It was 4am, the sun was still a long time from rising, and rain was falling when I woke up to make breakfast with the one other guy in the group. We were in Balinak, Ligao, Bikol, a town at the end of the road—literally.
The single paved lane wove around the rolling hills of the land around Mt. Mayon, it ended at the basketball court of Balinak, a simple village that still consisted of many nipa hut homes, a village with a sad recent story.
That morning I was getting the fire going for our breakfast, there was no stove. I cracked apart some wood, and placed them utop the embers of last nights fire. I fanned the glowing cinders with a palm leaf, smoke and ash blew into my squinting eyes. It was at about this time when I noticed a man behind me.
I turned. I saw the soldier in dripping rain gear carrying an automatic rifle almost as big as me (ok maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a big gun). More soldiers appeared. I clumsily tossed my head in his direction in greeting, I may have even said ‘magandang umaga po [good morning sir], but I can’t really remember.
I was dumbfounded and trying to think of what language best to answer to keep my ass safe. I can’t speak the local tongue so I was an outsider no matter what, I decided to keep English for if it got worse, I went with Tagalog. I knew enough to keep my answers short.
“May bago ba ditto [Are there new people here?],” he asked.
“Opo, kami po [yes, sir, us sir],” I replied.
“Saan kayo nakatira? [Where are you staying?]”
“Sa barangay hall po [At the barangay hall sir].”
That was the extent of my conversation. My colleague had finally noticed that the military had discovered our presence and took over the conversation.
The soldiers were in front of the barangay hall too I would later discover when I was bringing up breakfast to the five still sleeping women that were part of our group. The soldiers would be around watching us for the rest of the day.
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I had gone to Bikol on the invitation of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC), an NGO I’ve work with in the past. They provide psychosocial art therapy for child victims of military violence. We had come to Balanak because less than a month ago a child had died when a grenade was dropped on a home injuring two families and killing a baby. Shrapnel remains in the bodies of some of the survivors.
The day before the soldiers arrived we did art workshops with the kids in the community so as to help the psychological healing process. We discovered a great amount of fear in the kids, not just with the survivors of the incident, but to the greater community at large. The kids drew images of war, images of suffering.
School attendance had dropped 58% since that day. Kids were too fearful to leave their parents. The military presence didn’t suffer the same drop.
Any day now 6000 US troops will be descending on Bikol as part of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)between the Philippines and the USA. Officially they are here for the Balikatan (‘shoulder to shoulder’) training exercises. Six thousand Americans will join two thousand five hundred Filipino troops.
Human rights groups see the incident in Balanak as a ‘clearing’ operation to pave the way for the Americans. This entire region has suffered from the second greatest number of extrajudicial killings (after Mindanao) in the Philippines since the beginning of the Arroyo administration (a total number almost at 1000). Things aren’t looking up.
The kids don’t want to see another gun, or hear another shot or explosion. That’s not going to happen if the exercises happen (there is a strong local movement against it). In Mindanao these exercises have been happening pretty much since the US bases were officially closed in the early 90s. Peace hasn’t exactly followed the VFA forces.
I came here with the CRC because I needed to get away from the confusion I felt with Kilusan. I came to remind myself of the important things. Kilusan is supposed to be here in the Philippines to explore the identity of the Filipino-Canadian. Sometimes I had felt like the identity I was exploring with the collective was not as complete as I would prefer, I felt it small compared to the depth of the Filipino identity as a whole. Coming out to places like this remind me that there is more to us than Manila, than mimicry and praise of the West. But it also reminds me that places like this are more affected by decisions made in Manila and in the West than they should be.
We are a people with a terribly sad history, a history with ramifications that are being played out right now.
Balanak is a beautiful place, but an impoverished one. Places like this are the everyday for most Filipinos outside the cities. A place of nipa huts with dirt floors, a single village poso (water pump), rice paddies, carabaos, coconut farms, but also of radios, basketball, and occasional tv’s, ref’s, and motorcycles.
Coming here was sad, it was exciting, and it was nerve-wracking (having loaded automatic weapons around you does that) but it was good for me and my mindset. As I mention in my last post it set me straight. It has informed my direction on this project, it has confirmed in my head what it is that I want to say.
I hope the CRC (and other orgs like them) can continue to help the people of Balanak. The soldiers aren’t happy with the presence of outsiders, but staying quiet helps no one. That said my heart goes out to them and I commend their bravery.
As a Filipino-Canadian these places, these people, are often so detached from our everyday experience it’s easy to view it all through the eyes of a foreigner, but no matter how well you try to convince yourself of it (and I know some of us try really hard) we aren’t foreigners. We might have been socialized differently, and in a different environment, but we are only foreign to this land if we choose to be. These are our people and this land is in our soul.
For but one different decision here or there in our family history, these people would be us.
. . .
A Synopsis of the Tragedy
On the morning of 18 February the community of Balanak heard three shots coming from Philippine military locations. Jocelyn Polborido and her three of her children Ina (5yrs), Daisy (4yrs), and Raphaela (1yrs) fled their simple nipa hut home to go to the sturdier home of Gloria Polborido (her mother in law). On the way the stopped at Euphemia Polborido’s home and that’s when the grenade fell. Euphemia was able to shield her son and take the brunt of the blast, Jocelyn was not as lucky. Raphaela was being held over her shoulder and received shrapnel wounds to the nape of the neck, and later died.
Jocelyn, Daisy, and Ina were all hit as well. Even after the initial hospital visit shrapnel remains in two of the victims, the most serious lodged in Ina’s forehead.
According to one version of the military’s story (there have been multiple versions, this one is the most believable) the running family resembled NPA troops running away, that’s why they bombed the house they hid in. According to statements from fact-finding missions in the area no one in the community saw any of the NPA troops the army was claiming to have had an encounter with.
. . .
Note about spelling:
“Bikol” is the Filipino spelling, “Bicol” the English. I decided to use the former.
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