Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

He must have looked forward to coming home, even if it meant having to do chores.

A Pantaron Manobo youth, Obillo Bay-ao returned to their village of Dulyan, in Talaingod, Davao del Norte early in September, so that he can help his mother with the harvest.  Prior to this, they had been staying for several months at the Lumad evacuation center at UCCP Haran in Davao City.

Though the militarization from which they had initially fled is still ongoing, every now and then some of the villagers who have no known threats to their lives would take advantage of lulls in the fighting to tend to their fields and homes.  Throughout the series of bakwit that has affected these people, one of their most common complaints was that they had had to leave their farms. Being mostly subsistence horticulturists, their annual cultivation cycle was a delicate one that has to be followed lest they risk poor crops planted or harvested at the wrong time of the year.

While helping his mother at the farm last September 5, Obillo felt a headache coming on and asked his mother if he could return to their hut to rest for a bit.  It was on his way there that he was suddenly shot in the back.  Surviving that volley, he made his way to where other Dulyan youths found him, who helped him get on a motorcycle and alerted his mother and the rest of the village about the incident.

Their long and arduous journey down to the lowlands of Talaingod and to the provincial hospital were all for naught; a few hours later, Obillo was dead.

Marcial Mariano Magistrado, Davao del Norte Police Director, reacted by attempting to inject some nuancing into events, saying that Obillo was not a student but “a farmer who was shot while tilling the farm,” at the same time insinuating that Obillo was too old to be a student.  This statement shows how enlightenment can be found wanting among our state security forces.  The Manobo, just like most other traditional peasant societies in the Philippines and many other parts of the world, allow and even need their children to contribute to farming activities. Thus the categories of “student” and “farmer” are often not mutually exclusive and should therefore not be automatically be used as distinct from each other.

Also, if only Director Magistrado would live up to his designation and visit the “provincial” part of his province, he would also find out that young people frequently delay or stop their schooling due to poverty.  Thus, when they are able to resume studies, their actual age no longer corresponds to the expected age of a certain grade level, such as nineteen-year-old Obillo being enrolled as a Grade 6 student.

While the police have been quick to dismiss the possibility that a state agent committed the crime, for Obillo’s relatives and village-mates what is resoundingly clear is the youth’s dying declaration:  that Ben Salangani, a member of the Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit (or CAFGU) was the one who shot him.  With Salangani at the same time was his brother Joven, also a known member of the Alamara paramilitary, who has an outstanding warrant of arrest for the killing of another student, Alibando Tingkas, last year.  Obillo lived long enough to speak to his mother and positively identify the two.

“They say it is a pangayaw, a tribal matter, but it is definitely not that,” says Benito Bay-ao, Obillo’s uncle, when we visited his wake.  Pangayaw are traditionally clan feuds, conflicts between two families stemming from offenses intended or unintended, where members of the rival family may be fair game to be killed or harmed.

“What happens is,” Benito and the other leaders present explain, “whenever the NPA carries out an offensive against them (the CAFGU and the paramilitary) and they suffer a loss or get injured, they take it out on us. The NPA only attacks those who are armed like them. But these CAFGU and paramilitary, they attack our schools and they target our village-mates.”

Besides, the Salanganis are also considered kin by many of those that they are terrorizing.  It is also common knowledge among them that the Salanganis are being protected in an Armed Forces barracks in the village of Barobo.  As Benito said, this cannot be a pangayaw in a traditional sense.  The killings they commit are drawn along political, and not kinship, lines.

That the pangayaw interpretation is repeated by the state and state-backed entities is interesting.  Perhaps it is to downplay the murderous spree of their monstrous paramilitary creations.  Perhaps they think they can play to the stereotype of the “primitiveness” of these IPs.  Perhaps they want to build up the perception that Talaingod and other IP domains have become wracked in tribal war, setting the stage for them to swoop in and act the hero.

Benjo, Obillo’s father, also tries to look for a reason behind his son’s death – and it is not because of pangayaw vendetta.  He is convinced it is because Obillo was an active student and enthusiastic supporter of the Salugpungan school in their village.  “He is a good learner, and he also knows how to drive a motorcycle,” he says, with a tinge of pride.  “The teachers could count on him.  When the school needed transportation, or when supplies had to be picked up, they could count on him.”

Indeed, he was reliable even during tense situations.  “Once, one of his fellow students was ‘invited’ to the barangay hall by an official.  Obillo was the one who picked him up after.  Maybe that’s how they were able to know his face.”

A local news channel came to the wake recently, Benjo tells us.  The reporter said that they had heard that Obillo was an NPA rebel and asked him what he thought about it. The way Benjo narrated that moment, it was as if there, in front of the coffin of his son, he had been slapped and insulted.

He repeats to us what he told the reporter.  “My son was a student. He was not an NPA.”  Benjo’s voice was soft, but the firmness – and the sheer affront at the unfounded accusations – smoldered beneath his words.

“What I want is a tigi,” Benjo continues, referring to the traditional “trial-by-ordeal” mechanism in Lumad communities.  “Whoever says that my son is an NPA, we will get a heated piece of metal, and I will grasp one end and say that my son is not an NPA.  But whoever accused him of that, he too must hold the metal with his hands.  You will see, my hands will not be burnt, but his will be.”  He says this with so much conviction that it would have been useless, and perhaps even arrogant, to talk to him about the laws of thermodynamics.

After all, for a group that is bound by oral tradition, the spoken word is a force to be reckoned with.  English expressions such as “keep my word” and “you have my word” probably hearken to the days in Western culture when what one says is just as weighty as what is written down.  While this may now seem anachronistic to us, it may not be for these Manobo who are only relatively recently shifting to written literacy.

Until today, what is right and wrong, morals and values, and history are all transmitted through hours-long epics that are memorized by chanters and listened to by children with the avidity of watching a blockbuster.  Peace pacts, dispute mediations, promises of friendship and alliance – all these are orally discussed and negotiated and carry the force of law.  Hence, the simple spoken word of a patent falsehood against Obillo is grave enough for his father to call for such a serious course of action as the tigi.

Benjo will not bury his son in the village of Dulyan in Talaingod, where he, his wife, and his once happy brood of seven – now just six – live.  “I will bury him at the boundary of Bukidnon, where I came from.  It would have been better had he died from a sickness, but this…  I cannot bear to have him near our home, where I will see him every day;  who knows what my feelings can make me do,” he says as the tears begin to well in his eyes.  The final cruelty against Obillo’s family is that even in death, they are denied being able to visit their loved one’s resting place.  They are denied the small comfort of being able to say that at least they are all still together. (davaotoday.com)

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