In November 2015, shortly after the International League of People’s Struggle 5th International Assembly, three of BAYAN Northeast participants were invited to visit the Lumad Bakwit (evacuees) in Tandag City, and as well as in Marihatag in Surigao del Sur.
The following are reflections and photos taken by Jennine, Casey, and Lauren. We invite you to join us at the Long Live International Solidarity: ILPS 5th International Assembly and the BAYAN USA Peace Mission Report Back on Tuesday, February 16th where we will discuss how to strengthen anti-imperialist alliances and solidarity between different struggles in the US and around the world.
Grief and rage. Like thousands of others, these emotions consumed me after the Lianga Massacre of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) Executive Director Emerito “Sir Emuk” Samarca, Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (MAPASU) Chairperson Dionel “Onel” Campos and Kiwagan Lumad leader Datu Juvello “Datu Bello” Sinzo on September 1, 2015. After learning, laughing and living with Sir Emuk and Onel during an exposure trip to the Caraga region in Mindanao in November 2014, I was trying to think of how I could return to the region in the wake of the September 1st massacre. And then I met Doc Naty after her moving and agitating keynote presentation during Commission 3 on the defense of human rights during the 5th International Assembly of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle. She offered the opportunity to visit the evacuation center in the Sports Center in Tandag City, which is where hundreds of families from communities under threat arrived on September 1st.
Makigbisog. Just a year ago, I met Sir Emuk. Our expo team arrived in Han-ayan in Lianga, where the September 1st massacre took place. The community had just returned from an evacuation after the extrajudicial killing of Henry Alameda, a MAPASU Council Member. The ALCADEV teachers were our guides, translators and companions. Sir Emuk handled our itinerary and was with us every day and at every meal. I celebrated my birthday in Han-ayan, and when I thought no one knew, Sir Emuk saw there was Royal Tru-orange during lunch and remarked, “Wow, Royal! It must be someone’s birthday…” Sir Gary, Mam Aivy, Sir Jhon-jhon, Mam Amor, Mam Mai-mai, Sir Lito, Mam Lillian, Sir Ryan, Sir Rey, and others later threw me the best birthday party ever. They also taught us so much about what national democracy looks like. And a year later, in November 2015, I arrived at the evacuation site in the Sports Center in Tandag City, known as the Oval because it is a circular outdoor track, to learn what imperialism really looks like: displacement, injustice, terror, poverty, impunity, hunger, violations, abuses, illnesses, deaths.
It was sobering to reunite with the ALCADEV teachers in the aftermath of the September 1st killings. While watching the children play in the evacuation center, I had to constantly remind myself of the atrocities they witnessed that forced them out of their homes. Sir Jhon-jhon told me how he vomited after Onel and Datu Bello were killed in front of the entire community, and how he had to immediately recover to ensure the safety of the children. He was also the first to find Sir Emuk after he was killed and he said he bellowed like an animal upon seeing his lifeless, mutilated body. In the Oval, all of the indigenous school teachers like Sir Jhon-jhon are continuing their primary responsibilities to educate the children because they must learn that imperialism is not a fate to be accepted – it is a system to be smashed.
-Jennine Ventura, Gabriela New York
I’ve been meaning on writing this report/reflection earlier, but after getting back to the states I had some struggles with unemployment and have just recently started working again. Long story short- it wasn’t easy getting back on my feet for a few months, but I know that what I was going through in no way compares to what the Lumad people are going through right now, and what they have been going through for a very long time. And I am grateful that they shared their experience with me. Thank you to everyone we met at the bakwit- for welcoming us, hosting us, and allowing us to hear your stories. Their story needs to be told, and I will do my best to pass on what they told me.
This past November, I spent two weeks in the Philippines, for the purpose of attending the International League of People’s Struggles 5th International Assembly. This was my first time attending ILPS, and for a week I was able to engage in discussions and actions with delegates from all over the world who were united in fighting imperialism, advancing the struggles of oppressed peoples, and working in international solidarity. During the last few days of ILPS, I was invited to put some of what I learned into practice, in visiting an evacuation center for Lumad community that had recently been terrorized by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Along with Jennine Ventura of Gabriela New York and Lauren Quijano of Anakbayan New York, I was invited by Doctor Naty, a longtime advocate who has worked with the Lumad people in Mindanao for many years. She invited us to visit a Lumad community that had been harassed and terrorized by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, paramilitary groups, and logging and mining companies for their land. We arrived by plane to Mindanao on morning of Saturday, November 21 where we met Dr. Naty and drove to the evacuation center, known also as the “Sports Oval” or “Bakwit.”
