Encountered mess and damage we did. We had barely caught our breaths after the hike from Nasilaban to the neighboring village of Sambulungan when some of the Talaingod Manobos started approaching us. Their houses had been ransacked, items were missing, one kitchen’s GI roofing had been ripped off.
The team composed of University of the Philippines-Mindanao anthropology students and teachers, youth volunteers from the member organizations of the Defend Talaingod, Save Pantaron Alliance, and volunteer teachers from the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon Learning Center, immediately went to work. We split into groups with specific tasks: one group would make a rough map of the settlement, two groups would go from house to house to interview the homeowners, while those with cameras would hop from one group to another as photography needs arose. We figured that this would be a quick, but thorough, way of documenting damages at the household level.
In one house we encountered a pile of arrows with broken shafts. Many Talaingod Manobos still engage in sustainable hunting in their domain, sometimes still with traditional weapons. The arrows that the soldiers had broken were made from a bamboo locally known as sambulungan, for which this village was also named. Sambulungan is known to grow here abundantly, and hunters and warriors of old would come here for their supply of raw material. These arrows fly straight and long; their heads need not be of metal because the bamboo itself could be sharpened enough to pierce the hide of wild pigs. In other countries they put these things in museums and exert the effort to preserve traditional knowledge. Over here, the destruction of material culture and the people who make them are carried out by the government itself.
From one house to the next it was almost all the same story: strewn clothes, scattered documents and papers like school certificates, missing plates, pots. But Sambulungan was one of the lucky villages. They were warned marginally in advance that soldiers were coming from the interior; some families had been able to stow a few belongings safely away.
Not so the next villages we entered. A quick “geopolitical” lesson might be needed here first. The villages we surveyed were all on the eastern side of the Talomo River. From Nasilaban to the most inland village of Bagang it is more or less a straight line of six villages in all. As it happens, this is also the exact same route taken by the soldiers, only in reverse. The traces of destruction became more apparent to the team the closer we got to Bagang.
After Sambulungan was the larger village of Laslasakan. Not only were there more houses here, but there were more non-domestic structures as well: a school, a basketball court, a corn mill. All of these, as well as almost all the houses, were adversely affected. The school was vandalized and ransacked, the wooden basketball goal was chopped down and toppled over, and it looked like someone had tried to pry open some of the corn mill’s metal paneling. When the residents turned the latter on black smoke came out of the exhaust. They couldn’t open it up and figure out what was wrong with it because the tools needed for that were missing.
By the time we got to Bagang, we had been walking for almost twelve hours, with lots of interviewing and surveying in between. We had planned in advance to spend the night here, and we felt that we could finally call it a day. But village leader Datu Ameding approached us and timidly asked, could we go house to house now? The residents of Bagang had arrived a couple of hours before us, and they had already seen the inside of their homes. They didn’t touch what they saw; they knew that we needed to see it for ourselves.
We looked around and slowly realized that he was right. The residents were almost all sitting out of doors, with the belongings they had brought over from Davao City piled neatly just outside their homes.
Night was falling fast, whatever needed to be cleaned had to be cleaned before darkness set it, but nevertheless, they had waited.
There was both chaos and emptiness. The houses, small as they are, looked like they had been picked up, turned upside down, and shaken. Clothes were everywhere, just strewn all over, but there were no pots and utensils. In one house the entire store of palay for planting was gone but for the last few grains, unswept by the homeowner for us to see. The Manobos have special hanging chicken coops for nesting hens and their eggs; they now hung sad and vacant, the hens and eggs only god knows where. The people were literally pulling us into their houses, talking in Manobo, talking too fast for us to understand, gesturing, gesturing, look at what they did.
Bagang had borne the brunt of the presence of the military. From the testimonies we collected the next day, not only were they materially victimized, but psychologically as well; for the troops had actually stayed in their village for several days prior to them slipping away to begin their exodus. The soldiers would make children sit on their laps, hold their guns, all the while taking pictures. One resident recalls that the soldiers had brought with them some food; naturally the children would all want a taste, and some ended up quarreling over it. They took a picture of that, too. Look at these children of savages, so barbaric they fight over the scraps civilization throws them.
The team could count as much missing and damaged items as it could, but quantifying the psychological damage was far beyond our abilities. For one woman resident it was too much: while checking some nearby fields we came upon her standing on a promontory, just absolutely keening and weeping and crying out to the wide open terrain. We couldn’t understand any of her words in Manobo save one: sundalo.
Nevertheless, the former evacuees slowly began to try to resume their normal lives. Part of this is the generosity they easily show as only a people for whom reciprocal sharing is vital could.
Some vegetable plots had mercifully escaped damage, and we soon had tomatoes, bell peppers, camote tops and eggplants for a stew we could flavor with the canned sardines we had brought. There was even a few ears of corn to be cooked over the fire for snacks (the last was particularly a treat for our young researchers, a well-deserved one, I think, for going above and beyond the call of duty or any academic requirement, and for amazingly being able to maintain high spirits all throughout, even as ours, the grown-ups, would sometimes flag).
The Talaingod Manobos worked through this loss and plenty with no trace of irony whatsoever. The datu of Sambulungan, where we spent our last night on our way back to Nasilaban, would sadly observe that his village was too quiet – there were barely any clucking chickens and no snorting pigs at all. And yet, the very next day he gives us one of his own chickens for us to cook for breakfast. To refuse it would have been unacceptable, for among the Talaingod Manobo this was simply the right thing to do. This was how they lived everyday; it was a step towards normalcy.
But even still, every now and then you would catch among them a tightening of the jaw or the knitting of brows and you know that the anger and frustration are still smoldering underneath. Their homes had been violated, their children traumatized. Even their beloved Pantaron – their hunting ground, their refuge – would never be the same. The soldiers, with their kidnapped Manobo guide Ubunay Botod Manlaon, had been able to cross this mountain range that had once been virtually impossible to traverse by lowlanders. It was a rude political awakening for many of them; after living their lives at the edges of the mainstream, mired in government neglect, they finally felt the presence of the State – in the most violent, disruptive, and dehumanizing way possible.
Homecomings are joyous occasions. They mark the end of journeys, of settling in to comfort and familiarity, of leaving behind uncertainty. But there was little joy in this homecoming, and uncertainty followed them here. For the Talaingod Manobos this is not the end of their long and arduous journey, but the beginning of it.