The spate of massacres regularly splayed all over the news is not a phenomenon confined to the cities. There are massacres aplenty even in the most remote and isolated corners of the land. But far from being perpetrated by drug-crazed murderers, these massacres in the mountains are wrought by the very people who are meant to protect us all from abominations like these. And far from being the stuff of headlines, these massacres are often relegated to the back pages, if at all published.
In recent months, there has been a chain of deadly bombings by the military, on lumad* lands in the North Mindanao provinces of Agusan del Sur and Surigao del Sur. It has left a trail of 8 Manobos dead (3 children & 5 adults), 3 children wounded (1 seriously), displacement of hundreds of families, damage to property and inestimable trauma.
At around 8:00 in the morning of 18 August 1995, three OV-10 Bronco aircraft and two MG-520 helicopter gunships started bombing the Manobo tribe populated sitios of Balala-an, Hugmakan, Kagnoti and Magasan in the forested recesses of Barangay San Juan, Bayugan, Agusan del Sur.
Ricardo and Amalia Brital, who were in their house at the time, rushed out to see aircraft over an area a small distance away. The bombing lasted for about 20 minutes. At past noon of the same day, a lone OV-10 Bronco came back for a second sortie. Between 4:00 and 5:00 that afternoon, there was a third volley of fire, this time shelling from 105mm howitzers.
Terrified by the day-long bombardment, the Britals and their neighbours decided to stay together the night in one of the houses.
Meanwhile Datu (chief) Intub Tanugan of neighboring Sitio Hugmakan reported the incident to the Bayugan mayor who advised them to stay put as she had received a letter from the armys 401st Infantry Brigade the day before, informing her of their "Close Air Support Training". Signed by an army officer, the letter assured the "non-combat nature of the firing" and the "safety and well-being" of civilians in the area. Having been thus assuaged by the mayor, the datu told his people to remain in their houses.
At 5:45 in the wee hours of the next day, again three Broncos and two 520s started bombing and strafing anew. A short while after, two bombs dropped over Datu Intubs house exploded in the communitys basketball court. At this, the people decided to scamper in different directions and use the trees as cover.
Down in Balala-an, the villagers, who were gathered in one house, were terrified as the rockets, bombs and machine gun fire exploding all around them were unmistakably aiming at their houses. A dozen or so lumads, clutching their babies and clinging to their elderly, dashed out to the clearing where their camote fields were, started waving shirts and white cloths, yelling that they were civilians. One of them even raised a child for the pilots to see, signifying that they were unarmed and just plain villagers. All the same, they were answered with a bomb that exploded four meters away, tearing their frail bodies apart. The pilots then peppered the dead bodies and the houses with machine gun fire.
A horrified Ricardo and Amalia Brital were among those who witnessed the scene from the house. But the bombs kept dropping and they were being hit by shrapnel, so the couple decided to make a run for it. They had to pass the spot where the dismembered bodies of their friends were. Said Amalia, "Strewn about were bodies blown apart, skulls shattered and scalped, and blood spilled all around. I could not hold my gaze. It was a gruesome sight."
Twelve-year-old Jessel Ondayon barely missed being killed. Before the bombing run, she had gone to another house to cook. When the explosions began, she ran to the bushes nearby to hide as the gunners were flying very low and could easily see her. When it stopped, she scanned the dead and saw the bloody corpses of her mother and great-grandmother. "I just want the military to leave our place. I feel my blood rise whenever I see one of them."
A second bombing run came at 8:009:00am, a third at 10:0011:00am, and a fourth at 1:00pm.
Later that night, ground troops from the 58th Infantry Battalion arrived on the scene and ordered the lumads to hurriedly bury the dead. They were forced to put the bodies to rest in a shallow common grave along a nearby creek. Relatives of the victims were later given P5,000 [almost Aus$280] by the military for each dead. They were cautioned not to report the incident to anyone and were promised medical assistance if they kept quiet.
Three of the wounded children were taken by military helicopter to hospital in Butuan City. Some news media people accidentally stumbled upon them but the children were being tightly watched and not allowed to be interviewed. The military later hurriedly sneaked them out and kept them at an undisclosed place.
The incident now known by media, the military tried to explain their way out, giving conflicting statements: claiming that the childrens father was a soldier and they were injured while playing with his rifle grenade that the victims were killed because they were used as human shields by the New Peoples Army and armed forces chief Gen Arturo Enrile issued a statement that said the bombing was part of a military offensive against communist insurgents in the area and the Manobos were caught in the crossfire and killed accidentally. And what of that letter to the Bayugan mayor informing her of a military training exercise?
