Text and Photographs by Florante S. Solmerin in Pagasa Island, Palawan
Photojournalists and television cameramen flanked on the left side of the plane to peer through the small windows of the roaring C130 as it circled around, several thousands feet above a small greenery, before touchdown.
More than 40 of us—journalists, wives and mothers and several soldiers packed like sardines in between boxes of military supplies and food provision—spent at least two hours on the plane since we left Villamor Airbase in Manila in early May.
The trip was organized by Philippine Air Force (PAF) chief Lt. Gen. Pedrito Cadungog. Police Chief Supt. Leopoldo Bataoil joined him.
Cadungog said his visit to Pagasa has no connection with the "provocation" of Taiwan in the Spratlys when its president, Chen Shui-bian, visited the nearby Itu Aba Island last February. It is currently occupied by Taiwanese forces.
Cadungog explained that his visit is not a "show of force" to the Taiwan military. "I’m here to personally check on the morale and welfare of our military personnel. We will also conduct ocular inspection of the repair and sustained improvements of the airstrip and other minor facilities."
Pagasa, a barangay of Kalayaan, is an hour and 30 minutes by plane to Puerto Princesa or close to six hours by Navy ship. According to civilians living on the island, a C130 arrives once a month; a Navy ship only once in three months. Boarding to and from Pagasa is free.
Without disclosing the total number of soldiers deployed in the island, Cadungog said majority of them are skilled soldiers from different engineering brigades of PAF, Army, Navy and Marines.
Lt. Gen. Pedrito Cadungog, Air Force chief, and his PMA mistah P/Chief Supt. Leopoldo Bataoil together with soldiers stroll along the more than 3-kilometer white beach of Pagasa Island.
"Of course they are battle-tested soldiers but they are skilled military workers too. Majority of them are members of the engineering brigades of the Armed Forces of the Philippines," the general said.
Pagasa is one of the contested islands in the Spratlys. Aside from Taiwan and the Philippines, which claim at least 9 islands in the Spratlys, Vietnam claims 21 islands; Malaysia, 5; and China, 7 islands including 2 reefs. Brunei remains a non-active claimant compared to the other countries.
Cadungog said Pagasa’s runaway that cuts across the 5.6-hectare airstrip needs repair.
"At least an estimated P6.6 million is needed to repair our runaway here," the general said.
Some portions of the island’s shorelines have been destroyed by erosion. "In our estimate, we need P31 million for walling of the eroded portion of the island," Cadungog said.
A flourishing community
My first impression was that the island is largely populated with soldiers. I was wrong. In my interviews with some of the civilians, they told me that there are more than 300 of them, soldiers not included, living on the island.
With only a handful of families from Puerto Princesa who migrated to Pagasa, the population quickly grew over the last three years.
The pristine island covers 31.5 hectares surrounded with more than three kilometers of alluring white sand, just 11.5-hectare smaller than Itu Aba Island
The island is relatively flat, grassy and small canopies serve as abode of some species of migratory birds. Cutting of trees is strictly prohibited.
"Of the present number of civilians, 240 of them are registered voters," Bataoil told some members of the media, after almost an hour of touring the civilians’ houses.
The white beach of Pagasa sland.
The civilian population is composed of two groups of indigenous people: Cagayanen and Cuyunen. But they speak Tagalog.
"We really need a school and teachers here," said Kagawad Arlene Fernandez, 29, whose two children are expected to arrive onboard a Navy ship anytime in the next few days to join her and her husband Jerry.
Jerry works as one among keepers of the sub-municipal office of Mayor Rosendo Mantis, whose permanent residence is in Puerto Princesa. But the islanders said the mayor visits them every month. He receives a salary of more than P4,000 a month while his wife receives a monthly honoraria of P1,000.
The Commission on Elections has an office here. It is made of concrete and wood materials situated just beside the sub-municipal office and just a few meters away from the solar and water filtration facilities.
The community’s source of water is a deep well which is processed by a water filtration facility into mineral water.
The villagers maintain a solar facility that provides them electricity during the day if the weather is good. An electric generator supplies electricity from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Right next to these facilities are the houses of civilians, also made of concrete and wood materials. The barangay hall is located at the end of the village. Beside it is a clinic with a midwife, the only health worker in the community.
According to Daisy Cojamco, 35, life is easy. "Food is not a problem here. We’ve free supply of food provisions every three months from the local government," said Cojamco, whose husband, Ronnie, is among the operators of the community’s electric generator. He earns more than P4,000 a month.
Every civilian resident, young and old, receives free 18 kilos of rice supply every month from the local government. Supplies such as salt, cooking oil and other condiments and canned goods including LPG tanks are free. And yes, the community has a communally-managed sari-sari store.
The community maintains a garden that supplies them vegetables such as eggplant, tomato, green pepper, gourd, squash, and other kinds of vegetables. Rice and corn are not growing because 70% of the island’s soil content is sand. The villagers have a piggery for their supply of pork and goat herd for additional supply of meat. Seafood is very abundant.
Some of the soldiers currently assigned in Pagasa are battle-tested in Mindanao particularly in Sulu and Basilan.
Cadungog said every soldier in the island receives an additional P10,000 monthly pay. "It’s not loneliness pay. It’s simply a form of gratitude for our soldiers for their courage and bravery to serve our country," he said.
Army Lt. Ace Ronald Ampong said the normal shift of soldiers in the island is every three months. Majority of the soldiers have already spent 1 to 2 months in the island.
"You cannot shorten your three-month tour-of-duty here unless in emergency cases but you can extend it to four or five months if you like," Ampong said.
The soldiers said they are well aware of their mission, updated on developments about Spratlys’ diplomatic issues, to include the posturing of Taiwan in its lone island claim of the Itu Aba which it renamed to Taiping.
Soldiers assigned to the island are not allowed to bring their families. The soldiers always keep in touch with their loved ones because the signal is good for their cellular phones.
As the night falls, its time for the soldiers to show their singing talent, what with three viedeoke machines.