On the way there, she explained to us that the Lumad lived on land in Mindanao that was sought after for mining and logging. International mining and logging corporations have come to Mindanao because of the resource rich land and the opportunity for profit. Due to their large scale mining and logging operations, much of the land in Mindanao has been left barren.
These operations have forced the Lumad off their land, because these companies partner with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and paramilitary groups to seize control of the land. The military routinely harasses and occupies Lumad villages, and recently has targeted Lumad schools as well, including the Al Ca Dev School, an award winning school for Lumad children. Claiming that the school works with the New People’s Army and teaches terrorism, on September 1st, 2015 paramilitary groups attacked and murdered three community leaders, Emerito “Sir Emuk” Samarca, (Executive Director of Al Ca Dev), Dionel Campos, and Datu Bello Sinzo. This prompted the Lumad flee, where they evacuated to the Surigao del Sur Sports Complex in Bandag City and have been staying since.
When we arrived to the evacuation center, we were immediately greeted by community members and Al Ca Dev staff. This was my first time meeting and integrating with them, and seeing the conditions they were living in was a tough pill to swallow. Rows after rows of tents in the multiple sports fields and bleachers indicated the massive amount of people that had fled. They would later tell me that about 3000 evacuees were there. Since the evacuation center was an outdoor sports center, people were exposed to the rain and elements, and had to set up shelters and other communal structures on muddy fields. We were briefly oriented to the staff and some community members, and then participated in a panel where community leaders gave us their account of the events leading to their evacuation. I could still sense fear in them from the events that had happened as they told their stories. These were communities that were targeted by the military, who were to be removed from their land by any means necessary. They told us how the Bagani Magahat, a paramilitary group of the AFP, came to their villages and asked to see their leaders. They told us about how the military accused their leaders of collaborating with the NPA, told them to get on the ground, and then executed Dionel Campos and Datu Bello Sinzo in front of them. Later they found Emerito Samarca at Al Ca Dev with his throat slashed. Then they told us about how they fled for days on foot before coming to the Sports Oval, hiding for fear of being attacked again by the Bagani Magahat. Since then, they have been surviving off of donations and aid. They have started a community garden, and collectively pool their resources to provide food and supplies for the community. They have spent about half a year, waiting to go home.
After hearing their stories, Jennine, Lauren, and I separated and were taken around to speak with community members housed in different sections of the Sports Oval. We got to hear from more community members, and got to see a glimpse of daily life at the bakwit. Their homes consisted of tarp held up with rope, string, and wood- enough to hold some cooking supplies and maybe a cot or two. These were not homes. Their homes were back in San Miguel, Liangga, San Agustin and other barangays were the military were currently occupying. Walking around, I wondered how the Lumad here would be able to sustain their livelihood- away from the land and life that they depended on.
Despite all this, I could see how resilient the Lumad were. These communities were sustaining themselves despite the oppression they were facing. They are fighting to educate the world about what is happening to them. After touring the bakwit, we ate dinner. Food was cooked in a single kitchen for the thousands of evacuees, where they took turns eating. After eating, we took turns bathing in wooden stalls that functioned as both toilets and showers. We took turns to be rationed water to use when we went to the bathroom. As visitors, we were given a bucket of water to shower, which was more than the community members themselves used. We learned that they were also had a shortage of water, among other things that they needed like vegetables, rice, and building materials. After bathing we slept in cots in the building that housed Al Ca Dev staff, who themselves slept in hammocks like many of the other Lumad.
The next day, we started early, since Lauren and I had to take a flight in the evening back to Manila. After breakfast, we prepared for a cultural sharing with the community. We were treated to a performance by Al Ca Dev youth, who performed a song about the mining and logging that was happening in their community. The youth even taught us a chant, shouting “Paki bisug! Di ma hadluk! (Dare to struggle! Don’t be afraid!)” I was able to see that Al Ca Dev is truly providing education for the Lumad people, where youth serve as teachers just like the elders. Jennine, Lauren, and I performed a song from the Black Lives Matter movement that we had also performed with the US contingent at ILPS. We finished the cultural sharing with several Lumad leaders teaching us a Manobo dance. I tried to really make it a cultural exchange by hitting the “dab” at the end.
After having lunch and playing a game of volleyball with some of the youth, the Al Ca Dev staff provided a going away party for Lauren and me. A going away party; and we had only known them for 24 hours. Lauren and I realized that the people here were more than just friends or acquaintances now; they were our kaubans (comrades), as they called us in the Bisaya language. On our way back, we visited another smaller evacuation center, of a Lumad community who had also been terrorized by the military. We left that day with the ask that we share their stories, with the purpose of gathering international support.
