A few days ago I readily accepted an invitation to serve as host of the special Davao screening of the independent film “Tu Pug Imatuy”, or “A Right to Kill” by Mindanawon director Arbi Barbarona. An entry in famed director Brillante Mendoza’s Sinag Pilipinas Film Festival, the story follows a Manobo family ripped apart by the sudden entrance of military forces into their community.
The main characters are Dawin and Ubonay, a Manobo couple who are forcibly taken by soldiers and used as guides in their pursuit of rebels. A secondary storyline follows Dawin and Ubonay’s children, Langit and Ilyan, who struggle to return to their village without their parents to await has finally become of them. As both pairs move across their ancestral territory, we too travel across the beautifully shot landscape, which contrasts sharply with the ugly torture the main characters go through.
The film, at the very end, includes a short clip of the real-life Ubonay, the inspiration for the film’s storyline. The real Ubonay, a Manobo woman originally from Bukidnon, was in fact kidnapped and forced to act as a guide for the military for several days, during which her hands and feet were bound, she was fed only leftovers, and she even urinated on herself because her tied hands couldn’t undo her clothing.
Ubonay’s kidnapping happened in the days leading up to the lumad (indigenous peoples) evacuation crisis, or bakwit, in April 2014. It may be remembered that more than a thousand Pantaron Manobos, mostly from villages in the mountains of Talaingod, Davao del Norte, evacuated to Davao City for a month, to escape the intense militarization in their areas.
We were able to interview Ubonay while she and her husband tried to recover from the double trauma of her abduction and the displacement of their community. While “A Right to Kill” took artistic liberties to depict a harrowing experience for Dawin and the onscreen Ubonay, what happened in real life was no less brutal than fiction.
Ubnay narrated that she had run into the soldiers somewhere near the interior village of Nalubas one day at around eight in the morning. She indicated the time by pointing to the sky as to where the sun was positioned; this was her way of keeping track of time and telling us when certain events of her captivity happened. When she encountered the soldiers, she immediately held her hands up. One of them then immediately ordered her to sit down, while another older soldier ordered that her hands and feet be tied. For the next more than twenty-four hours she stayed put where she first sat, with no food or drink, while soldiers repeatedly asked her where the NPA were, and where Datu Guibang Apoga – the leader of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon organization – was hiding.
Not being proficient in spoken Bisaya, we asked her how she was able to communicate with her captors. Among the soldiers was a young Manobo who was a CAFGU, the auxiliary personnel employed by the Armed Forces, who helped translate her words to the soldiers. It was this same lad who actually gave her some of the leftover food only around noon on the second day of her captivity.
Ubonay insisted that she did not know where the NPA or Datu Guibang were. The soldiers were persistent that she should know, since her village was a member of the Salugpungan. They even offered her some cash if only she would tell. During a short respite in the questioning, the Manobo CAFGU furtively told her, “‘Nay (Mother), don’t give just any answer, the soldiers might do something to you,” (In the Bisaya from our translator: Nay, ayaw ug pataka’g sulti kay basig unsaon ka sa sundalo).
After a particularly strong rain shower that soaked her clothes through, she was given an old fatigue jacket and ordered to change her clothes. As she was changing the soldiers made fun of her body and cruelly joked that she must have already had many children. Moreover, they laughed at the tattoos that encircled her belly, making her painfully aware that, in the society these soldiers represented, not only was she lowly regarded as a woman, but also as a lumad.
The constant fear throughout her ordeal made Ubonay forget to be hungry, but it did not make her immune from the cold of the wind and rains that fell exceptionally heavily in the last days of March. From her interview it was the deepest affront not to have been provided shelter by the soldiers. When she tried to seek shade near one of the hammocks, she was rudely shooed away. This is what made me cry, she recounts. She would cry and be unable to sleep because of the rain and the cold; at the end of one interview session we recorded her, almost talking to herself, uttering her disbelief: Wa pad atup ko. They did not even give me a roof.
When Ubonay first set out on that fateful day, she had her pet dog with her. When she was captured, the dog refused to leave her. It followed her and the soldiers, trailing a little ways behind them, as they wound their way across the Pantaron. One evening, during an especially heavy downpour, the soldiers forget to bind her feet. Because of the strong rain, she was able to inch her way away from the sleeping soldiers. Her dog was there to greet her, and guide her to freedom.
Ubonay says she would not have been able to escape if not for her dog. The Pantaron can be disorienting even for a Manobo like her, and was more so because of the darkness of the night and the trauma she had just suffered. She trustingly followed her dog until they reached a spot in the mountain that was familiar, but they had to cross a roaring river that was swollen from the rains. Not having any choice but to swim through it to get away from her captors, Ubonay and her dog dove in. She made it, her dog did not.
The story of Ubonay, be it that from real-life or from fiction, represents the story of many other indigenous women who have suffered the direct violence of rape, assault, kidnapping, and militarization, as well as the structural violence of hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and the hopeless uncertainty about the future of their children.