Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan: She saved lives and murder was her reward

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Dec 16 2020 11:57 PM

Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan and her husband Edwin Sancelan. File photo

Mary Rose Sancelan was a warrior. She was a fighter who used the tools of science to save the lives of her neighbors, close to 100,000 of them in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental.

I heard her in September 2019 at a forum that tackled the bloodbath in the city hemmed in by rugged highlands and the narrow strait separating Negros from Cebu. 

Sancelan at that time had briefly taken leave as city health officer of a “city” that has always lived to the rhythms of hardscrabble rural realities.

“I was accused of being JB Regalado, a commander or local head of the CPP-NPA,” the doctor said, referring to the nom de guerre of the spokesman of the Leonardo Panaligan Command, which oversees the Central Visayas operations of the New People’s Army (NPA).

“I am the only doctor servicing Guihulngan.My workload is very heavy, mostly not just consultations because I also have administrative tasks,” said Sancelan.

Salcelan’s personal crisis temporarily left 33 villages without a doctor, said Bishop Gregorio Alminaza, whose San Carlos diocese covers Guihulngan.

At the time Salcelan spoke, she was the lone public doctor for Guihulngan, which had a big population of impoverished farmers and fisherfolk. 

The national ratio of public doctor to population is one per 31,000 Filipinos, meaning Sancelan shouldered thrice the average service burden. And in that part of Negros island, poverty incidence is at 45 percent, double that of the 21.6 percent national average. 

Kin and friends advised early retirement for the 60-year-old doctor and her husband, Edwin, also a government worker.

But the devout Catholic, educated courtesy of scholarships from Franciscan clergy, said she would not abandon her flock. She would later get an addition to the city medical team. Together with volunteers from the private sector, they would beat back the threat of COVID-19, first in July and then in October this year.

Perseverance and will got them through COVID-19, though national health experts warn of a Christmas surge. 

But on December 15, at sunset time, assailants on a motorcycle killed Sancelan and her husband just a short distance from their home in the city’s poblacion or central district. 

Pinaslang na city health officer ng Guihulngan City, nasa hit list umano ng vigilante group
https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/12/16/20/pinaslang-na-city-health-officer-ng-guihulngan-city-nasa-hit-list-umano-ng-vigilante-group

A year and a half since her name and face surfaced on posters red-tagging legal, upright citizens as leaders of Asia’s longest communist insurgency, “vigilantes” rewarded a doctor’s life of service with murder.

Battling fear

Hearing Sancelan speak of the threats last year, I didn’t know whether to laugh, or cry, or rail, or do everything at the same time.

I grew up on the same island, on the occidental side. My mother was also a government doctor and as devout as Sancelan. Nine-to-five was a wistful dream. Before breakfast, during lunch, after dinner, during weekends, on the walk to and from church, there would always be a cry for help. Even free state hospitals could intimidate the poorest of the poor. And some, from the farmlands and rivers just beyond middle class subdivisions, couldn’t even afford the cost of transport to the hospital.

But Nanay worked in the province’s biggest state hospital. Sancelan, for a time, singlehandedly held the lives of Guigulngan folk in her hands. Even if she believed in isms, there would have been no time nor energy to serve as rebel spokesperson, not with a life witnessed daily by hundreds of her neighbors. 

The doctor’s heart was as steady as her hands. Salcelan’s faith is splashed across her personal Facebook page. 

Paeans to the Lord’s mercy and grace, cries for deliverance, and psalms of gratitude for the opportunity to serve her people are cradled in pastel backgrounds that mirror that changing hues of Guihulngan’s sky and sea and fields and slopes as day slowly turns to dusk.

“What heals us in this crisis is the humanity in each person. We shall overcome,” she wrote in July, choosing red roses for the backdrop as the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the city.

On Ash Wednesday, in February, Sancelan expressed thanks for the grace of being able to practice what she loves best -- “sewing up a patient, the first to use my examining table!” 

“Thanking God for never failing to answer my prayers by serving at the 5 pm mass!

"A (alms giving) S (sacrifice thru abstinence and fasting) H (holiness),” the doctor wrote in the same message.

It was that deep, unshakeable faith that succored Sancelan through two years of threats from an anti-communist vigilante group called Kawsa Guihulnganon Batok Kumunista (KAGUBAK).

Deadly game of tag

Since 2017, Negros has witnessed a bloodbath among sugar workers, rights defenders, church workers, lawyers, teachers, and even local officials and retired government professionals.

Some died in police-military raids on homes, with officials mouthing the trademark “nanlaban” (they fought back) excuse. Most victims’ kin would later testify hearing them beg for their lives, insisting they were executed. It was a scenario where rural geography could be interchanged with the mean streets of the capital, where anti-insurgency could be replaced with war on drugs, with just the same outcome.

At a Senate hearing a month before the forum where Sancelan spoke, Guihulngan’s police chief admitted that killers had got a third of the 15 residents named in the witch-hunt.

Lawyer Anthony Trinidad was gunned down in broad daylight. He was number 14. 

Salcelan isn’t the first doctor murdered in Guihulngan town. Dr. Avelex Salinas Amor, a visiting doctor from Canlaon City, was killed three years ago. Like her, he turned down offers to work abroad or in the capital so he could serve the barrios.

Police and military officials shrug off “unofficial deaths.” Vigilante is a catch-all excuse, though as investigations of Duterte’s drug war have shown clear involvement of state security forces in vigilante attacks. 

The same pattern exists in the anti-insurgency front: para-military forces have massacred Lumad leaders in front of children and women, everyone unarmed. Officers wash their hands of guilt, although soldiers mock communities with threats of horrors to come and ignore shrill screams and cries that rend the night. The military and police are not involved, but they will present to the public, using taxpayers’ money, para-military troops facing charges of murder. 

Watch more in iWantTFC

It may be coincidence that the murder of the Sancelan couple happened just hours after news broke of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor report citing “reasonable basis” to believe Duterte’s drug war may involve crimes against community.

But only the blind can ignore the clear cause and effect in the murders of the Sancelans and more than 300 others perceived to be enemies of the state. 

First the words, then the deed. 

When Duterte, the land’s highest official, says the crimes of one is the crime of all, he is giving the green light to mass murder, with the same bankrupt, irrational logic that has highlighted his war on drugs. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.