Crossing Borders

Sometimes you have to cross the border to better understand things. That’s what I did and learned this week. I crossed the border not once but many times.

I was sent on a mission to visit three remote provinces in Mindanao often tagged as red zones due to high incidents of insurgencies and terrorism. The mission was to document the stories of people which Oxfam and its local partners are helping through its various projects in the provinces of Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao and Cotabato.

The Provincial Capitol of Sultan Kudarat.
One of the landmarks in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.
A breathtaking view in Alamada, Cotabato.

Documenting stories has always been part of my life. And each time is a new experience, a new lesson, a blessing to enter into other people’s lives. If you’re luckier you even get to find a new friend. I guess I have been lucky because I always make one. 

I believe we meet people for a purpose, and it is up to us to define that purpose. In my case I treat people not just mere subjects of the stories I wrote. I listen intently as a friend would and feel their stories and problems as if they were also mine . That’s one border in my life I normally cross. And I’m never afraid to open up just the same.

But there’s another border I crossed. And this time I was afraid. Because like any other border you courageously cross in life, there are also risks involved.

Isulan, Sultan Kudarat

Sometimes, the friend you think may not treat you the same. During my visit, a bomb explosion happened right next to the town where I was staying. It was an unpleasant surprise during the first night of my mission. The blast took place in the middle of a town festival in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat and killed at least three people including a child and injured 36 others. 

For a moment, I didn’t know what to feel. I was in an unfamiliar territory. It was an unfamiliar fear.

The explosion site in Isulan, Cotabato on August 28, 2018.

I was given the chance the next day to decide whether to continue with the visit because security was compromised after the incident. But instead of not doing so I crossed another border. I submitted my fears and silently prayed.

In my heart I knew that from the moment I had accepted this mission, I also accepted the risks the come with it. I had no option but to pass by the site of the explosion because it was the only way to the community where I was supposed to go. 

Bagumbayan, Sultan Kudarat

The tension was really high, so every move we made was calculated as we traversed the road. The risk was all worth it when we reached the town of Bagumbayan in Sultan Kudarat.

It was where I met this young Muslim woman, Norannie, who taught me a beautiful lesson about marriage and shared care work between husband and wife. She was smiling all the time as she shared her story on how she takes good care of her family and her community. She is also a leader of a women’s group, inspiring other women to reach their potentials and rise from poverty.

A groufie shot taken by Norannie after my interview with her.
The women who showed me the beautiful side of the Ampatuan town in Maguindanao. They strive to uplift their families from poverty through the practice of organic farming and shared care work. One of them even stepped up and gave leadership a new flavor in a community largely dominated by men. And through it all, we managed to pull some smiles together.

Had I left I would not have known Norannie and her story and have not met all the other inspiring people in this journey. 

Had I left I would not have seen the other side of the Ampatuan town, infamous for being the tragic site of the Maguindanao massacre. Instead I saw the other side which shows that hope springs eternal amidst the tragedy that shook the town years ago.

The beauty of life is stronger than my fears, and the unknown.

I continued on with my journey, crossing one security checkpoint at a time. One border at a time. One story at a time. One faith at a time. That was when I began to understand Islamic faith and its people. It was just a short period of time, but it was enough for me to understand. Their spiritual life is not very different from other faith denominations. And like most of us, they also aspire a peaceful and comfortable life for their communities and families.

The Grand Mosque in Cotabato City.
Rules and protocols which must be observed inside a Mosque.

While writing this I was about to cross yet another border in Mindanao. As I submit this blog entry to, a second bombing incident just took place in Insulan, Sultan Kudarat. The number of casualties has yet to be determined as of press time.

But, again, I’m submitting everything I know, including my fears and the unknown, because I know amid the risks, the beauty of life here is stronger.

[Entry 263, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:


April Abello-Bulanadi is a Senior Officer for Media and Digital Influencing of Oxfam, an international non-government organization based in the Philippines.

She previously worked with NASSA/Caritas Philippines and the Philippine Red Cross, and responded to various disasters such as Super Typhoon Yolanda and the recent Marawi crisis. Prior to becoming a humanitarian/development worker she was a broadcast journalist at RPN Channel 9.

She often writes her blog during flights, and she paints what she can no longer write.

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