The Lumad have been surviving at the evacuation center, but this is not enough. This is not how people should live, in fear and unable to return home. They have a right to the land that they’ve lived on for generations, before any of the mining companies. They have a right to education for their youth, and basic necessities to live. They have a right to live. We here in the US need to pressure our government to stop sending military aid to the Philippines- the same military which is killing Lumads. Our tax dollars are funding their oppression and the militarization of their communities. We need to call on the Philippine government to end the militarization of Lumad communities. We must stand in solidarity and join in the struggle of the Lumad, indigenous peoples, and teachers and children of Al Ca Dev- because they are our kaubans, and they deserve the right to live. As the Al Ca Dev youth taught us; Pakig bisug! Di ma hadluk!
–Casey Gin, Anakbayan New York
I want to start off this reflection thanking everyone: all the organizers who helped to make this trip possible. I also want to begin this story with a disclaimer that I am a Filipino born and raised in the U.S., visiting the Philippines for the first time with a lens of the crimes against the Lumad people, and with a recently formed consciousness of the National Democratic movement of the Philippines. So I tell this story from my point of view as an observer with such a background. I am confident that this reflection will change every time I revisit it, just as the situation for the Lumad people changes every day.
Here is a snapshot on November 21st – November 22nd, 2015, it was a short trip but thanks to the programming of the Alcadev teachers, we were able to maximize our time as much as possible.
The trip to visit the Lumad evacuees, and some of the Moro people, was indeed a journey. We took a plane from Manila to the southern region Surigao del Sur, where we then took a long car ride along the windy hills of Tandag City in the Caraga region. Our guide, Dr Nati, took us along the roads next to where the major mining work had begun and where it still continued. It is easy to see the vast operation that takes over the entire area, but this is land that belongs to the Lumad people. She was shocked at how much of a difference there was in just two months. She noted for herself how the operation was rapid.
Along these winding hills, it is easy to observe the damage from the mining companies, where trucks were lined up along the road, and barge ships were lined up along the harbor. The mining trucks would dig underneath the top layer of dirt, extracting the dirt underneath this layer until they hit bedrock. The minerals of this under layer of dirt are a rich orange hue. The rule was they were to re-layer the dirt on top so that plants and shrubbery can grow again, but the mining operation was failing rehabilitation. Instead of a clear beach there was now this orange slush leading to a greenish brown shoreline, leading then to an ocean with a transporting ship here and there, some from China and even Canada.
The economic effects of the mining corporations pushed Lumad off of their land, making it difficult for the displaced Lumad to maintain their livelihood as farmers and fishermen. Some Lumad were even recruited into working for the mining companies for some small earnings to support their families. There was also human trafficking aboard the ships, a crime that is in continued investigation, harboring women from other countries in the region.
We arrived to the provincial Sports Complex in Tandag City.
Arriving to the Sports Complex is difficult to describe: there is so much to take in at one moment. I saw layers and layers of tents made of tarp and huts made of bamboo and sheet metal, taking up each step of the stadium. Each tent was within inches from the next, they literally lined up side by side. I saw large puddles of rain and dirt along the road, where children ran across the field, some with shoes, some without shoes, others without pants. The air smelled wet and felt wet. It also smelled of smoke in which I am not sure where it came from, maybe from a family that was boiling water under their tent, or from the smoke exhaust coming from the trucks and bicycles that had just returned from the market run. The entire stadium was packed with people. There were three areas to use the restroom, one area with public bathrooms that were flushable. But sometimes the toilets would not work, and to be honest, the three bathroom facilities were definitely not enough for everyone in the camp.
We were greeted by the teachers of Alcadev. We passed by the bangkas which are separated, for the girls and for the boys. Beneath the girls bangkas is where the lessons take place. The teachers describe the lessons to us, and how their main priority is to keep up with the educational lessons. The first thing we did was meet the elders and community leaders in the Sports Complex. They spoke to us about the killings and atrocities they experienced on September 1st, calling for justice for Emerito Samarca, Dionel Campos and Datu Bello Sinzo. They described how they were terrorized by the paramilitary forces and how their community leader and Executive Director of Alcadev was killed. At first, it was described as events that provoked fear, from when the military group first came to the premises, and the events leading up to the killings. Then they spoke to us about how they were evacuated and walked for miles until they reached the camp.
What I gathered the most from speaking with them is how concerned they looked for the future, especially in not knowing exactly when they would be able to go home again. The biggest ask of us was to return to the U.S. and speak on what they shared with us. To talk about how they were terrorized and how they wish for international communities to continue to fight for them abroad. Most of all, they want justice for their communities and for their people. They are also calling for the military and paramilitary forces of the AFP to leave permanently, and for all guns to be taken away from these groups in order to dismantle all forces. (The specific demands are listed below).
