Retracing the Steps to an
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Peter billeted me
into a hotel. Had I not been reserved a room, I would have had no place to
said as he escorted me to my room after dinner at the hotel's restaurant,
"someone will come to brief you on the situation and make the next
That someone turned
out to be a Ka Filiw. Using only his nom de guerre, Ka Filiw is the
spokesperson of the NPAs of the Cordillera Mountains. “Ka” is short for
the Filipino word kasama which means comrade in English. He belongs to a
command in the area which is one of the 128 fronts of the NPA dotting the
whole Philippine Islands. He said that my fraternity brother could not see
me but he had been sent to answer any question I might be able to use for
my planned article. He then proceeded to explain the whys and wherefores
of the protracted people’s war they are waging.
After our interview
and photo session which lasted around two hours, he said that he had
already made arrangements for me to go inside a rebel camp. "I hope you
can handle walking 'Ws'," he said.
Like Charles in
Baguio City, Ka Filiw smiled. "Someone will pick you up in two days," he
said. "Meanwhile be a tourist. See the sites."
That I did. I blended
with the tourists out there for the Hanging Coffins, mummies, and echo
mountains that Sagada is noted for.
On the prearranged
hour after two days, a certain long-haired woman in her early 20s
approached me as I was having brunch. At first I thought she was just one
of the waitresses checking if my food was okay or if I needed anything
"I am with Ka Filiw,"
she said. She then instructed me to be at a waiting shed at the town
center across the town hall at exactly noon. "You'll proceed from there.
Bring already all your things."
I did exactly as I
At the shed, a burly
man sat beside me. He gave me a friendly smile and then handed me what
appeared to be a note. "When you reach the barrio you are going to, give
this to Delfin," he said.
I just smiled and
nodded pocketing the note.
Then a rickety
passenger jeep eased up in front of the shed.
"Take this trip," the
I clambered up behind
the jeep which was already full of passengers. At the aisle of the 16
passenger jeep were sacks of rice, banana bundles, and chickens, among the
other baggage that I had to squeeze my feet into. As I cramped myself
between an old man and woman nursing a baby, I saw the burly man talking
to the driver out front. The driver was nodding as he threw glances at me.
The burly man then winked at me as the jeep proceeded to wherever it was
The trip to Sagada
from Baguio was nothing compared to this. For four hours, it was a stomach
swirling bumpy ride on pure dirt and dusty hairpin winding road. There was
no respite on the jolts that I could hardly stand at the end of the trip
which I thought would never end.
But this would still
be the easy part compared to what I would be undertaking in the following
At our destination,
the driver dropped me off at a house within a barrio. The house was at a
promontory where one can view nothing but seas of undulating mountains in
the horizons. A couple in their 60s and their two daughters welcomed me.
"Eat," the mother said. "You will need it. Your escort will be here soon.
I understand you will proceed as soon as it gets darker." They acted like
their house was a normal transit place for NPAs and their visitors.
While I was in the
middle of my meal (to my surprise, in the hinterland, the woman served me
spaghetti), a Delfin and Ka Rex arrived. I handed the note to Delfin, who
after reading it nodded. "Yes, we know this already," he said of whatever
was written on the note. "We received the text message early this morning
that is why we are here to meet you. Rex here will carry your bags for
you. You should reach the camp tomorrow afternoon or evening." Delfin
winked at Rex.
Like Charles and Ka
Filiw, Delfin and Rex smiled.
I was about to find
out what "Ws" mean.
When the sun hid
behind the mountains, Rex and I left the house. There was just enough
light so we can see the tracks within the barrio without attracting
attention from the other barrio folks. At a distance, already away from
peering eyes, Rex reached out for something from a bush on the trailside.
He had left his holstered .45 caliber pistol there when they entered the
barrio and was now slinging it back on his waist.
At first, the trail
was meandering, cascading to a steady 10-to-20-degree downhill, or should
I say down-mountain, slope. After perhaps a kilometer away from the
barrio, it became steadily steeper until it reached a 75-to-80-degree
angle. Worse, the trail became more dense with stones and outcropping
roots. And it was now dark. In spite of it, we were not really walking. We
were in spurts of almost running down, forced by gravity, in spite of the
ruggedness of the trail which was also carpeted with slippery pine needles
and dry leaves. Several times, I was simulating snowboarding movements
braked only by me bumping into a tree or by my clinging to a vine. Twice,
I almost made splits, making me wonder if Rex could carry me to a hospital
in case I injured myself. At this point, I was thanking three things.
First, I had bought a penlight from Home Depot and I had extra batteries.
Second, there were vines and stumps on the trail that I could cling to
whenever I could have slid to the rugged abyss below. Third, I was free to
flap my arms as Rex was carrying all my packs.
