REFLECTION | Not a history of Filipinos, but histories

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File photo shows evacuees after the 2015 Mamasapano incident.

Marrian Pio Roda Ching is a writer and editor currently based in the Bangsamoro. She was born in Manila, raised in Laguna, and relocated to Cotabato City in 2012. She is a human rights advocate who supports the Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination

It is easy to get caught up in the debates online, with privilege rearing its ugly head every so often. In discussions, it is easy to highlight the differences people have — you’re from Luzon, you don’t know the situation here; you’re from Mindanao, all you know is war.

So many people have found it easy to speak in behalf of others, forgetting that the differences we have are not just simply because of where we come from, but because of our own personal experiences and the histories our own families carry.

It is easy to say “I know this therefore you are wrong,” especially when one is secure in one’s own narrative. But what about the things that are also true, but are unknown to us?

A makeshift banner in Mamasapano, Maguindanao demands justice for child victims of conflict.

***

In Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat, in a coastal village named Malisbong, there is a mosque with bullet holes on its walls and a massacre in etched in the memory of the people. The mosque stands in the middle of the village, unapologetic for the damage which the villagers refuse to repair, and serves as a stark reminder of the horrors they have lived through.

In 1974, more than a thousand Muslims were killed by the military in this village, here where the women and children who survived had to watch their brothers, husbands, and fathers die.

Once, in 2012, I was welcomed in Malisbong and ate with the villagers during a kanduli (celebratory feast). There I met a man who told me how he evaded death by jumping out of the mosque where men like him were detained before they were killed. He then pointed to his limp, saying it was all he had left from those days.

Five years later, in Dalican, Maguindanao, I met another man whom everyone called “ustadz.” He said he was born in a village called Kraan, also in Palimbang. During the days of what is now known as the Malisbong Massacre, their family sent six of their women away for safety. The last the family has heard of these women was that they crossed paths with soldiers, never to be seen again.

During the time of the dictatorship, the military was sent to remote villages in the Bangsamoro to quell a rising revolution. Back then Moro men were recruited, if not sent by their families or volunteered on their own, to join the newly established Moro National Liberation Front. Martial Law was used to silence a people struggling for self-determination and, in the process, cost innocent civilians their lives and dignity.

This is the Martial Law they know.

Evacuees cross the Liguasan Marsh in Libungan, Cotabato province.

***

In 2013, I met eight men who were illegally detained by the military. I never would have met them if we didn’t insist that the military had them, based on reports sent to our NGO which monitored human rights violations in the Bangsamoro.

These men evacuated their village together with their families in the midst of a firefight between armed groups in the area. They didn’t have a chance to gather their things and left only with the clothes on their backs, so they decided to return as soon as the firefighting stopped.

Carrying a white flag, the men made their way back to the village, hoping that the military would allow them to collect food and supplies for their family. But instead of either driving them away or letting them back into their village, the military ordered them to take off their shirts and kneel, tied their hands behind their backs using the shirts they took off, and brought them to a school which the military turned into a barrack.

At night, they were blindfolded and taken out of a room one by one, made to kneel beside the flagpole, with soldiers whispering, “tumakbo ka na.” Not one of them ran, fearing that they would accused of trying to escape, which would then justify soldiers shooting them.

Listening to their story, I remember thinking to myself, “this is what Martial Law must be like.”

It took our lawyers a year to get the case against these men dismissed, during which many things have changed. The lives of those eight men will never be the same again.

The author interviewing two of the eight illegally arrested men.

***

When the firefight in Marawi City began on May 23, things unfolded in a way that left many confused. It all seemed to happen out of nowhere – an encounter between state forces and a local terrorist group in the heart of the country’s only Islamic city. At the onset, I don’t think anybody expected it would last more than a week, that parts of Marawi City would be in ruins, and that more than 70% of the population would evacuate.

But as the conflict went on, what happened eventually wasn’t unexpected. After all, the president has alluded to it time and again.

In Angeles City last December 2016, he expressed a desire to amend the constitution and allow a declaration of Martial Law without the approval of congress. In Davao City last January 2017, he said he would declare Martial Law if the drug problem becomes “virulent.” Last March 2017, the president told local government executives from Mindanao that he would place the entire island under Martial Law if they do not help him keep violence from “spinning out of control.”

So when Martial Law was declared in the entire island of Mindanao, to some people it was merely the inevitable finally happening.

There were those who welcomed the declaration as a valid response to the terror that has planted its foot firmly in Marawi City. After all, the declaration was made by a president who claimed he understood Mindanao and its history, and who took pride in his ancestors’ Moro heritage and claimed it as his own. This declaration was made in response to a threat against the Muslim majority population in Marawi, and not as a justification to kill Muslims. This declaration was supposed to protect the people of Marawi, not harm them. This declaration was different.

Until the president said it wasn’t. He said it would be similar to the late dictator’s Martial Law – harsh and indiscriminate.

Evacuee families take shelter in the home of relatives in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur.

***

I met Faisal* and Rahima* in Lanao del Sur a week after Martial Law was declared. Two days prior, they left Marawi City together with their family, fearing the worst.

“We campaigned for the president last year,” Rahima said. “It was exciting to finally have a president from Mindanao and we trusted him. Even when he declared Martial Law, we trusted him, but then he started talking about taking care of the soldiers and letting them do whatever they wanted. It was disappointing,” she said.

“The rape joke was too much. It was painful to hear,” Rahima told me, trying to hold back tears as she recounted the president’s assurance that the soldiers in Marawi can rape up to three women with impunity. She said her neighbors have all torn up the identification cards (IDs) that have been carrying around since the campaign, cards that identified them as part of the president’s election campaign team.

But then Faisal spoke up, saying “I still have mine.” He took out his wallet and fished for the ID so he could show me what it looked like. “We all had this, we were so proud when we won,” he shared.

“I guess I no longer need this,” he then said in a voice that registered between mischief and anger, as he crumpled the ID with a hand that clenched into a tight fist.

There was hesitation in his gesture, and I recognized his pain as my own.

***

It is easy to say history repeats itself because we see shadows of the past in these dark times, but the assumption of a single narrative as implied by the word “history” falls flat, given the many histories that run parallel to each other in our country.

The narrative of the Bangsamoro is one that many of us are yet to acknowledge. Their struggle for self-determination is rooted on a history that is yet to be taught in our schools, let alone understood by all. The pain of the past that drives our current resistance against military rule is a pain that never left Mindanao. The memories on which our refusal of Martial Law is anchored are realities that have evolved in a myriad ways, in places far beyond the reach of Manila.

To say never forget and never again is to recognize Martial Law as a distant memory that we refuse to relive – an understandable sentiment, but is one that is also mildly unmindful of the fact that elsewhere Martial Law was never distant nor has it ended completely. As the fear of Martial Law going beyond the bounds of Mindanao builds, there is a need to assess where our sincere concern for those at the periphery ends and where our self-interest begins. Once Martial Law is lifted in Mindanao, will we still care about the issues that plague the south or will some of us go back to living our separate lives?

The sooner we recognize that there are histories apart from our own, the sooner we can learn from each other and build a nation less vulnerable to division – one that recognizes and respects the narratives of our people. May we never forget that there are histories we are yet to learn, and may we never again look away from it all.

Children from Marawi City staying in an elementary school in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur.

*names have been changed upon request