MAGUINDANAO, Philippines (IRIN / Oct. 13, 2010) - For Sahara Silab, returning to the fields means a fresh start after two years in an evacuation centre in the southern Philippines. She and her family were forced to flee fighting between government forces and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Silab is among about 700 people who have recently returned to their fields in the village of Madia on the island of Mindanao.
"You can see around you that the fields have turned green again. We had to abandon this for two years because we were in the evacuation centres, too afraid for our lives," Silab told IRIN, recalling that in August 2008 she led her relatives, including young nieces and nephews, across the muddy fields dodging mortars and bullets.
"We had to abandon everything, our animals, our houses, our plants. We had nothing except the shirts on our back," she said. "It was a hard two years for us."
The 12,000-strong MILF broke a ceasefire and launched the attacks after the Supreme Court ruled that a deal offered by government for them to control large areas in the south went against the constitution. At the height of the fighting, more than 750,000 people were displaced, and about 400 combatants and civilians killed.
The Philippine government was strained beyond capacity, but humanitarian actors led by agencies under the UN stepped in to provide assistance.
But the unstable security situation, exacerbated by the proliferation of unlicensed firearms in civilian hands and blood feuds that break out between large area clans, contributed to the challenges.
According to the social welfare department, more than 60,000 people remain displaced in the south, most of whom are in 57 evacuation centres while others are staying with relatives and friends.
Both sides agreed last year to a ceasefire, and President Benigno Aquino elected into office in May this year, vowed to secure a peace deal with the rebels during his six-year term. Both sides have agreed to talks before the end of the year, and as a confidence-building measure, the MILF has vowed to help provide security for returning IDPs.
Signs of hope
Silab has become a community organizer helping to coordinate a rice production assistance project under the World Food Programme (WFP) for more than 100 farmers and their families who have returned to the village.
With the UN food agency's assistance, they have resumed planting rice, the staple food, and are preparing for harvest.
"We are pleased to see that despite the various constraints on the ground and obstacles you expect, people are pulling together. We do see the signs of a peace dividend," Stephen Anderson, WFP country representative for the Philippines, said.
Anderson noted that schools had started to re-open, and more and more IDPs were trickling back to their old homes.
"The harvest is coming in; there is a semblance of normality that is very positive. But not everything can take place overnight, it is a step-by-step process," he stressed, noting that security remained an issue, while many remote villages were still beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance.