The soldiers’ automatic weapons pressed into her body from different angles, as Deng shielded the priest from a group of inebriated soldiers. Taking in the situation, Deng saw that the soldiers’ name patches had been hastily ripped off, leaving the threads exposed.[i] Composed, she began to negotiate for their lives.
This happened in the 1980s, when the Communist Party of the Philippines’ military, the New People’s Army (NPA), fought the Philippine government for land rights and political control. Peace seemed impossible and communities were shattered as the NPA battled the national military, the police and civilian militias.[ii] Maria Ida Giguiento, known to all as Deng, and her colleagues at the Archdiocese of Cotabato were in the midst of the conflict, pursuing justice and peace. It was while they were researching the bombing of a Filipino mountain village, allegedly by the Philippine military, that they were forcibly detained.[iii] Clearheaded, Deng negotiated their escape. And despite the harrowing event, she remained steadfast in her peacebuilding and reconciliation work.
Deng’s profound commitment towards interfaith peacebuilding is an expression of her Catholic faith. For more than 20 years, she has worked on the ground in the Mindanao conflict in the Philippines, creating alliances among conflicting Christian, Muslim and indigenous groups. Truly a grassroots peace activist, Deng learned the indigenous Maguindanao dialect from women by shucking corn alongside them, from which her hand still bears a scar. As former Director of Notre Dame University’s Peace Education Center in Cotabato City, she developed programs, facilitated interfaith dialogue workshops with religious leaders, raised awareness about Muslim victims of conflict and helped civil society develop their agenda for peace, ,. That agenda was included in the 1996 final peace agreement accord between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF).
Beyond the Philippines, Deng has profoundly impacted the lives of many in Timor-Leste. When East Timor sought independence from Indonesia in 1999, Deng worked for Catholic Relief Services and the Dioceses of Dili and Baucau and helped bring pro-Independence East Timorese and pro-Indonesian East Timorese leaders together. She and a colleague were serving as aides to Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili and Bishop Dom Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau, when the UN called for a referendum to vote for independence; knowing the East Timorese language Tetum and a bit of the Bahasa Indonesia, Deng helped train hundreds of youth leaders, teachers and religious leaders organized by the Diocese and taught them how to monitor and prepare for the referendum. On the historic voting day, Deng went around East Timor and witnessed community elders wearing their finest clothing – traditionally worn in preparation for death. The elders confided that they expected to die as a result of their participation, but that they had to vote because their dreams of independence for their grandchildren could no longer be stifled.[iv]
Today, Deng is the Training Coordinator for Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in the Philippines. She also serves as one of the core Facilitators at the Grassroots Peacebuilding Learning Institute (GPLC) where she trains youth, village elders and leaders from different religions and sectors of society. Deng also serves as one of the core Facilitators at the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) where she co facilitates in training peace educators, peace practitioners, and key stakeholders in peace processes from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas. It was at MPI where a new layer of Deng’s peacebuilding initiatives unfolded.
Decades after the traumatic incident in the village of Cotabato, Deng remained wary of the Philippine military. Prior to the start of a peacebuilding course at MPI, she realized that a military colonel had enrolled. She was suspicious of his motives and even tried to remove him from her class roster. But after deliberation, Deng agreed to teach him – and a remarkable transformation in her own peacebuilding work occurred. Deng and her students were moved by the colonel’s enthusiasm, and she now advises and trains numerous military leaders and officers. An example is how she provided support to Philippine General Raymundo Ferrer during challenging times
In tandem with her work with the military, Deng maintains close connections with non-state actors based in trusting relationships that she is able to establish. She lives the life of a true bridge builder – a creative and gentle force who links people together, including those from the grassroots to those in the government and military.
“Deng has exceptional power and strength that has sustained her work for over 20 years. Her capacity to connect with people from different races, ethnicities and religions is amazing.” – Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, American University
[i] Cusimano Love, Maryann. “Partnering for Peace in the Philippines: Military and Religious Engagement.” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed August 12, 2015.
[ii] “Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts Project: Philippines.” Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. July 9, 2012. Accessed August 12, 2015.
[iii] Cusimano Love, Maryann. “Partnering for Peace in the Philippines: Military and Religious Engagement.” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed August 12, 2015.
[iv] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0506950.htm. Accessed June 5, 2015.