It started to dawn on
me that this must be what they meant with "Ws.” I was in the first
downward stroke in writing the letter. I shuddered at the thought of the
other upcoming strokes. I started to understand why Charles, Filiw, Delfin,
and Rex were smiling. And we were only starting.
Just as I was to stop
for the umpteenth time to catch my breath, the swishing of vines that I
clung to and the crackling of breaking twigs beneath my feet were
intermingled with a rippling sound. The whimpering of a river which became
louder gave me a burst of energy as I know we were reaching the bottom of
Of course that was
only the bottom of the first down stroke of a "W."
By the time we
reached the river bank, the moon has dominated the skies. With its light,
I could see the silhouette of interlocking mountain skylines juxtaposed
against a blanket of stars. And there, in front of us, was a dark mountain
I have to conquer on an upward slope.
But first we had to
cross a 30-foot length hanging bridge. If I were younger, that bridge
would be easy to cross. I was now in my 50s, in the middle of nowhere,
with my feet still trembling as a result of the rigors of descent, with a
roaring river beneath in the dark. I was almost crawling with Rex behind
who I could swear was grinning. At the middle of the bridge, I stopped
with the false hope that the wild swinging should stop first before I
proceed. It never did and Rex had to goad me to move on.
When we finally
reached the end of the bridge, the scare of the crossing must have
surpassed my being tired from the first leg of our walk. I felt I was
ready to move on. But Rex said, "We need to rest. It is going to be a very
"So how much longer?"
minutes to five hours, depending…" he said with an impish giggle.
I smiled as I
understood the wide range.
Actually the initial
stage of the ascent was not as bad. We skirted the top of rice terrace
retaining walls. It was a winding walk while climbing terraces which were
like ladders to the skies. Then the trails became almost vertical, again
on 70-to-80-degrees slopes. I was thankful that almost everyday, for the
last 10 years, I was running four flights of stairs at least twice a day
at my work in Oxnard, California. But even this was not enough for the
steep ascent. It came to a point where I had to stop every 10 meters or so
to catch my breath. I could swear that Rex's white teeth were gleaming in
the dark as he grinned though being patient and understanding of my
It was when I thought
that I could not lift another foot up and was about to ask if we can just
stop and stay the night here that I heard dogs barking at a distance.
Never did I consider them as such but at that instant, the dogs to me
became a sign of civilization. At last, we should be near our destination.
The thought of maybe food (by now the spaghetti I ate earlier have already
been spent) and maybe a bed, sort of pumped energy into my wavering feet.
However, I still had to stop every 10 meters or so.
A couple in their
late 20s welcomed us in their pine wood house atop the mountain.
"You're early," the
"Early?" I replied,
"We were not
expecting you until past midnight. It is only 9:00 p.m."
I did not realize we
had hiked only for three hours. It felt like forever.
"Yes, he is fast,"
said Rex referring to me.
"You call that fast?"
They told me that
compared to others who were fresh from the cities and have never been
there before, I was really fast. Some take it for double the time we
spent. There was one who reached the area midday the following day.
Thanks to my running
up those stairs, I told myself.
"Of course, it takes
us only thirty minutes," said Rex, popping my gloating chest.
Food turned out to be
rice with a viand of yummy wild boar meat. That was the good part. The bad
part was because I was really exhausted, I could not really swallow. I was
hungry but I had no appetite.
Bed was the wooden
floor. I did not really mind. In my weariness, I would have not felt
pebbles pricking on my back. It was 10:00 p.m.
Feeling like I have
just dozed off for only several minutes, however, Rex was waking me
up. It was 3:00 a.m. He told me that we had to move early because we did
not want to attract attention from the others in the barrio; and knowing
now my pace, he advised that the noon sun should not catch us where we
would be ascending.
So, after a hurried
breakfast of the same food we had the night before, we were on the trail.
The initial descent was relatively very easy – only trails alongside
mountains snaking to a 30-degree slope. With the moon still up and
illuminating the trails, I also enjoyed the fresh cold mountain air
scented with natural potpourri of pine and dewy grass. The dark silhouette
of mountain ranges of the Cordilleras also undulated in the horizons.
It was 5:00 a.m. when
we faced another hanging bridge – not as long as the one the night before
– and, thank goodness, a dim brightness was already slowly filling up the
Then the arduous
climb started abruptly with the slopes again arching to 70 to 80
degrees. It came to a point where I not only had to stop every 10 meters
or so. I had to literally lie down to catch my breath. Close to the
summit, the sun was already high by 9:00 a.m. and I fully understood why
we started early. I could have fried under the sun if we started later.
Looking back down, I
also imagined how hard it would be for government troops to be climbing up
these slopes. They would be easy targets for the NPAs in an ambush. I
imagined government helicopters firing at NPAs but only if they could
pinpoint where the NPAs are.
