There are beautiful stretches of highway in Davao Oriental with straight, smooth roads lined with acacia or fire trees. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Mati City as the fire trees were in red bloom and the acacias remained steadfastly green amidst a landscape ravaged by El Nino.
I was actually only able to fully appreciate that scenery at that moment despite having passed through this route before. The first time I did, in April 2013 and during which its impact should have been strongest, the van I was riding in was simply going too fast for me to notice anything. We must have been doing 120 kph, but for good reason: we were rushing to the town of Baganga where 69 doctors, church people, and health workers were stranded in the remote sitio of Cabuyao, in the village of Binondo. This was after typhoon Pablo had hit southern Mindanao, killing hundreds and injuring many more. But a natural disaster was not the reason why these 69 volunteers were unable to leave the sitio unassisted, but a man-made disaster.
This group, later dubbed the Baganga 69, was purposely prevented by military and paramilitary personnel from leaving Sitio Cabuyao after their fact-finding and humanitarian mission in the wake of Pablo and the killing of local leader Cristina Jose. Roadblocks had been set up, and the drivers of the large trucks called Saddam that had ferried them over (no other vehicle could pass through) had been intimidated and scared off. The group felt like virtual hostages, and food, water, and precious mobile phone battery power were running out.
The Quick Reaction Team that I joined (and which had sped through the flowering tree-lined highways) was eventually able to negotiate passage for the humanitarian mission, and after going up to Cabuyao and back down to the town proper in another Saddam to fetch the Baganga 69, an exhausted me was knocked out in the van back to Davao City, again missing out on the lay of the land.
I remember that in the following month after Baganga I went to Talaingod, Davao del Norte, also for the first time. At that time the most problematic question that we could come up with with regard to the Manobos’ lifeways was how the permanent community school structures would affect their semi-nomadic settlement pattern. It now seems so trivially academic in light of those communities’ continuing militarization and internal displacement crisis, especially since the April 2014 Talaingod Manobo bakwit.
I still carry a measure of regretful astonishment that there still lies, somewhere in my mind, these thoughts and memories of Talaingod as a tranquil place, where the most important order of the day was procuring kamote for lunch. They are still there, despite the vast disjoint with how the public now knows Talaingod, in the same way I know that they lie even more vividly in the minds and hearts of the Talaingod Manobos themselves.
A few months later, I would find myself getting familiarized with General Santos City in the most unpleasant way possible, when we were tailed by what we suspect are military agents all the way through to Digos City, and up to Davao City. Up until that time my acquaintance with GenSan could be summed up with “KCC” and “Veranza”. In the few hours when we tried in vain to lose the three or more riding-in- tandems that dogged us through both the broad and narrow streets of GenSan, I soon added “Bulaong” and “Dadiangas”.
For someone who grew up in so-called Imperial Manila, Mindanao was exotic at best and dangerous at worst. I find it to be a bitter blessing that I should have come to know Mindanao at just the time that I did, when, for the first time, the majority (sixty percent) of the Philippine Armed Forces were deployed here, during which the number of extrajudicial assassinations and massacres rose accordingly, during which militarization caused the displacement of an unprecedented number of families – from Loreto, Talaingod, White Kulaman, and Surigao, during which there was at least one major bakwit every year. It is paradoxically – in the best way and in the worst way – lucky of me to have gotten to know Mindanao at a time when, as one friend put it, “nabugbog ang Mindanao” (Mindanao was battered).
Why do I say this? Because when and where else could one witness such extraordinary responses from the people in the face of adversity? When and where else could you form massive mobilizations such as the Manilakbayan? When and where else can you find politically aware and organized communities in far flung areas that are ready to defend their schools, farms, homes, and way of life against far more superior enemies? When and where else can the national roads be barricaded in a way so frightful to the rich and powerful that they would call in goons with high-powered weapons because they are too cowardly to face poor farmers in an even fight? When and where else has the strength of the people’s movement been so utterly manifest in recent memory?
It is in these last three years that the words “bakwit”, “lumad killings”, “militarization” sadly became household terms, but it is also in the last three years when “save our schools”, “yutang kabilin, panalipdan” or “defend our ancestral domain” broke through, to a heightened degree, into the nation’s consciousness and conscience.
In the waning of the BS Aquino regime, as it whimpers away its final hours, Mindanao has shown that it has not only weathered the last three years, but it has emerged stronger and even more resolute. These were, as the quote goes, the worst of times, and the best of times. It is a privilege to say not just that I the individual was there, but that we the collective were there, and we will remain.