By INDAY ESPINA-VARONA
I knew what Lumad meant, but that knowledge ended at the dictionary definition: unislamized, unchristianized indigenous peoples of Mindanao, pushed to the margins, often the targets of all-around discrimination.
It was a series of July 2015 video reports by Davao City-based Kilab Multimedia that sparked an urge to plug what turned out to be a yawning hole of ignorance.
The first video showed an attempt by armed men to storm the compound of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) in Haran, a village near the center of Mindanao’s premier city.
In the second video, the camera captured two women. The young one in jeans and a white shirt, her arms folding and unfolding over her chest, hovered over a seated elder in indigenous dress.
The young one, Nancy Catamco, was a representative in Congress. The angry elder was Bai Bibiyaon Ligkayan Bigkay.
I didn’t know a word of Manobo, the language and name of the same people that had birthed both women, though from opposite sides of the southern Philippines island. I didn’t know either of them. The video had subtitles but was otherwise raw footage.
Bai Bibiyaon rips into Catamco, then head of the congressional committee for indigenous peoples, for bringing soldiers and paramilitary to force home around 700 folk displaced by government military operations in their village of Talaingod, in the mountains of Davao del Norte. Catamco had used a spliced video of Bai Bibiyaon to justify her “rescue”.
As a journalist, I didn’t take the subtitles at face value and asked a Manobo friend in the capital to validate the translation. She had been away for decades, was emotionally distant from her parents’ people, but still spoke the language with them. She brought me to her mother who asked us to pause the YouTube clip two minutes in.
“She is famous, a warrior,” said my friend’s mother. She looked away and wiped her eyes. “I didn’t know this was happening.”
Neither did I. Who was this regal chieftain with fiery eyes, whose every arm slash jostled beads into jagged music?
Anger forces her up from the green plastic chair. She prowls and gestures, sweeps around, spitting fire with her truth – about livelihood continuously interrupted by soldiers demanding the whereabouts of communist guerrillas, about fleeing from a homeland of fresh air and green fields and forests to protect “my children”, to prevent them from fighting back and adding to the bloodshed.
A rattled Catamco tries several times to break into Bai Bibi’s tirade. The elder orders her as many times to shut up.
The chieftain vents her rage, telling Catamco an untimely return to the mountain villages they call home, would only force them to fight — and be mowed down by state forces out to paint them as communist guerrillas.
“We can’t go back because we are accused as NPA… I will not go back because things will be the same. I will face death in the hands of the soldiers and the Alamara.” (That’s the paramilitary force organized among lumad supportive of big-ticket development projects that Bai Bibiyaon’s people resist.)
I researched, poring over academic papers, curt news reports, some blogs by activists and development workers. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to hear the words, even through the filter of a translator. I wanted to look at the faces of Bai Bibiyaon’s children. If this mother of her people was this eloquent and protective, she would be surrounded by equally strong youth. I flew to Davao to meet them.
A few months later, in September, photos turned up soon after word of a massacre in a Lumad community in Lianga, Surigao del Sur.
Armed men from a paramilitary group called Magahat Bagani had swooped down in the early hours of September 1 on the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), a sprawling boarding school and farm on slopes of Hay-ayan, an upland village in Barangay Diatagon.
They rounded up students and teachers for a forced march to a community center near the Km 16 mark from the highway. There they rustled people from homes in the pre-dawn hours and then executed two elders, Dionel Campos and his uncle Bello Sinzo, as children and other residents watched and wailed. A few hours later, students would discover the stabbed body of Emerito Samarca, the executive director of their school.
Two weeks after, Kilab again came up with videos of the immediate aftermath of the killing. I had by then interviewed Dionel’s sister and daughter, and a few others from their community. I knew the excruciating details. I had videos of the interviews with them.
All that paled as Kilab showed a wife’s lamentation as she held her slain husband, and men gently wrapping cloths around the shattered heads of Dionel and Bello and lifting them into makeshift stretchers of cardboard and burlap.
I had never been to Lianga, almost 237 km from Davao City. I had not known of Alcadev students coming to the national capital to plead for a halt to militarization of their community a year before the massacre. I read a lot but somehow knew nothing of Alcadev, ignorant of the honors it had reaped as an alternative school with the most skilled, advanced indigenous students in southern Philippines.
I flew back to Mindanao for the funeral of the three men and to Tandag City where a sports stadium had been converted into an evacuation camp for the Lumad.
Point of view matters
By that time, I had spent decades as a journalist in mainstream media, which has an ambivalent relationship with alternative media.
Conventional wisdom and education taught us about “balance” and “objectivity” and even “neutrality”. These do not always translate to fairness and sometimes can mask the context and nuances of events amid deadlines.
It’s not that mainstream media deliberately ignores the margins. It’s that in the countryside, where the margins are most starkly drawn, news outfits often run with shoestring budgets and often end up as supplicants of the powers-that-be who can dispense funds for advertising and sales.
The provinces are also where most of the hundreds of Filipino journalists killed come from, where the lines between governance and crime and abuse blur together.
Alternative media fills the vacuum of information. The strong point of view is what often disturbs mainstream media and I respect the ambivalence.
But it is that trait also makes alternative media a valuable source of knowledge. Its practitioners cover the lives of their communities. They flesh out the details behind body count and statistics, and dig deep into the why’s and how’s that are often set aside with tight print space and broadcast air time.
Alternative media forced the capital to look at the lives of the Lumad. Mainstream media, recognizing its own responsibility, soon followed with in-depth reports, perhaps without that strong POV, but allowing people from where it springs from their voices on the national stage.