Beaming in a white toga and academic cap, Ibrahim Malat Fernandez, 40, proudly marched to the stage of Basilan State College here.

His immediate family members and relatives were there to applaud his life-changing feat. “It’s like a dream. Once, I was in the mountains, fighting soldiers. Now I’m a high school graduate.” said an emotional Fernandez.

He is the younger brother of the late Abu Sayyaf commander Long Malat, whom he joined in the hills. When Malat was killed in an encounter with the military in 2014, Fernandez took over his command and became one of the bandit group’s leaders in Basilan.

But his new role in the group led to strained relations between him and his three wives and nine children. He soon feared suffering the same fate that befell his sibling.

Fernandez decided to surrender in May 2017.

He availed himself of the Alternative Learning System (ALS) program of the Department of Education (DepEd), which allowed him to finish secondary school.

In the May 13 polls, while still an ALS student, he was elected municipal councilor of Al Barka town. He now plans to take up political science.

Disbelief is how Motong Indama, 30, described his feelings as he marched with Fernandez to the stage during the July 11 rites.

“I still cannot believe that I am here. It is one of my dreams to become an educated person,” said Indama, a nephew of Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf leader Furuji Indama.

His next goal, Indama said, is to start a business or earn a degree in management.

When he joined his uncle at the age of 16, Indama was made one of the group’s subleaders.

In 2016, Indama decided to turn his back on banditry, pressured by his wife, Raida, who demanded that they settle down to a life of peace so she could pursue her studies.

“I love my wife and children; their welfare comes first,” Indama said, recalling his thoughts back then.

After his surrender, Indama also developed a desire to go to school. To put himself in that path, he sought the assistance of officials of the now-defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the local military unit.

In January, the ARMM gave way to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) with the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law.

That Thursday morning at Basilan State College, Fernandez and Indama led a group of 49 former Abu Sayyaf fighters who completed the one-year DepEd-ALS program.

Myra Borja Mangkabong, the Lamitan City schools division superintendent who represented BARMM Education Minister Mohager Iqbal in the graduation program, said the former bandits were among the 512 students who completed the program in Basilan.

Collaboration for peace

“This is the first time in the history of Basilan that former bandits known for their notorious activities, decided to return to the fold of the law … and finished their secondary education,” Mangkabong told the Inquirer in an interview.

Some 214 Abu Sayyaf members have surrendered to the government since early 2016.

 

They later availed themselves of the Program Against Violent Extremism (PAVE), a joint initiative of the ARMM in collaboration with the Basilan local governments and security forces.

Under PAVE, the former Abu Sayyaf fighters were each given an assistance package consisting of housing, livelihood and education support [the last extending to their children].

By ensuring sufficient delivery of economic and social services, then Gov. Mujiv Hataman expected to stave off, if not defeat, the spread of extremism in Basilan.

Hataman, who is now Basilan congressman, said the accomplishments of the 49 graduates should be taken as a sign of “a better Basilan” and that the choices they made would redound to lasting peace and security in the entire province.

Mangkabong attributed the program’s success in the province to the hard work of the soldiers who also served as teachers of the 49 former Abu Sayyaf fighters.

When they started implementing ALS, many of the former bandits were not yet cleared by the military or had pending court cases.

“What the military did was to have soldiers act as teachers for them and the military camps became their schools,” Mangkabong said.