SAN JOSE, TARLAC, DEC. 11 - Beneath this town's quiet charm and abundant natural resources lays a painful history of violence and unrest.
For many decades, the people of San Jose, Tarlac in Central Luzon were deprived of peace as they were constantly caught in the crossfire between government forces and New People's Army (NPA) rebels.
Vice Mayor Romeo G. Capitulo recounted how these bloody encounters set off intense fear among the residents.
"Madalas, nagkakaroon ng encounter mismo sa barangay at mga sitio at naaapektuhan masyado ang mga tao, lalong-lalo na ang mga katutubo. Kapag may encounter, ilang araw na walang gustong lumabas dahil sa takot na mapagdudahan at pagsuspetsuhan. Pati ang mga katutubo, hindi na nakakakyat sa kabundukan, na siya nilang kabuhayan. Hindi lang ang mga nasa kabundukan ang naapektuhan, pati na rin ang mga nasa kapatagan (There were frequent encounters in the barangay and sitios, and the people, especially the natives, were much affected. Every time there was an encounter, people cowered in fear and stayed in their homes for days for fear of being suspected as rebels. Even the natives would not dare go to the mountains to tend their fields. Not only were those in the hills affected, but also those in the lowlands were affected)," he said.
The conflict disrupted people's economic activities, ruined irrigation and water systems, and slowed down delivery of basic services.
"Ang San Jose ay iniiwasan ng karamihan bagama't ito'y mayaman sa kalikasan at isang napakagandang lugar (San Jose was avoided by most people despite its beauty and rich natural resources)," Capitulo added.
Rebel ambuscades, military operations, arrests of suspected rebels, civilian deaths, and human rights abuses left the people of San Jose vulnerable but not hopeless.
It was time to take a stand.
Asserting right to peace
In 2006, community leaders of San Jose called for an emergency meeting, which was attended by representatives from different sectors such as indigenous peoples, youth, academe, transport, church, government and military.
They proposed for the declaration of San Jose as a zone of peace to be protected by its own people from violence, intimidation and terrorism of all kinds.
Although opposed by the military, a resolution was adopted paving the way for the creation of the "San Jose Sanctuary for Peace and Sustainable Development Area" (SPSDA).
Following the multi-sectoral peace consultations conducted by a local peace committee was the formation of a core group composed of folks from Barangays Iba, Lubigan, Sula and Villa Aglipay was organized.
These barangays later comprised the SPSDA.
Through financial assistance from the government through the Office of the Presidentialk Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the core group formed a multi-sectoral organization that planed and mobilized peace activities in the community.
This peace mechanism underwent several trainings to capacitate them in peace building.
Finally, the SPSDA was launched and attended by more than 2,000 people from various sectors.
From rebel hotbed to pilgrim haven
Today, the SPSDA will celebrate its third founding anniversary as a zone of peace.
This once rebel-infested town, San Jose is rapidly becoming a haven for adventure seekers, sports enthusiasts and nature lovers in its sprawling 200-hectare eco-tourism park and preservation area.
The place is also the home of the Monasterio de Tarlac where thousands of pilgrims converge during the Holy Week.
The dark episode of San Jose is now a thing of the past. Today, the town is a model as a zone of peace.