A Lumád leader from White Culaman village in Bukidnon just wants to return to the bucolic life, when there were no soldiers to ruin the peace.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Kulamanon-Manobo Datu Camilo Asunan, 42, holds on to happy memories of working in the farm with his two sons. He would be on the carabao, pulling the plough, while his two sons, Er and Rio, aged 12 and 10, walk behind him, dropping humay (rice) seeds on the furrow.
Those days are but distant memory now. Asunan and many of his village mates were not even able to harvest their rice and corn crops, after soldiers encamped in their village in White Culaman, Kitaotao, Bukidnon in August.
“Now, we wonder if things will return to how it was, when we were happy, when we could go anywhere without fear,” Asunan said.
With 12 other White Culaman leaders, Asunan was arrested and detained for almost a month on a rebellion charge. The case was eventually dismissed, but the leaders were not able to return home, as the soldiers, and the threats against residents remain in their village. Asunan is now one of the hundreds of bakwet (evacuee) who have sought sanctuary at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran House in Davao city.
While in Manila as one of the delegates of the #Manilakbayan2015, he learned that a new arrest warrant was issued against him and his village-mates.
In the face of uncertainty, the bakwet and other victims like Asunan unite in their calls: pull out soldiers from their communities, dismantle paramilitary groups, and scrap Oplan Bayanihan, the government program that made all these happen.
Asunan is a council member of the Lumád group, Tilalanon, Kulamanon Lumadnong Pakighiusa (Tikulpa), one of the groups that led a mass mobilization in Kitaotao in June, when they demanded the release of calamity assistance funds. Two months later came the arrest, military encampment and harassment of White Culaman residents. Now, Tikulpa leaders have been accused as New People’s Army supporters and members.
On Aug. 26, at 5 a.m., Asunan recalled, he has not yet even had his cup of coffee when soldiers and police men came to his home holding a warrant. “I wanted to look at it, but they refused to show it,” he said.
Soldiers searched his house, then asked him to come with them to the village proper. There, they tied up his hands with plastic cuffs and brought him inside the barangay (village) hall. He saw his village-mates were already arrested, their hands also tied up.
“They investigated us. They asked where my gun is, and I said, I have no gun. ‘No, you’re an NPA supporter,’ the soldiers said,” Asunan recalled.
They were kept inside the village hall, repeatedly interrogated for a whole day about guns they supposedly possess. Elsewhere in the village, soldiers went around, gathering people and making the same accusations.
The next day, on Aug. 27, they were forced into a helicopter and brought to the Maramag police station, where they were detained and repeatedly investigated for four days.
“They question me for an hour, then leave. After a while, it starts over again,” Asunan said. It came to a point that he just refused to answer anymore. “I thought, why are they doing this, I did not do anything wrong.”
“They told me, ‘You’re really tough. You’re not responding to anything we say here,” Asunan recalled.
His interrogators threatened that he would be jailed for 40 years, and that it’s a pity his wife would just marry another man. They also made offers to help him, if he would confess. They even flaunted that those who joined the government paramilitary, the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu), had built nice homes and improved their lives.
“Actually, their houses look even worse than a pig sty,” Asunan said. He said he had talked to some Cafgu men who even complained of not receiving any income.
At the Maramag police station, Asunan said, they were fed only when they ask for food, and they made do with only sardines and instant noodles, sometimes even stale rice, in servings good for only one person but shared by four. “It was the other detainees who gave us food, they took pity on us,” he said.
Some of the women leaders were quite traumatized and kept crying. Asunan himself was confused why they were being punished when they committed no crime.
“I couldn’t imagine if I would be able to come out of jail…should I be angry or not? I had no enemies, why did this happen?” he said.
Asunan and the other leaders were freed in late September after the rebellion charge against them was dismissed.
Their farms on their mind
At the evacuees’ sanctuary in Davao City, Asunan and the other evacuees long to return to their farms, their pain made heavier because they were not able to harvest their crops. Their lives continue to be threatened. Last month, a suspected state agent tried to stab an evacuee who went to the market.
With a reported new warrant issued for their arrest, Asunan said, he fears that they will be charged with fabricated criminal charges next time.
“I would only feel relieved when the soldiers pull out of our village, when they stop arming the paramilitary, and our children are able to go back to school,” he said.
“The question now is: will we still be able to return home even after the soldiers leave? But if we don’t return, how will we work? We’re not used to the city, we didn’t finish school and there are no jobs for us,” an anxious Asunan said.
He finds solace in thinking of his dreams for his children. He said he loved being at the farm with them, teaching them to plant rice, rubber, banana and other crops. He wants them to grow up loving the farm, protecting their ancestral land.