At this point, Rex
fishes out a radio phone from his back pack. He said that they have gotten
this from a government patrol they have ambushed sometime ago. The radio
crackled with messages. "This is one way we track their movements," he
said. "We are safe."
When we reached the
summit, we were greeted by two NPAs in full battle gear – grenades, M-16s
with bandoliers of ammos. While they were warm and happy to meet me, they
came across not really as a welcoming committee. They must have been
sentries out to warn their comrades if hostile forces would venture out
After a brief rest,
Rex and I proceeded to our destination. My excitement, thinking that we
should be close, invigorated me. There were the sentries already and I was
trying to convince myself that we were really close. I have ceased asking
Rex their kind of "are we there yet" version because his concept of what
is near or far is so out of my planet.
And my kind of close,
really, is a misnomer in its relative sense. It took us another hour and a
half to traverse a mountainside similar to, if not worse than, the terrain
we had the night before. It must be because of the daylight that I could
see clearly that the steep down trails were more rugged with rocks, roots
and stumps. The foliage is thicker and the shades actually made the air
cooler although the noon sun was already blisteringly hot. Nonetheless, I
had to stop several times to wait for cramps to subside. Not even during
my basketball and soccer college days did I have those kinds of cramps. It
must have been a cumulative bombardment, since the preceding day, on my
hamstrings, inner thighs and calves. My left knee was also aching more
than my right. My right big toe was also hurting from pushing on that
corner of my shoe (later, I would find my toe nail blackened with dried
blood underneath it).
At this point, I kept
questioning myself why I put myself in this situation. Surely, there are
easier ways to get a story. Or there are other stories to write. And
maybe, I am not really a dedicated journalist. Otherwise, I should have
been a full-time one, not a once-in-a-while freelancer that I am. At that
point though, what can I do? I have entered a point of no return. The only
way out was to go through it.
I also asked myself
how the NPA rebels could be enduring these. I convinced myself that they
must be masochists to embrace this kind of hardship among others. They
must be really convinced about what they are fighting for. I mean, walking
alone is suffering enough, I should think…and they are willing to die for
I reminded myself,
however, that these people have grown in these villages. They are
accustomed to these hardships. This is nothing to them. Rex seems to know
each promontory, each blade of grass, when a shadow will cast upon a rock.
It must be me. I am
over fifty. What am I doing here?
I was in this kind of
self pity and I was about to just give up and roll down the abyss, when,
again, I heard the ripples of water. Again, I felt energy surging through
my feet. We should really be close. The ripples became louder as the
terrain became more rocky and wet.
Then Rex waved at
someone or something that I could not see. Further down, something blue
became clearer from behind bushes. It was a canvass, which, with plastic
sheets, covered a wooden frame structure. Inside, there were two pairs of
makeshift double-deck beds. Propped on the walls were an M-79, several
M-16s and vests of ammunitions.
Rex offered me water
from a plastic container. It was so cold. "Fresh from the river," he said.
"We'll just rest here until we are cleared."
He gave me the
impression that the structure was where sentries rest.
Soon, two NPA rebels
came to fetch us. After 100 meters or so, I saw more structures along the
river. As they were scattered along the banks, I was not able to count how
many there were.
The two escorted me
to what they called an office. It looked more like a conference
convertible to a lunch hall to me. It was the biggest structure covered
with a green canvass for a roof. Strewn on two conference tables made of
lashed bamboos were M-16s and ammunitions. There was also a Browning
Automatic Rifle and an M-79 launcher. At the middle of one of the tables
were around 20 plates with equal heaps of rice and some kind of vegetable.
At one end of the table, five NPAs were watching the DVD movie of The
"You have a TV here?"
A Ka Amor would later
explain that "with the creativity and ingenuity of the people," they were
able to harness energy from the river so they could have electricity. He
would later bring me to a smaller office where they have laptops and
outlets to charge their cell phones. "And we are connected to the
"Really?" I cannot
help but gasp my being impressed with their being high-tech in this
"But before anything
else, let us have lunch first," said a Ka Nenita, one of the female NPA
rebels I have seen in the camp. NPA rebels came into the hall and each
grabbed a plate from the center of the table. Most, I guessed, were in
their early and middle twenties. Their faces were so ordinary, like any
peasant one would meet in a village or a young college student in the
I was handed a plate
with an equal serving of food like the rest. I was more tired than hungry
and I had no appetite. At that point, I was longing for just an ice-cold
Coca-Cola but I forced myself to eat. As I did not know what would happen
next, I might as well have something in my stomach.
After lunch, I had a
long siesta and after which, I had a very refreshing dip in the river
alongside the camp. That part of the river could have been any part of the
river anywhere with all its bends and rocks. Hidden under thick foliage,
the structures at the banks would not be seen by any prying soul on
helicopters or low-flying planes. I surmised that there could be sentries
up and down the river aside from the hard-to-pass trails into the camp.