After speaking with the Lumad leaders, we separated into groups so that we can visit the families throughout the sports complex. This was the most impactful part of our trip. Many families came from the neighboring regions, while some travelled from areas further away. Some families have been in the evacuation center for months. It is important to note that other groups were in this Sports Complex, and there were thousands of people in the camp, ranging between 3,000-5,000 people. The figure changes as some groups come and go as they are evacuated and able to return to their homes, but more likely they move to other camps or surrounding areas to look for work.
There was a mix of reactions towards our visit there. When I was presented to the families as someone who would help draw international attention to the people in the U.S. of what the Lumad are going through, some families were very happy and wanted international visitors to advocate for them. Other people were skeptical and already very tired of waiting to leave the camp. Others only wanted to focus on getting food for their children and maintaining the cleanliness of the camp in such difficult rainy weather.
Because of the harsh conditions of the camp, lack of food and more sanitary shelter, people can get sick in the camp. A child can even die of the common cold or flu. This has happened in the past, where I baby unfortunately passed away. There are services in the sports complex, including a small health center in the middle of the camp. It is tent near where the teachers sleep. They are able to have a supply of basic medicines for the evacuees and provide first aid to the evacuees.
Despite this, a majority of the work done to maintain the camp is through a collective community. Everyone takes turns in the different tasks needed to maintain the camp, where the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping is shared and divided among each group in their own collective. Even during the cultural exchanges upon each visitor’s arrival, while preparations are made, others are still taking on the day-to-day tasks. This is amazing considering the large amount of people in the camp. But it is important to note that the Lumad people practice a collectivized lifestyle, even within such an unfamiliar setting. They are far from their homes in which there is more space, more open areas for them to farm and raise their children.
I enjoyed speaking with the children the most. I learned from the teachers who helped translate, that usually the children would welcome a visitor by catching a chicken in the field, or harvesting some vegetables in their garden. They would do this in preparation for a visitor, and in return, the visitor would also cook a meal for the Lumad. The exchange would happen throughout the duration of the visitor’s stay, where they also exchange in collective lifestyle with the Lumad. This is still practiced with all the visitors in the camp, but by limited means.
So in the meantime, the children continue their studies and activities in the camp. This includes singing songs about their experiences. These songs tell true stories about the Lumad people, and through these songs one can learn about the life of the Lumad people, their values and principles, how they practice their collective living. But the most important lesson to learn from their songs is that they will never stop demanding justice and fighting for their people. The children know of what the military forces and bases have done to their communities. They know and remember the lives lost. They also know of their wants to return home and farm their land again. I passed by a group of young boys around the ages of 4 and 5. One of the boys pointed to a photo of the mining activities, and he told the group “Look at that, everything is gone. How are we going to fix it when we get back?”
They also continue to maintain their dreams for the future. Some children want to be doctors, lawyers, farmers, and even journalists. But a majority of them want to be teachers. I met at least six young girls and boys who wanted to be teachers when they grow up, because they want to help people. This is a true tribute to show of just how influential and important the education of a Lumad child is, not only for the child but for the community. They grow up with a strong calling to help others, from as young as the age of 4. Meeting a Lumad child is different than meeting a regular child, because a Lumad child demands respect. It feels like meeting an adult for me, actually, when you meet someone you look up to. That is how I felt when I met them. I think they know more about how to take care of a community than any adult in the U.S. would ever know how to do.
They along with the entire community continue to maintain the urban gardens in the evacuation center. But even with this, the greatest need at that time was for food. The teachers told me that in one week, they would be on very short supply of rice so their rations were becoming less each day while they waited, for more food. The government that assisted with the Lumad being temporarily placed in the sports complex had promised food for the Lumad and protection, but sometimes the rice they would give them was moldy. The urban farms help, but they also crave the flavors of the vegetables they were able to grow in their own farms. When I asked the teachers for a figure, the total was about 1,000 children in the sports complex alone. Each Lumad child’s meal would cost about P 15 pesos per meal. This figure adds up to about $ 10,000 US dollars to feed all Lumad children with a solid three meals for an entire week. How they are able to serve meals to everyone, I have no idea. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience. But it also takes a lot of support and additional funds from visitors.
