December 25, 2010
In 1914, ninety-six years ago, during the Great War — or World War I as we call it today — the British and French armies were manning the 27-mile Western Front fiercely defending French territory from the advancing German Army. Across the British and French trenches, as near as 200 feet away, the Germans were dug in. What separated the opposing armies was a place called “No Man’s Land.”
On Christmas Eve, one of the most incredible — and unusual — events in human history took place: the Germans started placing candles on trees on “No Man’s Land.” Lit with candles, the “Christmas” trees looked awesome. The Germans began singing Christmas songs and the British and French troops responded by singing too. Soon the entire “No Man’s Land” turned into a symphonic Christmas celebration. The Germans proposed a “Christmas truce” and the French and British troops accepted.
The memorable event was detailed in a book, titled “Silent Night,” written by Stanley Weintraub. He wrote: “Signboards arose up and down the trenches in a variety of shapes. They were usually in English, or — from the Germans — in fractured English. ‘YOU NO FIGHT, WE NO FIGHT’ was the most frequently employed German message. Some British units impoverished ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ banners and waited for a response. More placards on both sides popped up.”
By Christmas morning, “No Man’s Land” was filled with fraternizing soldiers, sharing rations and gifts, singing and more solemnly burying their dead. Soon they were even playing soccer, mostly with impoverished balls. According to one account, “proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned together and paid their respect.”
When the generals heard about the “Christmas truce,” they were aghast and ordered their soldiers to start shooting at each other. The soldiers resumed shooting but most of them — for several days — aimed their rifles at the sky and the stars. In some sectors, the truce continued until New Year’s Day. After all, how can “friends” shoot at each other?
What was ironic was that earlier in the autumn of 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for an official truce between the warring governments. The Papal plea was ignored. After the “Christmas Truce,” the embarrassed British commanders vowed that a truce should not happen again. However, in 1916, an “Easter Truce” happened on the Eastern Front.
On November 21, 2005, Alfred Anderson, aged 109, the last veteran of that “Christmas Truce,” died at his home in Angus, Scotland. Anderson was 18 years old on December 25, 1914, when British, French, and German troops climbed out of their trenches along the dreaded Western Front and walked across the blood-soaked “No Man’s Land” to shake hands. Anderson decorated with France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, never forgot that moment in his life when he celebrated Christmas with his enemies in “No Man’s Land.” Indeed, it was a singular moment in history that has yet to be repeated.
As we celebrate Christmas this year, we reflect on conflicting situations around the world where “truce” — or peace — is needed. But most importantly, we need a truce in our own backyard with the communist insurgents and Muslim separatists.
The communist New People’s Army (NPA) has had a “traditional Christmas truce” with the government since it was founded on December 26, 1968. During the Arroyo presidency, the government declared a Christmas ceasefire. But the dates did not coincide with the dates declared by the NPA. However, the opposing forces’ ceasefire usually covered the days prior to Christmas up until after the New Year. And in spite of sporadic violations, the truce held up, albeit shaky.
Prospects for peace
Last December 4, 2010, Luis Jalandoni – chief negotiator for the National Democratic Front (NDF) — and his wife Ma. Consuelo Ledesma arrived in Manila, a day after the government and the NDF agreed to an 18-day “Christmas Truce,” which began from December 16, 2010 until January 3, 2011. Jalandoni has been in self-exile in the Netherlands for years together with Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Ma. Sison. Jalandoni’s arrival boosted the prospects for peace when the government and the NDF are set to resume talks next February.
Meanwhile, in Mindanao, the “peace process” is progressing. It was reported that President Benigno Aquino III has been pressing for “the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) next year.” There are still many obstacles to overcome; however, there is an aura of optimism that peace could be achieved.
Never in the Philippines’ history had the prospects for peace been greater than next year, 2011. With the ignominious distinction as the only country with an active communist insurgency, it’s about time that the Philippine government aggressively pursues an end to the communist insurgency. And if peace could also be achieved with the MILF next year, that would be the crowning moment for President Aquino.
But a peace pact with either the communist insurgents or the Muslim separatists will be short-lived if the government fails to improve the lot of the landless – and powerless — poor. A peace pact would only provide the government with breathing room to concentrate its efforts in addressing the real issues that are causing mass discontent. If the government were unsuccessful in stamping corruption, eradicating poverty, and ending the feudalistic agricultural system, the communist insurgents and Muslim separatists might head back to the hills to fight the government once again.
Although the “Christmas truce” provides limited time for peace for Filipinos during the Christmas season, wouldn’t it be nice for the feuding forces to extend the “ceasefire” for an indefinite period where all the parties could work together to achieve a lasting peace?
It happened in Korean peninsula in 1953 when China and North Korea signed the Korean War Truce with the United Nations and South Korea, why can’t it happen in the Philippines today? What is so difficult that we Filipinos cannot settle our own differences?
The Filipinos have suffered too long. Let’s give truce a chance.