PIKIT, Philippines - Past violence involving rebels, criminal groups, armed civilians and government forces continues to haunt Bai Kudanding, a student of Sultan Memorial High School in this municipality of North Cotabato province on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
The 16-year-old Muslim girl said she and her family have had to temporarily move out of their home in the agricultural village of Tinutulan several times in recent years due to the ongoing violence, which she said stems from poverty.
"It's really scary when you step out of your house because sometimes violence and shooting incidents just erupt from nowhere. Even if we're in school, the mere sight of government soldiers gives us a fright because we see it as a sign of a looming armed encounter," Kudanding said in a recent interview.
Kudanding's schoolmates, Annie Maganod Udil and Janilla Ampuan, recounted similar experiences.
Udil, 15, said she and her family sought refuge at a military checkpoint for three days a few years back amid a raging row between two families over a piece of land, while Ampuan, 16, said a recent interfamily armed conflict in their neighborhood left her feeling unsafe even inside her own home.
"I don't think this is a normal environment. When I hear guns being fired, I fear I or someone in my family could get hit," Udil said.
But with the recent signing of a framework agreement for peace in the country's Muslim region on Mindanao Island, the three young Muslim ladies are now heaving a sigh of relief. They now see a brighter future, not just for them but also for generations to come.
"When I heard about the framework agreement, my fears subsided because I know that gun battles will become a thing of the past and people will feel free," Kudanding said.
Prior to the Oct. 15 signing of the roadmap agreement toward peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Kudanding's school was declared by the Education Department as a "School of Peace."
As such, its teachers, its students and their parents, as well as village officials, participated in workshops on peace education, a subject which has been incorporated in the school curriculum.
To complement the "soft component" of the project, the International Children's Action Network Foundation, using funds from the Japanese government, has built a six-classroom school building with new facilities like chairs and blackboards, to the delight of its 384 students, all of whom are Muslims, and 15 teachers.
Rahib Hadji Salik Abdullah of ICAN Foundation said the building was specifically painted with the art design "Likos" identified with Muslim Maguindanao tribe, which is predominant in the area, "to give the beneficiaries a sense of ownership" of the facility.
Peace-themed art pieces made by the students were also placed around the building.
"The project, 'Peace-Building through Education,' is ICAN's humble effort to walk along with the people of Tinutulan toward a peaceful community, where all the children can enjoy better educational environment to study and pursue their dreams in the future," ICAN Country Director Yukiyo Nomura said during the building's turnover last September.
Vocational Technology teacher Ysmael Bualan said the attendance rate of students significantly improved when the school started using the new building "because they're already comfortable here, unlike before when we would hold classes in open areas if there was no classroom available."
Sultan Memorial High School used to only have four buildings, all of which were dilapidated.
Evidence of the conflict in the area is seen in the bullet holes left on one of the classrooms when Muslim rebels and government forces battled here several years ago, Bualan said.
"I really love coming to school now because that new building is very beautiful, clean, colorful, with fresh air, unlike before when we'd get wet even if there was just light rain because of the porous roof," Kudanding said.
As one of the 30 students who participated in the peace workshops, she also changed her ways in dealing with her schoolmates.
"I used to be involved in a lot of fights here in school. I wouldn't hesitate to grab the hair of my enemies. But now I'm not that kind of person anymore. I talk over issues with my enemies," Kudanding said.
Ampuan said that when she becomes an adult, she wants to work as a peace advocate.
"I learned from our peace education subject the importance of communication, of dialogue, and we students try to apply it with our schoolmates and even outside," she said.
With the final peace agreement between the government and the MILF expected to be signed by the end of the year, Ampuan can hardly contain her excitement at the prospect of peace finally reigning in her homeland and the rest of Mindanao.
"I really pray this process toward peace will continue, and that President Benigno Aquino will not fail us. It'll surely be good to live quiet lives, and Mindanao will really prosper if there's no more violence," Ampuan said.
She dreams of working in the planned autonomous government as a policewoman to "help regain and strengthen the Islamic culture."
"I know the peace agreement will have a big impact on my life because my dreams will no longer be hindered. I won't be distracted anymore by violence and war as I try to reach my ambitions in life," added Kudanding, who wants to become a teacher and serve her alma mater one day.