While on my way to a New People’s Army (NPA) camp, I kept asking myself why I put myself in this situation and how the NPA rebels could be enduring the tortuous travel. They must be really convinced about what they are fighting for, to the point where they are willing to die for it.
BY RUDY D. LIPORADA
Contributed to Bulatlat
On March 29, the New People’s Army (NPA) will celebrate its 38th year. The occasion reminds me of my trip to one of its camps in 2004.
“What? No blindfold this time?” I asked.
My guide from Baguio City (246 kilometers from Manila) just laughed. “We trust that where we are going, you won’t be able to retrace,” he said with an air of confidence.
In the first week of April 2004, I was on my way to an NPA camp deep in the mountains of the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon, Philippines. The NPA is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines which is waging guerilla warfare against the Philippine Government for the last 38 years.
I was expecting to be blindfolded like the time I met with one of them. In December 2003, while I was in the Philippines on a Christmas vacation, I chanced upon a college fraternity brother whom I have not seen for over 30 years. I’ve known that he had joined the movement against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. He was imprisoned, later escaped then vanished. I assumed he went to the mountains.
He had known I was in Baguio City and, through text messaging, he arranged for me to be driven to what they call a UG (underground) house. “I’m on my way back,” he said. “We just had a national conference that is why I am in transit through the city.”
From our discussion, I inferred that he must now be with the Central Committee of the CPP or something or that he is the national liaison of the regional command of the NPAs in the Cordilleras. He still sounded like the activist he was when we were in college. The only difference now is that he was describing to me how the NPA has fronts all over the country, the hardships they endure; reiterating his convictions that their cause will prevail. On my part, I shared that I was still trying to be a writer, contributing to a mainstream paper in Ventura County, California, besides editing a Filipino-American newspaper.
As we were parting, he said “if you want you can come visit us.”
“In the mountains?”
“Are you kidding?”
He was not. He gave me a cellular phone number to contact just in case.
“But this number will no longer be usable after a month,” he said.
His invitation nagged me for the rest of my vacation. I finally concluded that as a from-time-to-time-freelance-writer-wanna-be, I was being presented a rare opportunity for a story to write.
Excited, even still jet-lagged, a day after I arrived back in Oxnard in early January, I presented the opportunity to the editor of the Ventura Star. With blessings vested on a free lance writer, I immediately made contact, explaining that I wanted to write an article on Philippine Independence celebrations (in June) and the NPAs.
From then on, instructions were given through texting.
I went back to the Philippines and arrived in Manila on April 2. From there, I was instructed to proceed to Baguio City, a 250 kilometer ride up north, where someone will meet me at the corner of a church on April 4.
A certain Charles did come at the designated time. He could have given me his name to be David, Larry, Thomas or whatever. He was just like any other person one would meet on the street. I only suspected that he could have a pistol in the black clutch bag he was holding.
We proceeded to a snack bar across the church.
“Are you ready for a long hike?” he asked even before the merienda we ordered was served.
“I’ve been jogging for a month to prepare myself,” I answered.
He then proceeded to brief me on expectations. He told me that my friend’s holdout in the Cordilleras was in an unexpected situation that I cannot proceed there to see him. There are, however, other camps I can visit if I wanted to.
I said, “I didn’t come all the way from the US to be frustrated now.”
He then texted someone. While waiting for the response, we had small talk about it being the Holy Week vacation period and that it was a good time for me to take the trip for I would just be like any tourist hiking into the hinterlands.
In the middle of a jest emphasizing how safe it was to march into the camp, his cell phone rang. After reading the message, he said “We’re a go. Please be at the Dangwa Bus Station tomorrow at 10:00.” He advised me to put my clothes and underwear in a backpack. I would carry, of course, another bag for my video and camera equipment.
That was the first and last time I saw Charles while I was in the Philippines.
The following day, it was a certain Peter who boarded with me on a bus bound for Sagada, Bontoc. A third of the seven-hour trip was relatively smooth with the cement paved road. The rest was a tortuous bumpy, dusty, zigzagging ride towards the uplands. Amidst jolts and stomach jerking turns though, Peter managed to explain to me why he joined the NPA. He said that he used to be a student. He was in a sort of a propaganda unit. They are now in the planning stage of producing a video to show that the NPAs are not terrorists as tagged by the United States and the Philippine Government. He said that because I was there as a writer, he was assigned to escort me.
It was already dark when we arrived in Sagada but the small town was still bustling with tourists who were there to spend their Holy Week vacation.