads are lined with people from the community who wave, smile, and cheer.
Last Monday, April 13, over 200 from Mindanao were flown over by the Philippine Air Force to take part in Football for Peace Week, a football festival organized by the Philippine Marine Corps and the One Meralco Foundation. “And these are the children of Muslim families in the area some who have relatives in the MNLF, MILF or even Abu Sayyaf,” gushed Lt. Col. Cabanlet. “Imagine, nagtiwala sila sa Marines to take care of their children and to bring them to Manila. That’s says a lot about the program.”
Such is the success of the Football for Peace program that it is now being introduced in other conflict areas.
However, the problems of Mindanao aren’t as cut and dried with the success of Football for Peace. It isn’t simply a Moro insurgency but also generations of blood feuds between warring Muslim clans. Massive inroads have been made by the football program but much works remains to be done.
“It is a cliché to say that the children are our future,” summed up Cabanlet. “If the guns in Sulu can go silent because of the children then imagine how much father we can go if we all continue to do our share towards peace and prosperity.”
The Football for Peace Festival will take place at the Philippine Marine Corps Headquarters Football Field at Fort Bonifacio, Taguig on Saturday, April 18.