Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. VII, No. 7      March 18 - 24, 2007      Quezon City, Philippines











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Personal Essay

Retracing the Steps to an NPA Camp

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.

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 smiled.

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.

Peter billeted me into a hotel. Had I not been reserved a room, I would have had no place to stay.

"Tomorrow," Peter 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 arrangements."

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 else.

"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 was told.

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 man said.

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 going.

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 days.

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 the descent.

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 steep climb."

"So how much longer?" I asked.

"Between thirty 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 predicament.

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 man said.

"Early?" I replied, still puffing.

"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?" I said.

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 sky.

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 there.

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 their cause?

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 Patriot.

"You have a TV here?" I commented.

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 Internet."

"Really?" I cannot help but gasp my being impressed with their being high-tech in this secluded place.

"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 city.

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 said.

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 haul.”

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 welcomed us.

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."

He smiled. Contributed to Bulatlat




© 2007 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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