Sha Elijah Dumama-Alba remembers being unable to leave her home to play with other children in their neighborhood on the conflict-ravaged southern island of Mindanao, Philippines.
She grew up in the island’s Muslim minority in Cotabato City, a resource-rich swamp between two rivers that is today the de facto capital of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.
Cotabato had long been divided along religious lines and a hotbed of conflict between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the rebel group leading the struggle for an independent state in the south. Christians make up almost half of the city’s population, while the other half is mainly made up of the Maguindanaos, an ethnic group known as one of the pillars of the Muslim struggle.
For years, the relationship between the two groups was strained.
Kidnappings were rife, so even going to school or the park was a leap of faith, the 39-year-old recalls.
“I was still in a state of fear. There was nowhere to go at the time, ”said Sha Elijah, recalling his childhood. Going to the mall with the family meant driving to the relative safety of Davao City, over 200 km (124 miles) to the east.
The never-ending cycle of conflict and violence had a profound impact on the young woman Maguindanao, who longed for the day when peace would reign in her native land.
Now, as the first attorney general of the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), she finds herself in a position to steer her community towards that peace after more than five decades of bloodshed.
As BARMM marks the second year since its founding on Thursday, Sha Elijah faces the enormous challenge of helping to build an efficient new bureaucracy that can sustain the gains of the past two years.
Because her personal story is tied to the success of this business, she is determined to make it work. In the process, she also demonstrates to a society still dominated by men how women do things.
From medicine to law
As a high school student, Sha Elijah saw displacement and poverty in his community as a result of the fighting, and this heightened his interest in law and community service.
Coming from a family of doctors, including her father and several siblings, she was forced to follow the tradition and completed a preparatory course in medicine at the University of the Philippines in the capital, Manila.
However, in her third year of college, she finally confessed to her father that her heart was not in medicine and that she had always wanted to become a lawyer.
“’Since we don’t have a lawyer in the family,’ my father said, ‘Okay, I’ll support you.’ So that’s how it happened, ”she told Al Jazeera.
“I think it was really my ambition that drove me to pursue law. I am happy that my family supported me.
‘Princess of Mindanao’
However, studying in Manila as a young woman from Mindanao had its challenges, including the stereotype that she was from the country of “bombings and shootings”.
While studying at the University of San Beda, a Catholic institution in Manila to which she had moved when she started law, her classmates remarked that Sha Elijah “must have been a princess of Mindanao” if her parents could afford to send him to Manila to continue his studies. She had to correct them whenever she had the chance. If his parents are both doctors, they are civil servants.
It struck her that many of her classmates in the capital had never met, let alone interacted with, a Muslim from Mindanao.
It was then that she realized how much work was required to change perceptions of Mindanao as a perpetual backwater, where poverty and conflict are woven into the history of her people.
“Mindanao cannot be ignored because we have a lot to offer. Mindanao is the food basket of the Philippines. If we take it for granted, it will impact the whole country, ”she said.
It was while she was in law school that Sha Elijah and the rest of the country witnessed Philippine President Joseph Estrada’s declaration of all-out war on Muslim rebels in 2000, after a new series failed. of peace talks.
Estrada’s forces eventually invaded Camp Abubakar, the main rebel stronghold.
In an act seen as the ultimate insult to the Muslim community, the president and his men celebrated the military victory by feasting on pork and drinking a ‘truck’ of alcohol inside a mosque, sparking resentment even more serious among locals, Muslims and Christians.
The government won the battle but lost the war. The fighting never ended, although Estrada’s presidency was interrupted by a corruption scandal.
The military offensive only strengthened Sha Elijah’s determination to contribute to lasting peace. It was no longer enough to finish law school and pass the bar exams. She had to go home to Mindanao.
“I knew I had to do something. I asked myself, “Why did I pursue a career in law in the first place? … It was because I wanted to contribute and give back to my community in my homeland of Bangsamoro. So, I went home.
And so she became involved in the peace process, advising Moro’s leaders while gaining the trust of elders in her community, who did not see her as a symbolic representative, but a legal expert and a leader capable of representing Bangsamoro.
Sha Elijah’s job has never been easier.
When Estrada was ousted and replaced by Gloria Arroyo in 2001, a new wave of violence erupted between the military and Muslim rebels, killing more and displacing thousands of people.
In 2008, one of the most serious chapters of the conflict engulfed many parts of Mindanao after the Supreme Court struck down a deal between the government and the rebels. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front responded with deadly attacks. The military responded with counteroffensives and airstrikes, killing civilians and destroying houses.
It would take another president, Benigno Aquino III, to finally break the deadlock and strike a peace deal in 2012 that saw the rebels abandon their quest for independence in exchange for greater autonomy over an expanded territory.
Even then, the process did not go smoothly, with a bloody months-long siege of Marawi, one of the crown jewels of the autonomous Muslim region, by supporters of the Islamic State.
More than a thousand fighters and civilians have been killed in the fighting, which has also displaced nearly a million people.
The upheaval has forced the leaders of Bangsamoro to face new realities – including the emergence of armed groups like the Maute brothers and the Islamic freedom fighters of Bangsamoro, who have pledged allegiance to the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
Three years later, tens of thousands of people have not returned home and Marawi is still in ruins. The Bangsamoro government has announced that it will provide $ 10 million for the rehabilitation of the devastated city.
Bangsamoro was officially established by referendum in 2019 under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the first Philippine ruler of Mindanao.
When Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, former commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, took the reins as chief minister that year, he appointed Sha Elijah as attorney general, acknowledging her years of contribution to the peace process.
While law enforcement and prosecution powers remain with the central government in Manila, as Attorney General of Bangsamoro, she has the power to help draft new laws and advise sub-state leaders. on governance.
“I would say that the trust they have placed in me is already a great achievement for women in general,” she said, welcoming the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as it transitioned to civilian rule.
“As long as we share the passion of serving the Bangsamoro and advancing the Bangsamoro cause, MILF has had no problem letting women into the circle.
Much remains to be done for the new authority in Bangsamoro, including the development of a number of new laws before the end of the transition period in 2022 and the first elections.
Time is running out, Sha Elijah and the leaders of Bangsamoro support a proposal to extend the transition period until 2025.
She stressed that in order to maintain the gains of the peace process, it was important to put in place a fully functioning bureaucracy.
So far, the Philippine government has indicated it will support a possible extension of the transition and Congress is deliberating on legislation tabled last December for the decision.
The “ultimate goal,” Sha Elijah said, is for the Bangsamoro to be ready, regardless of who inherits the progress made so far.
“We basically work from scratch. We have already made progress, but we still have a lot of work to do. “