'Children of the storm' look to Pope Francis for help

By Inday Espina-Varona, special to ABS-CBNNews.com

Posted at Jan 14 2015 11:02 PM | Updated as of Jan 15 2015 07:02 AM

Apad declaims the poetry of rage and pines for his father, now on the run from government troops. Photo by Inday Espina-Varona for ABS-CBNNews.com

2nd of a 3-part series

The world weeps for child soldiers but does little to root out problems that force so many youth into rebels' arms. Now, children threatened by conflict spawned in the battle for lush mineral fields and agriculture lands, hope a Pope's compassion could focus attention on their plight.

At 14, Angeline is a veteran of long marches. Not the kind that Mao Zedong launched to eventually encircle the cities of China, but military officials in Lianga, Surigao del Sur don't know the difference.

Late November this year, Angeline and a few dozen youth joined the 300-person #Manilakbayan delegation that marched and rode from the southern Philippines to bring the plight of besieged lumad (indigenous peoples) and peasants to the national capital.

There was a smattering of coverage, mainly when protesters collided with Manila security forces guarding the national seat of power, Malacanang, the embassy of the United States, and the Quezon City family home of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.

But the stories of lumad forced out of their homelands by mining firms and their military protectors took a back seat to corruption scandals involving the vice president and national police chief.

While Typhoon Ruby whipped the Visayas and Luzon islands, sparking commentaries on climate change, few gave a thought to the destruction of indigenous lands in Agusan and Surigao, Mindanao.

Now Angeline and lumad youth with childhoods interrupted by intermittent conflict hope that the arrival of Pope Francis could prod media to focus once more on their plight.

Annabelle Campos, a teacher in the besieged alternative schools for lumad children, said pronouncements of the pontiff on the need to preserve the environment and prioritize people’s welfare over untrammeled development have boosted spirits among indigenous peoples, including those with other faiths.

‘Why us?’

Activist performance artist Mae Paner opened her home to lumad youth and women. She believes Mindanao clergy, and nuns who minister to communities on the margins, will be able to bring their appeals to the rock-star pope.

Activists have banded in a "People’s Committee to Welcome the Pope" and will have their own welcome activities Thursday.

They may need to brave heavy government security to get their messages across, although they succeeded Wednesday in holding an event in front of the Papal Nunciature on Taft Avenue.

“He speaks for those whose voices are not heard. He seeks the truth. I hope he gets to hear the stories of the children of storm, “ said Campos.

Super typhoon Yolanda killed more than 6,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and bereft of livelihood. International attention has spawned an ambitious program to “build back, better”.

But in hamlets across rural Mindanao, prized for its lush agricultural lands and minerals, children are buffeted by storms of a different kind.

Sheltered in Paner’s Makati apartment, in between home-cooked meals of fresh-water fish and vegetables, lumad children talked and sang and danced about storms buffeting their communities, leaving young lives interrupted and crushing dreams and, sometimes, lives.

Angeline started her story in a near whisper, a quavering voice – and flawless Filipino.

On October 26, soldiers took over her school, the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development in San Isidro, Lianga, Surigao del Sur. They were looking for guerrillas of the New People’s Army, she said.

A building burned down. Teachers were called communist political officers and recruiters of child soldiers.

“Wala kaming magawa kundi mag-bakwit.” (We had no choice but to evacuate.)

Residents of isolated hamlets took shelter in the village center until November 4. So did the besieged teachers who continued mentoring their young flock through food shortage and illness born of congestion and forced immobility.

“They are used to open spaces and running free,” teacher Annabelle A. Campos explained.

Forced into crowded shelters, children became irritable.

“Nagtatanong ang mga bata. ‘Bakit sila nandito? Bakit tayo pinapaalis? Sabi nila hinahanap nila kalaban nila? Bakit tayo?’” (The children ask, ‘Why are they here? Why are we being asked to leave? They say they are looking for their enemies. Why us?’)

Subsequent messages from government troops fueled their fears.

“They told us to stop going to a school that teaches us how to count bullets,” Angeline said. “They called our teachers rebels.”

The mountains of Surigao del Sur are coveted for their minerals and other natural wealth. Several large multinational and local mining firms have staked claims on turf lumad have called home for centuries.

Some lumad leaders holding certificates of stewardship over indigenous lands have ceded their rights to mining firms and agro-industrial conglomerates. Many communities, however, are resisting the entry of miners and energy developers, fearing the loss of traditional culture and lifestyles.

Generations of struggle

“Land is the root of the people’s problem,” health worker Vilma Yecyec told the alternative news site, Bulatlat. “If the people don’t have land, they won’t have food, which would make them vulnerable to sickness.”

Land, too, is the root of conflict. Faced with the guns of the mighty and their government patrons, the lumad found allies in the communist underground, especially when their peaceful actions met brute force.

In heavily militarized province, officers make very little distinction between legal activists and armed guerrillas. More than 213 activists, including indigenous people’s leaders Genasque Enriquez and Jalandoni Campos, face what rights group Karapatan claims are “trumped up” charges of murder and arson.

