Drawn to the fray
During daily drills, Mangadta follows his commander's orders with confidence and ease. Then, when it is time to take a break from training, he seems rather shy as he sits in a corner. He is 19 years old but looks younger. The teenager is short and chubby, but his commander, Abu Saima, 30, swears that he is 'a tough man who can be trusted in the heat of a battle'.
Mangadta, who like some of his comrades did not want to give his full name, is a mujahedeen, an Islamic fighter of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the military wing of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines' and Asia's largest rebel group.
He joined the MILF when he was 14. In a previous meeting, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu explained that 'only men are allowed to fight, but for Muslims, adulthood is reached at puberty and not on the celebration of their 18th birthday, as in most western countries'.
Mangadta said he attained manhood a long time ago, fighting in several battles and living for the past few years on a war footing. Once, he felt a bullet whizzing past him, and another time saw an enemy fall as he fired his rifle.
'I felt little. Fighting is normal,' he said. 'My father was a member of the MILF. I am a member of the MILF, and if one day I have a son, he will be a member of the MILF.'
Fighting is almost a family tradition in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Here, ethnicity, religion and historical grievances bind most of the 41/2 million Muslims into supporting one of various rebel groups that are active on the island. The MILF is the most prominent and the one that, during the past three decades, has led the struggle for an independent Bangsamoro, or 'land for the Moros', as the local Muslims are collectively known.
Travelling from Cotabato City to the rebel camp, people's support for the Moro cause is palpable.
In his mid-30s, Nazar has been part of the MILF for most of his adult life. 'I have always been a low-ranking soldier, but I have always fought for our cause,' he said.
He sat at the back of a jeepney, the traditional mode of transport in the Philippines, as it speedily left Cotabato City in the early hours of the morning. Two hours later, the driver stopped in a village where an old woman organised the second leg of the trip by walkie-talkie. Her conversation soon led to the arrival of two Yamaha DTs and two Kawasaki Skylab 125cc's, ridden by armed rebels. Another hour's drive, through roads carved out of the forest and tiny villages, followed.
The children along the way waved and intoned a high-pitch hum that seemed to be carried from village to village as a forewarning for the next rebel post.
Eventually, the bikes were parked, and a brief walk led to Camp Bader, where about 300 mujahedeen were hoping for peace, while not forgetting how to wage war.
'We hope that peace will be signed soon, but in the meantime we do rehearsal training for our fighters,' said Commander Abu.
The latest peace talks between Manila and the MILF started in March 2001 but has proceeded slowly amid fighting that has killed dozens on both sides and created a deeply entrenched reciprocal mistrust.
Manila says it is ready to improve the disputed autonomy package granted to the MILF's predecessor, the Moro National Liberation Front, in 1996. The MILF is listening, despite never fully abandoning its wish for independence.
The Moro and the Lumads - non-Muslim indigenous people - used to inhabit the entire island. But a state-sponsored internal migration programme, which peaked under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, moved millions of Christians from the archipelago's northern islands of Luzon and Visayas, to Mindanao. To make things worse, Manila granted land rights to the newly arrived Christians, making them owners of land that used to be shared by Muslims according to local traditions. Today, Muslims represent 18 per cent of the island's population and more than 80 per cent of them are landless.
The island's altered ethnic, religious and economical makeup sowed the seeds of discontent, recrimination and violence. More than 120,000 have died in the fighting, which started in earnest in the early 1970s. Since then, millions have been forced to flee their homes and the region remains among the country's poorest.
In the past decade, the sectarian tension has attracted international terrorists, who are thought to be colluding with radical elements of the Moro rebels opposed to the peace talks.
Over the years, the MILF has asserted control over certain pockets of the island, where it now runs its camps.
Commander Abu said Camp Bader was a 'satellite camp', used for training and as a first line of defence for a larger camp, built further inland. The 300 mujahedeen look well equipped, trained and tough. They are part of a 700-man strong battalion that is rotated every week. When not training, the men return to their villages, their families and their jobs.
'Most of them are farming someone else's land,' Commander Abu said.
The camp has spartan facilities. There is neither running water nor electricity, and at night the only light comes from kerosene lamps. The mujahedeen sleep in a wall-less barracks and most of the food is provided by villagers who support the Moro cause.
The daily routine involves exercise, military training, and the prayers Muslims must say five times a day. The link between religion and war is ubiquitous.
'Prayers give us strength in our jihad [holy war],' said Commander Abu. 'I joined this jihad when I was 15 because this is the command of Allah, as explained in the holy Koran. Here, jihad is the aspiration of any young Moro,' said the father of one.
Prayers are also said at the end of each training exercise. The mujahedeen kneel facing Mecca and bow their heads to the floor, thanking Allah for the strength and health he has bestowed upon them.
While praying, Russian AK-47s and American M-16s lie next to the Moro-made rocket-propelled grenades. Nazer said the rebels' arsenal included M-60s, M-14s and some British rifles. Most of MILF's weapons are the same as those used by the Philippines army, a coincidence that strengthens the suspicion of rogue military men supplying arms to the rebels.
This double life - as a rebel and regular citizen - does not weigh heavy on the mujahedeen, said newly wed Lida Sansaide. 'I miss my wife when I am here, but duty comes first, and we follow the orders of our leaders.' The 23-year-old said he used to be a student activist before joining the MILF a few years ago. He dreams of an independent country for the Moro and a life in politics.
'Once our dream of independence is achieved, I would like to become a politician and do something that could really help the lives of the Moros,' he said.
In the dwindling light, the rebels' perilous return journey is broken by a stop at a village just on the edge of the forest. Inside a poorly lit but cosy hut Saison Mokamad, 42, puts coffee and small cakes on a table. This is an important day: his youngest son has just turned six days old.
'According to Islamic religion, we mark the sixth day by cutting a tuft of hair,' said the father of six, scissors in his hands.
Once the brief ceremony is over, the proud father holds the infant aloft. 'Look at him,' he said. 'He already looks like a Moro fighter.'