Local NGOs first heard of the incident on August 20. They interviewed the evacuees on the 23rd and on the 26th, the RMP in North Mindanao with other organizations and some representatives from the mayors office, conducted a preliminary investigation and distributed relief goods to the evacuees.
From September 17 to 19, a solidarity mission was participated in by over a hundred people from over thirty organizations including the RMP. The mission visited the bomb site to interview the survivors and witnesses, document testimonies, provide medical services and distribute relief goods.
On the 18th, exactly one month after the start of the bombing raids, Datu Intub, the communitys baylan (indigenous priest and spirit-medium), held a pamayas ritual near the site. It was meant to restore the communitys balance, upset by the killings. The umagad or souls of the people were summoned back as they were believed to have fled at the explosions. The blood of sacrificial animals was spilled onto the land, signifying a washing away of the spiritual defilement brought by the military operation.
A press conference held in Butuan City two days later was attended by the media, churchpeople, representatives from the mission and the academe. Present as witness to the bombings were lumads from Agusan and Surigao. The audience was brought to tears as a sobbing Jessel Ondayon gave her testimony. Another child survivor wept as she looked at fragments of her dead mothers hair, torn from the skull on impact.
Similar military operations have been trained on communities of the Banwaon, Manobo and Talaandig tribes in San Luis, Agusan del Sur. There are reports of deaths and injuries details are still being investigated. An estimated 197 families have been dislocated. The military has also imposed a food blockage, that is, limiting the amount of food that people can bring into their communities. This is supposed to prevent the people from supplying food to the NPA.
Throughout history, the lumads have been victimized by all sorts of exploitation and aggression. The tribes ancestral lands contain some of the worlds richest and most diverse flora and fauna. Being untaught in the way of the "civilized" world, they have been easy prey to all-comers, lured by the promise of immense profits from their land.
From the earliest Spanish colonizers to their American successors up to the present, the large-scale abuse of our natural resources by huge foreign companies and their local partners has gone unabated. With the Ramos governments Philippines 2000 program for industrialization, this promises to even escalate. Part of the government program is the luring of foreign investment by offering various incentives, usually to the detriment of our people. This includes using the military to clear the way for the entry or the "trouble-free" operation of these businesses.
In all the bombing incidents, a common denominator emerges: the presence or imminent entry of large companies.
Surigao del Sur hosts one of the highest concentrations of logging firms. The assertion of Manobo and Mamanwa tribes of their ancestral land rights has been consistently blocked by logging companies coupled with an intensification of military operations in these areas. San Miguel, Surigao which shares a boundary with Bayugan, Agusan is a prospect for open-pit mining by Atlas Mining. Climax Mining of Australia, a gold miner, has a pending application with the Office of the President covering 100,000 hectares of Manobo and Mamanwa land.
It is the belief of the lumads themselves that the bombings are meant to scare them off their land to pave the way for interested investors.
But the lumads know from hundreds of years of deception and exploitation, what big business brings. It has decimated our forest cover from an estimated 27.5 million hectares in the year 1575, to 20.9 in the mid-1800s, to a scant 4 million hectares today. And for hundreds of years, these mostly foreign companies and their local partners have reaped endless profits from tribal land while the lumad remains impoverished.
The continuing presence and expansion of these companies operations and the governments policies that encourage them are death-dealing threats to the life and way of life of the lumad. The lumads consciousness is shaped, nurtured and fed by their bond with the land. Together with the rest of the peasantry, these tillers of the soil have no land of their own. The land of their toil is lorded over by a powerful master.
* Lumad a Cebuano Bisayan word meaning indigenous which has become the collective name for the 18 ethnolinguistic groups: Ata, Bagobo, Banwaon, Blaan, Bukidnon, Dibabawon, Higaunon, Kalagan, Mamanwa, Mandaya, Mangguwangan, Manobo, Mansaka, Subanon, Tagakaolo, Tboli, Tiruray, and Ubo. Representatives from 15 of the 18 tribes agreed to adopt a common name in a Congress in June 1986 which also established Lumad Mindanao. This was the first time that these tribes have agreed to a common name for themselves, distinct from the Moros and different from the Christian majority. Lumad Mindanaos main objective is to achieve self-determination for their member tribes. The choice of a Cebuano word Cebuano is the language of the natives of Cebu in the Visayas was a bit ironic but it was deemed to be most appropriate considering that the various Lumad tribes do not have any other common language except Cebuano.