"We've been here two
years," a Ka Dan would tell me later during our interview that afternoon.
"Unlike years ago when we were so mobile that we could only stay in an
area for several months." Dan is the head of the Regional Operations
Command which comprises the equivalent of a battalion operating in the
borders of Ilocos and Benguet in the fringes of the Cordilleras in
Northern Luzon. Recruited as a worker from an assembly plant in Manila and
never been married, he had been with the NPA for 30 years. "Enemy patrols
had been hovering up the hill some months ago but they did not find us.
Just in case this gets discovered, we already have an alternate camp set
around two-hour hike from here."
That is maybe five
hours for me, I thought.
"That is where the
main body is and where you will have your photo shoot tomorrow," Ka Dan
That night, after
dinner of rice and dried fish, a sort of sharing session was held at the
hall illuminated with a 60-watt bulb. There, I gathered that although
these NPA rebels engage in combat, their primary political task is to
explain to villagers within the satellite of the command why there should
be a revolution. When not in camp, they are broken into armed propaganda
units which can be as small as a squad. Often, members of a squad are sons
or daughters of families in the villages they visit. These villages are
slowly being converted into red zones or areas where the NPA exerts
influence – i.e., the villagers welcome fighters anytime to be fed or
allow them to rest. The villagers also help in providing information on
the movements of the enemy; contribute resources like food; and, most
importantly, join the NPA or allow their sons and daughters to do so.
The sharing was
capped with the singing of revolutionary songs with Rex playing the
guitar. The songs played in my mind even as we called it a night. Although
very exhausted, I barely slept. It must have been my continuing
excitement, my long siesta, or my still being in the jetlagged mode. I
finally decided that it was the hard wood planked bed I was graciously
offered in one of the canvassed structures.
By daybreak, I had to
relieve myself. I mentioned this not only because I was glad I brought
along tissue papers from Albertson's but also because I was impressed with
their latrines. They had two covered structures with holes dug deep enough
complete with septic tank systems. I said to myself, “Boy! If left
undiscovered in this place, these NPA rebels are really here for a long
And I was ready for
another, I believe, long day for me.
Right after breakfast
of yam and coffee (water for me), I, Ka Dan and three others started for
the other camp. Rex who stayed had told me earlier, "Don't worry. This
path is very easy compared to yesterday's."
He was right. After a
very short steep ascent at the opposite bank, we followed a relatively
flat winding trail along the river. Although I did not do five hours as I
earlier estimated, however, it still took us four hours to reach the other
camp with me setting the pace.
This camp was larger
than the former one. Aside from sleeping quarters, it had a hall with
around 50 desks fashioned from lashed bamboos. "This is one of our schools
in our Political Military Academy," Ka Dan said. "Here we assess our
experiences and combine them with revolutionary theories on guerilla
strategy and tactics. The academy also trains commanders from all over the
country on political ideology and, in particular, how to handle men and
the people in combat and non-combat situations."
"Would that include
Muslims?" I asked.
"Muslim NPAs, yes."
They also had a
makeshift gym with crude punching bags and weights. Some of the NPA rebels
showed me their martial arts prowess they could use in case they would be
engaged in hand-to-hand combat which they emphasized may rarely happen
because, as guerillas, they are supposed to hit and run. The exercises
they do is more to make them physically fit for their revolutionary tasks
to include helping the masses in their daily grind.
As I was being toured
around the camp, squads of NPA rebels were arriving. Some of them came
from nearby barrios and villages. They were called through cell phones to
assemble that afternoon because I was going to take pictures.
After lunch, a whole
company was already there and I did take pictures of their formations,
ambush position make-ups, and march line-ups. At one point, I asked why
they are not even hiding their faces.
"We are not
terrorists," said Ka Dan. "We have nothing to hide."
Only those who are
conduits and still have functions in the towns and cities and must
maintain legal identities did not join in the photo sessions.
Abel was one of them.
He was to be my final guide.
Right after the photo
shoot, Abel and I walked for six hours through an even ascent. The
previous walks seem to have made this leg of the walk easy though still
long for me. We reached a barrio at 10:00 p.m. Another couple with a baby
The following day, we
caught a jeep early and traveled through dirt roads for seven hours of
bumps and head jerking turns before connecting to cemented roads of the
coastal town of Candon, Ilocos Sur (347 kilometers from Manila). We were
now on the west side foothills of the Cordilleras along the coast of the
China Sea. I was on my way full circle back to Baguio City, having cut
through and traversed I don't know how many mountains.
This last leg, this
jeepney ride, was also long and tortuous but I really preferred it over Ka
Dan's proposal after our photo shoot the day before. He said, "If you want
to take more pictures of a larger force, we could go farther up north. We
have a battalion up there. It will only be a three-day hike."
"Thank you," I said.
"I have enough."
Contributed to Bulatlat
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© 2007 Bulatlat
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