Enriquez’s became an activist early, after seeing seeing kin disappear and then turn up dead – or half-dead from torture – in the 1980s.

His son, Apad, a wisecracking 12-year-old charmer, is a rock star among activists. With his cousin, JR, and friend, Ben, he delivers fiery entertainment fare for weary marchers.

“Don’t you have school?” a worried sympathizer asked Apad over dinner at Paner’s home.

“We have school everyday,” he answered, sweeping an arm to include teacher Annabelle. “We do math, science but my favorite subject is English and Filipino.”

“But isn’t it better to be in school?” the older friend pressed on.

“What school?” Apad snapped back.

“Bakwit diri, bakwit didto.” (We evacuate here, then evacuate there.)

He can be mercurial, but that is expected of a boy whose namesake has been arrested and now forced into hiding when bail and release were followed by more arrest warrants.

Apad misses his father. Speaking of the meaning of his nickname – malapad na kayutaan (wide, open land) – he links this to his father: “Maayong malagyo basta indi mapatay. Sunod di na aresto, bala na.” (I’d rather he escape than be dead. The next time it won’t be arrest; it will be a bullet.)

As a younger boy, Apad was also separated from his father who fled to Manila to evade a rash of killings of lumad activists.

Genasque’s last arrest came last month at the end of a press conference where lumad leaders announced their decision to join the People’s Initiative Against Pork Barrel People’s Congress in Cebu.

He managed to get out on bail only to learn new warrants had been issued for him, including a number under “John Doe”. With the murders of two lumad leaders in as many months, friends and supporters urged Genasque to seek sanctuary away from the killing fields.

Angeline, in flawless Filipino, says incessant military incursions into their community has disrupted education and a childhood that would otherwise be spent running and playing in pristine fields and air. Photo by Inday Espina-Varona for ABS-CBNNews.com

Lost childhood

“Namulat sya sa kandungan ng mahihirap at sunog sa araw na mga magulang…” (He woke up to the world, a child in the embrace of poor, sunburnt parents.)

“.. Kaya malinaw nyang naintindihan at naranasan ang hagupit at dahas ng kahirapan… habang lumaki, kanyang nasasaksihan ang pagwasak sa ninunong lupa at kalikasan.” (And so learned to understand from experience the cruelty and lash of poverty… and as he grew he say the destruction of his ancestors’ lands.)

“Parang kalayulayo ng pagkaiba ng salitang katutubo at aktibista, ngunit ang panlulupig, pangangamkam at pangalipusta ang sing bagsik ng bagyong nagtulak sa kanya upang sumanib sa kilusang layong ay lumaya.” (There is a vast difference between the word lumad and activist, but oppression, of thievery and plunder and humiliation were the fierce storm winds that pushed him to join the movement of people who seek to be free.)

It is a bravura turn by Abad, all flashing eyes and slashing movements of his arms, a remarkable performance of resistance poetry that he memorized in two days. He is clearly talking of his father.

At his back, 39 year-old Precy Tuazon weeps. She lost husband Ricardo last April. Joining the Manailakbayan to seek justice for a husband murdered in front of their 21-year-old son and an equally young neighbor, Precy has had to leave young children in care of neighbors in a remote village of Butuan City.

Apad tells the audience he understands what his father is fighting for and pledges to follow the same path.

His poetry ends with the word, “sandata” – weapon. Apad says his father did not carry one and he would rather pursue higher studies after completing sixth grade this year.

Apad points at his head, his eyes, his ears, his mouth. “Ito ang mga sandata ko.” (These are my weapons.)

But then he adds, when forced to the wall, a man has no recourse but to fight back.

Child soldiers

Multilateral agencies count the Philippines as among the countries with child soldiers.

A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch quotes the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as saying the Armed Forces, communist guerrillas and Moro separatist rebels are all guilty of recruiting children.

The report presented 12 cases of children falsely accused – and arrested by soldiers – of being guerrillas. Fours years later, 11-year-old Bertoldo Garay says being called “a communist” and “a rebel” by soldiers and rightwing forces remains a normal occurrence.

In 2011, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy was successful in getting representatives of the National Democratic Front (NDF), the coalition of underground groups, to develop an "action plan" on child soldiers.

While children suffer lifelong scars from early exposure to violence, they do not need to join rebels armies to witness the same.

There is a law that mandates schools to be zones of peace. But Manilakbayan spokesperson Fr. Christopher Ablon notes that military and paramilitary forces have been known not only to encamp in and around schools and communities, but have also attacked schools, with multiple cases of threat, harassment and intimidation of students and teachers, indiscriminate firing, and arson.”

At the very least, said Campos, Pope Francis’ exhortation for the clergy and the laity to serve the poorest of the poor and fight against the structural causes of poverty, could spark renewed interest on the threats poised against the Philippines indigenous heartlands.

(Part III: Little hope of a Roman Catholic revolution, but message of compassion could ease travails of Filipino "outsiders")