O Bakwet* (Rights Victims Flee from Quezon Province)

By dabet castañeda
Vol. VIII, No. 4, February 24-March 1, 2008

The intensifying militarization of Quezon province has forced 69 individuals to leave their homes and livelihood and literally run for their lives during the last quarter of 2007. Tales of fathers and mothers being harassed and taken to military camps for interrogation hound the municipalities of Macalelon, Lopez, Gumaca, Catanauan, Mulanay and General Luna. Also, members of the Agta tribe were forcibly trained to become part of state security forces under the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU).

Quezon is one of the priority areas of the military’s counter-insurgency program Oplan Bantay Laya I and II. Reports from the human rights group Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) revealed that military detachments were put up in schools and barangay (village) halls. Bombings, shelling and strafing by the 16th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army resulted in mass evacuations.

The refugees now live in a secluded place somewhere in Quezon City, which they aptly call kanlungan (sanctuary). Twelve families live in separate rooms in a big, white house. Some teenage boys play the guitar under the guava tree while adults cook at the backyard.

The children are left to play around the vicinity. One of them is five-year old Jonathan Mercado.


Wearing a red shirt and cream-colored shorts, Jonathan run around the house with a makeshift toy gun made of crisscrossed plywood tied with a rubber band. Bulatlat engaged him in a conversation and this is how it went:

Bulatlat: Bakit ka nandito? (Why are you here?)
Jonathan: Kasi hinahabol kami ng mga sundalo. (Because soldiers are after us.)
Bulatlat: Bakit daw? (Why?)
Jonathan: Ewan ko po. (I don’t know.)
Bulatlat: Kelan ka babalik sa inyo? (When are you going back home?)
Jonathan: Pag mag-aaral na po ako. (When I would be starting school.)
Bulatlat: Kelan ka mag-aaral? (When are you starting school?)
Jonathan: Pag anim na taon na po ako. (When I turn six.)
Bulatlat: Kelan ka mag-aanim na taon? (When are you turning six?)
Jonathan: Hindi ko po alam. (I don’t know.)

Jonathan grinned after his last statement and ran to his mother. He seemed to whisper something and when his mother seemed to have answered his query, Jonathan returned and told Bulatlat: “Sa June 26” (On June 26), insinuating that he will turn six on that day.

When asked if he would finally go home in June, Jonathan whispered: “Ewan ko po. Baka hindi pa kasi nandun pa sa bahay namin yung mga sundalo” (I don’t know. Maybe not, because the soldiers might still be in our house by that time).

Hunted down

Jonathan is the son of Anacleto Mercado, 43, a leader of a farmer’s group in Sitio (sub-village) Hagakhak, Brgy. Malaya in General Luna. Anacleto is an older brother of human rights leader Eden Marcellana, who was abducted and murdered in the province of Mindoro Oriental together with peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy in April 2003.

The older Mercado had been constantly harassed by soldiers. The harassment intensified when soldiers arrived at their village on Nov. 15, 2007. The morning after, Anacleto said, he had to scramble for safety because soldiers have been looking for him around the neighborhood. He said he was suspected of being a New People’s Army (NPA) guerilla.

He was compelled to leave his five children behind. “Hinabilin ko lang sa mga kapitbahay” (I just entrusted them to neighbors), he said, while his wife found some other place to hide. Leaving everything except the clothes they were wearing, the Mercado family met at some place on Nov. 18 and left for Manila leaving their home and livelihood behind.

Reports from the barrio said soldiers have since occupied the abandoned house and have feasted on the poultry that were left.

Anacleto was informed by his neighbors that the soldiers intended to “arrest” Jonathan to make him surface.

Two of Anacleto’s children had to abruptly stop their schooling. So goes with the rest of the children who now call themselves bakwet (a Tagalog term meaning evacuee).

Agta tribe

Members of the Agta tribe who lived in the outskirts of General Nakar, also a militarized area in Quezon province, have evacuated as well after escaping from the barracks of the Army’s 16th Infantry Battalion (IB) in Brgy. Taraitan, Rizal, a neighboring province of Quezon in the east.

Totoy dela Carsada, 45, said he had also been harassed by soldiers from Nov. 10 to 16, 2007 because he was also suspected of being a guerilla. On Nov. 15, soldiers accosted dela Carsada, nine other Agtas and eight other neighbors and brought them to the 16th IB headquarters in Rizal.

“Naglakad lang kami mula sa bahay hanggang sa barracks. Inabot kami ng maghapon” (We just walked from our house to the barracks. It took us all afternoon), he said. When they arrived at around 5 p.m., Dela Carsada said he was subjected to a two-hour interrogation. He said all of them were forcibly trained to be members of the CAFGU.

However, Dela Carsada said six of his companions left the barracks after two weeks of training. Thinking that he could also escape, the Agta leader volunteered to find his companions. He left the barracks on Dec. 8 and never returned. He said he is almost sure he is now being hunted down as well.

To secure his family, Dela Carsada sought the help of the human rights group Karapatan and agreed to leave for Manila.
Used to a life tending the farm, both Mercado and Dela Carsada admit their families are having a hard time adjusting to life in urban Manila. If they had a choice, both would rather go back home to Quezon. “Pero kung emosyon at awa sa anak ang paiiralin ko, delikado,” (But if I decide based on my emotions and pity for my children, I know it would be dangerous to go home now.) Mercado said as they face life full of uncertainties. (Bulatlat.com)

*A Tagalog term for evacuee.

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