During a work trip to Marawi in 2018, Manila-based photojournalist Martin San Diego was struck by a realization: that there was so little he knew about Muslim life in Mindanao, about Moro history, and that he grew up hearing so few of their stories.
It compelled him to look at the region in earnest. His photo essay, Youth of the Nation Within, paints a nuanced portrait of Moro youth and their love for the Bangsamoro in their context within the cycles of conflict in Mindanao.
We talk to Martin about this work; about how the act of remembering fuels the people in his photographs, and why no conversation on terrorism is truly transformative or complete without addressing the roots of the conflict in Mindanao.
A lot of the imagery we see coming out of Mindanao is tied to its history of conflict. As somebody who has been telling stories from the region for two years, can you tell us what gets lost when we constantly anchor stories on its history of conflict? Is it possible, or even responsible, to write stories without that context?
MARTIN: It depends [on] how big of a role conflict plays in your story. Conflict is part of [Moro] life—in a way, it defines them too. They don’t deny and they are not ashamed that they’ve been fighting for their land since the Spaniards’ came.
You can’t take away the warrior in them whenever you talk about their culture. You can’t take it away from the storytelling, unless you talk about [tribes] outside the Moro, like the T’boli, na wala naman talagang kinalaman. But in the Muslim areas, you can’t take away the conflict in them because it’s really a part of them. It depends on what about it you want to tell.
Tell me about your project, Youth of the Nation Within. You started this while you were in grad school. How did you come upon this story? What was your understanding of the Moros and of Mindanao’s history before that?
MARTIN: I did that project as a required output for a 10-month course. In the middle of the course, I was commissioned for work for the UNILAB Foundation. They brought me to Marawi, where I met my first friend from Maranao. Her name was Nidah and she was a mental health advocate.
I was taking pictures of Nidah and her friends when I happened upon this shot of [her friend] Nismah where you could only see her eyes. She was dancing while I was taking her photo and it surprised me. Para din pala silang bata. That’s what I thought when I was taking photos of her in the niqab. Kahit mata lang yung nakikita ko sa kanya, yung movement niya is just like a normal girl. Doon ko na-realize na ang dami kong hindi alam.
When it was time for us to work on proposals for our final output in Ateneo, I thought about Marawi. I thought about its youth and the conflict cycle. Nagbasa ako nang nagbasa. Then a friend mentioned that there was another youth leader from Maguindanao whose thesis was about exposure to conflict, how it increased a child’s chances of joining the next conflict. I approached John Badawi, the youth leader, and asked for his thesis. The more a child is exposed to constant or repeated conflict, the higher the chance na masali siya sa mga kasunod.
“Hindi ka Moro kapag wala kang relative na namatay sa nagdaang giyera." That’s how relatable it is to them. Lagi siyang napapasa.
By October 2018, I was invited back by the UNILAB Foundation, this time to Basilan. When we got there, there was an annual children’s festival—which you can see in my photos. That’s where I met Nurhati. She works with an NGO that builds trust with rebel groups, and facilitates their reintroduction back to communities.
So many things formed my image of [Moro] youth. May youth na pumupunta sa rebel groups para i-convince silang mag-surrender. May youth na gumawa ng thesis about conflict. May youth sa Marawi na ang ginagawa niya ay mental health para sa post-Marawi siege victims.
And then there are those [who also share the same passion and love for the Bangsamoro] but decided to join the Marawi Siege. They’re all coming from the same seed and yet have taken different paths to promote their dreams for the Bangsamoro.
I can’t explain [their individual motivations], but it’s amazing that the fighters and the advocates come from the same kind of people, na nanggagaling sila sa “mahal ko yung bayan ko.” Somewhere down the road, nagkaiba lang sila ng nakausap na tao. Ang isa sumali sa [extremist] group, ang isa may NGO na pinagtratrabahuan.
How is Moro history passed down to the youth?
MARTIN: In 2018 I joined a media tour of the US Embassy around Lanao, near Marawi. Around that time, I was doing research for Ateneo de Manila University.
I shared the idea with a social worker I met there. She asked me, “Kuya, alam mo ang Jabidah Massacre?” When I interviewed her that time, she had nearly joined the Siege of Marawi. She told me about her frustrations; she told me everything that happened since the 1900s. I was surprised how fresh her memory was.