We had dinner where we saw how they collective the kitchen duties. Here the teachers told me about life in the evacuation center, and how many of them started school through Alcadev and then grew up wanting to teach for Alcadev. Teaching a community is an entire community effort. Their love for the community and their continuing fight for justice is one of the most powerful things I could witness. It just puts it into perspective that there are teachers who chose to be away from their friends and families in order to stay with the Lumad. The best thing that they continue to do is to be an advocate for the Lumad: posting photos on social media on behalf of the Lumad along with descriptions of how the Lumad “have demonstrated characteristics of being consistent, determined, disciplined, and well organized that are distinct from some others in similar circumstances.”
After we heard more about their stories, we went to bed. The rain poured on and off throughout the night. I slept in a Bangka next to a television that was showing feed from a security camera outside the camp entrance. I asked them if they felt safe in the sports complex, but their reaction to this stupid question was quiet. One teacher told me they will only truly feel safe when the military forces are pushed out and they can return safely home.
By morning, there were even larger puddles inside the tent areas and surrounding the tents. But that morning was exciting, because we had our cultural exchange with the Lumad. It was fun dancing and singing and chanting with them and everyone was very energetic. Later that day, we had our assessment of our program and then played volleyball before saying goodbye.
Another evacuation camp: Visiting the Mahaba community
Prior to leaving the region, we visited a second evacuation camp that was located in a school gymnasium, in the Center of Marihatag, a municipality from the Mahaba community. Here we met other evacuees, who also knew some families staying at the sports complex. Our guide told us that prior to us arriving there, there had been many others also living in the gymnasium.
We spoke with some of the health staff on how they maintain their camp operations. For rice, one kilo is enough for six people, and one kilo is about 55 pesos. So adding gulay and fish, it is ten to fifteen pesos for each person. So for every six persons is one hundred twenty pesos per meal. But the more people, the more resources you can pull, and you can budget at a lower rate. They eat mostly dried fish, but they try to get fresh fish or canned fish at least once a week for the nutrition. They also transport fish at least twice a week. They also fill the van with vegetables, and some communities donate sweet potatoes, bananas, squash and root crops. But what they really crave is fruits. There were a lot of durian fruit in one farm that they want to gather once it has fallen. Each surrounding municipality is also required to give.
We spoke with some of the elders in this group as well, some members of the peasant organization Kapunungan ny Mauuma sa Sorigau del Sur (KAMAS). They detailed the order of harassment as practiced by the paramilitary groups and AFP forces in the region. They wanted to emphasize how this was a system in place, with specific practices in how to “deal” with the Lumad. The order of harassment is as follows:
- Gather a census of the community (to determine who is missing or in hiding)
- Gather all the people in the Lumad community (using the census data)
- Use propaganda on the Lumad, including videos, to instill fear in their community (they usually tell the Lumad that the enemy is the New Peoples Army NPA)
- Monitor the area, offer bribes or force bribes, and make false promises to the Lumad
- Kill off a community leader
- Bribe the people again or instill threats for their silence so that the people do not blame the AFP or the paramilitary groups
Operating units come from the 36th infantry battalion, 9th special forces paramilitary groups, armed paramilitary groups, and the 75th infantry battalion. These are all the composite groups from the AFP who were armed and trained. These are all Oplan Bayanihan operations under a program called Community Organizing for Peace and Development (COPD). These groups are also behind the Lumad group that calls themselves Magahat Bagani, but they are a bandit group responsible for the killing.
This past December 10th was the 100th day of evacuation for those from Mahaba in the past 5 years, the longest evacuation ever.
One farmer in particular named Tuling Himo wants justice for the farmers so that they can return to their land to farm. They cannot farm or gather harvest. Sometimes they sneak to the mountains to harvest but not often because it is dangerous. They want to go home and they do not want to stay in the evacuation center. They cannot work in the evacuation center. According to Tuling Himo, “the military operations are designed to give profits to investors, but the people are paying the most for it. The bureaucrats of the government are doing this. Imperialist plunder is a reality for these communities, and on the ground this is what it looks like.”
To pave the way for their safe and peaceful return to their homes, the Lumad leaders ‘ specific demands are as follows:
- immediate arrest of the perpetrators who have been already issued warrants of arrest;
- disband and disarm the paramilitary groups operating in the area;
- relief of commanding officers of military units deployed in the area and held them accountable;
- pull-out the 75th IBPA from Caraga; and
- no military operations for three months to give the lumads enough time to rebuild their homes, schools and communities.
They call for international pressure because they have already gone as high as they can to the local and federal government of the Philippines. They want to make other people understand this so they will join in the outcry – that this is also a lot for the U.S. and other countries.
This is our task from the people.
Lauren Quijano, Anakbayan New York
All photos taken by the writers unless otherwise stated. Please do not use without permission. Please direct any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.