PIKIT, NORTH COTABATO, December 22, 2005 (STAR) By John Unson — The once impregnable Buliok complex here is still a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stronghold but rebels no longer carry guns, only farming tools, when they roam around.

Now a peace zone, the 3,000-hectare Buliok complex, supposedly the MILF’s "last frontier," fell to government hands on Feb. 14, 2003 after a seven-day air, artillery and ground offensive.

The government’s rehabilitation projects in Buliok were jointly pioneered by now Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Generoso Senga, North Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Piñol and Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza.

Senga, as commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, was responsible for driving away hundreds of suspected kidnappers belonging to the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom gang and the rogue secessionist rebels coddling them from Buliok, a feat that paved the way for the restoration of government control in the area.

The complex is located at the border of this town and Pagalungan, Maguindanao.

The initial stages of training Buliok residents to become progressive farming folks were fraught with difficulties.

Saboteurs thrice attempted to derail government relief efforts by staging clandestine attacks, one of which was the ambush of a team of virtually unarmed Army engineers on their way to their camp at the town proper from a project site near the house of the former MILF chairman Hashim Salamat right at the heart of Buliok complex.

The security problems in the area prompted Senga, Piñol and Dureza to undertake "backdoor dialogues" with leaders of the MILF and even complemented their diplomatic efforts with distribution of farm animals, corn and vegetables seeds to farmers to improve their productivity.

With the cooperation of MILF forces in the area, Piñol was able to deploy costly road-building equipment in strategic spots around the complex to interconnect barangays there with farm-to-market roads.

"The members of our central committee were also very supportive of our community-level peace initiatives with government agencies helping rehabilitate our communities. We have an established mechanism in ensuring that peace would really reign in the Buliok complex," a 35-year-old MILF fighter, Karim Mamadra, told The Star in the Maguindanaon dialect.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said MILF rebels in Buliok had been instructed by the front’s chairman, Al-Haj Murad, not to carry guns when they move around their villages in keeping with the ceasefire agreement and in reciprocation of the government’s rehabilitation efforts.

Traders here and in Pagalungan said farmers in the area have increased by more than five-fold their rice and corn harvest in the past 12 months as a result of more than a dozen bran-new farm tractors given to them more than a year ago.

The tractors were procured abroad by the North Cotabato provincial government with the help of President Arroyo.

"Sari-sari (variety) stores surrounding the Buliok complex now have refrigerators for cooling soft drinks and televisions sets to attract customers," said Sarifa Matas, a fish vendor.

Local officials said that although the rebels have returned to Buliok, they no longer carry guns when they roam in their farms, proof that there is indeed peace and development in the area now.

"We are certain that Buliok complex will become even more progressive if there is already a final peace agreement between the government and the MILF," said Col. Franklin del Prado, spokesman for the 6th Infantry Division.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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