I spoke with a peace advocate at the Mindanao State University about it, about how the way they pass oral narratives is so strong. “Hindi mo siya mababasa kasi wala naman sa history books natin,” he said. That’s how they pass down history. It’s with reference to someone they knew, someone who was family, who had actually fought in history.
I [had a conversation over SMS with another] historian before, and I asked about martyrs; [he had] this idea that there is a cycle: when the father dies, his child fights. When the child fights, the next one does too. The historian said, “Hindi ka Moro kapag wala kang relative na namatay sa nagdaang giyera.” That’s how relatable it is to them. Lagi siyang napapasa.
Why focus on the youth?
MARTIN: Because of the kids I met who were youth leaders and advocates. Imagine, Nidah was treating clients who had mental health problems, who found it too emotional to move on from what had happened in the past. They would have sessions in the basement of her office, [where] they just made a hub. They would share stories, cry. When they told me about what they did for Marawi, for Maranao, for Bangsamoro, I was shocked. That was one of the first things I saw in them; their concern for their kind, for their tribe, for their people. That’s what I saw in them all. Everything they did for the Bangsamoro.
Tapos parang tumingin ulit ako sa sarili ko. I’ve never felt this way about anything for the Philippines. Hindi ko naman talaga mahal yung Pilipinas pero sila mahal nila yung Bangsamoro. Bakit ganoon? Anong meron? May mga ganito palang kwento, may mga ganito palang tao.
I thought, I want to put their narratives on the same level as narratives in Manila. I want to give their issues the same level of discourse as our problems in Manila, in Luzon.
We never hear the small stories, the things happening to them. I want people in Manila to know that things like this are happening in Mindanao.
How big is the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups for the Moro youth?
MARTIN: That was another thought I kept having, that joining extremist groups is always just one trigger away. One frustration away. One text away.
In 2018, I lived in a house in Marawi with only men. I was chatting with the college kids, and I asked them about the Bangsamoro Organic Law. “Paano kapag nag-fail ang BOL?”
The kid I was chatting with, he said, “Kuya, kapag nag-fail iyan, kami na ang lalaban.”
What do you think he meant by that?
MARTIN: That taking up arms is always an option.
It’s amazing that the fighters and the advocates come from the same kind of people, na nanggagaling sila sa “mahal ko yung bayan ko.” Somewhere down the road, nagkaiba lang sila ng nakausap na tao.
I know you have some thoughts about the Anti-Terrorism Law and how it connects to the youth’s impulse to take up arms. Can you tell us more about that?
MARTIN: The way a majority of Filipinos have been criticizing the Anti-Terror Law is on the assumption that it will be abused. And it’s a valid fear. But I think we have another valid counter-argument to the law. Our history is full of armed conflict in the Southern Philippines. We have countless armed groups sprouting from that region. Maybe we can ask “why?” Why they started, why some of them are still operating to this day. With my work in Mindanao I tried to understand why the youth takes up arms. It’s a bunch of reasons—I’m sure it’s not for the fun of it. It’s for the discrimination, the lack of economic means, the long list of historical frustrations they have, the bad governance they received. The law has none of the understanding of the roots [of conflict].
Do you mean that the Anti-Terrorism Law intends to stamp out what it calls domestic terrorism in Mindanao, without actually understanding the roots of the unrest?
MARTIN: The kind of ‘solution’ [the Anti-Terrorism Law] brings, which is only punitive in nature, will only further perpetuate the cycle of violence that has been going on in Mindanao for decades. One of the motivations of the fighters in joining armed groups is losing loved ones in the past conflicts or in government abuses. The Anti-Terrorism Law will inevitably lead to unnecessary arrests, which may lead to killings, which will only give us more angry youth who have more reason to take up arms. With the Anti-Terrorism Law, we’re basically just giving the next generation of the already-vulnerable Moro youth more reasons to be angry at us northerners and the national government.
And what have you heard from your sources, when the bill was passed by congress and when it was signed into law? Have you kept in touch with them?
MARTIN: Of course they’re sad. One of my friends from Zamboanga said: “Kapag naiisip ko yung mga dating napagkamalan at pinatay, ang bigat sa pakiramdam. Ngayon naiisip ko yung posibilidad na dadami pa [sila] bukas.”
What the law tries to legalize has been experienced by the Muslim communities in the Philippines for so long. And not just Muslim communities, indigenous people too where their land is rich in resources. It triggers fear from the past, especially when the past hasn’t healed yet.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.