As schools across the country are holding commencement exercises, schoolchildren from Barangay Palma Gil in Talaingod, Davao del Norte would be trudging, instead of marching, and going not up a stage to be applauded, but down from their mountain communities. In the process they have earned a new title – not graduates, but bakwit, evacuees, the displaced.
The first signs of trouble happened in early March, when a group of Talaingod Manobo women ran into a platoon of soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines as they were making their way back to Bukidnon walking through the Pantaron Mountain Range. The group had just come from Nalubas, on the Talaingod side of the Pantaron, to fetch seeds for planting. Manobos on this portion of the Pantaron regularly walk back and forth between Bukidnon and Davao del Norte, oblivious to political boundaries. What they follow instead are the ancient paths of their ancestors that link their kinship networks until today, in spite of the relatively recent imposition of provincial divisions by the State.
The soldiers were looking precisely for a way through those ancient paths, which was allegedly why they accosted the group and forced them to act as guides. Two of the women escaped, but the elderly member of their company was unfortunately left behind.
For several days and nights the sixty-plus year old was forced to go ahead of the soldiers so that they can follow her through the mountains. According to her narration (which she was only able to give a few days ago due to the trauma she suffered), her hands were constantly bound; at nighttime when the soldiers set up camp even her feet were tied up too. They would feed her scraps and leave her out in the cold. A final and most grievous indignity was when the soldiers, on some kind of sick trip, took off her blouse and taunted her, making fun of her body and her tattoos.
Like the better known Kalinga in the Cordilleras, Manobos also have traditional tattooing called pangotoeb. But unlike their northern kindred, their practice is in a relatively better state of health, with several artists still performing their duties in their communities and younger people continuing to get tattoos. The tattoos the soldiers mocked is the typical pangotoeb design for Manobo women, composed of a series of thin lines running around their bellies and backs, often forming a thick band across their midsection. The Manobos we’ve talked with say that their pangotoeb are spiritual in meaning and are associated with their welfare in the afterlife. Making fun of their tattoos, therefore, would be tantamount to making fun of the veils of Muslim women, or of a crucifix hanging around a Christian’s neck.
Needless to say, the treatment that this Manobo lady received would be offensive and deplorable in any culture. She was only able to escape one night when the soldiers forgot to bind her legs.
Her’s was not the only story of captivity. On March 19, a group of Manobo schoolchildren, accompanied by one of their teachers and a purok leader, was allegedly held for more than an hour by troops from another platoon. The kids had been getting ready for their school’s recognition day by gathering crops in their fields. They said that the soldiers separated them in several groups and interrogated them: what kind of flag flew on your school’s pole? Can you show us where the armed men are?
The questions sound most absurd; unfortunately they are nothing new to those who work with indigenous schools in the area. The same questions have been asked of dozens of terrified schoolchildren and their teachers across the region for a few years now, also always by soldiers, in an apparent effort to discredit these schools by claiming that they are run by the New People’s Army. This red-tagging and deliberate sabotage of locally built-up educational institutions is one of the hidden shames of the Philippine government, one that I will tackle further in another column.
As if the reports of arbitrary detentions were not enough, by March 20 the scattered Manobo communities on the Talaingod side began to be subjected to aerial bombardment. Panicked texts began to be received by friends here in Davao City. Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon, the federation of Manobo communities, releases a statement demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities, but the bombing turns out to be just the prelude to the outright takeover of their communities by members of the armed forces.
As the soldiers move into the interior village of Nalubas, they set up their camps right in the middle of the civilian populace, and on the grounds of school, in violation of various Philippine laws. But this is nothing compared to the territorial and moral trespass the soldiers committed by marching through the sacred ground of the panubaran in Nalubas.
The panubaran is a structure made of light materials that could be called the church of the Manobos, but it’s significance goes beyond the religious. The panubaran is also a meeting place for leaders and shamans, and a place for healing and the recovery of the sick. In times of crisis they would withdraw to the panubaran – it is a refuge for bodies and souls.
For the Manobos, the spiritual and physical well-being of individuals and the community as a whole are closely intertwined. The high regard for this fragile whole is manifested in the deep respect they hold for the panubaran and its surrounding space. By trampling indiscriminately through it without permission and without deference, the soldiers showed exactly what they think of the Manobos, precisely the people they are supposed to protect and defend.
By the evening of March 26, the residents of Nalubas had had enough – they slip away in the dead of night as the soldiers were fast asleep. By the morning they reach another sitio, Laslasakan, where, it turns out, residents of other sitios had been headed for as well. In the end, by the time they reach the lower sitio of Nasilaban, they number more than 1300 individuals, including children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, the elderly and those with disabilities.
On the last leg of their exodus, by foot and then by truck down to Davao City, two pregnant women gave birth, one of them inside the trailer of the ten-wheeler. Mothers and babies are now doing fine, but this is no consolation for the death of another infant, a twelve-day old boy, on the trek away from their ravaged homes.
These Talaingod Manobo are among the least culturally-assimilated groups in the country. I and other anthropologists prefer to call them Talaingod, or Pantaron, Manobos, and not the more popular term “Ata-Manobo” because of two reasons. First, these people themselves do not call themselves as such, and consider it a derogatory appellation. Second, there is a basis to this negative sentiment, as the term “Ata” was added haphazardly by early (pseudo)anthropologists because of shallow, phenotypical (or based on appearance) reasons, such as the presence of kinky hair and flat noses and dark skin. Truth is, the biological links between these people and other Negrito groups (which the term Ata connotes), if any, have not been established.
In the meantime, the idea that they are different from the rest of us, reinforced by mislabelling, persists and is continued to be used against them. Because they did not convert to any of the invading religions and have maintained their lifeways they are called backward. They are called ignorant because they have no formal education. Because they prefer to live in their mountains and have retained a relatively geographically mobile lifestyle, the armed forces call them rebels and guerillas.
For the state this seems to be more than ample excuse to grossly violate their rights. This skewed perspective can work only if the Filipino citizenry agree with it: yes they are backward mountain people, barbaric heathens who tattoo themselves and worship nature spirits. But if we listen to them and their stories, especially now that they are here among us, we just might find that we have more in common with them – their values and experiences, and just how vulnerable our rights and lives are to abuse, even by those who are supposed to uphold them.