Hunted and Without a Home: A Letter from a Lumad Refugee

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The Lumad bakwit (evacuation center) in Tandag City, Surigao Del Sur

By Casey Gin, Anakbayan NY

Last November 2015, I was able to visit and integrate with Lumad evacuees at the Surigao Del Sur bakwit (evacuation center). Previously, on September 1st, 2015, 3000 indigenous Lumads from over twenty-six communities in northeast Mindanao fled their homes and villages, after three of their community leaders were killed by paramilitary forces: Emerito Samarca, Datu Bello Sinzo, and Dionel Campos. They fled for several days through the mountains and neighboring towns, hiding in fear, until they were able to stay at the Tandag City Sports Oval, in Surigao Del Sur.  

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Lumad evacuees have been living in makeshift tents since they arrived in Tandag City.

The Lumad I met there were survivors. They were resilient. They all knew first-hand what it was like to have the military and state hunting them. And yet, they are still resisting and fighting. Fighting to tell their stories, fighting to provide education for their youth, and fighting for their livelihoods. The Lumad continue to resist, despite continued repression like the state attack on protesting Lumad farmers on April 1st, in which farmers were killed and arrested after merely asking the government for aid after months of famine.

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Lumad evacuees at the bakwit

I was privileged to be able to go to Mindanao, to be welcomed and to integrate with the Lumad. I wish all of our kasamas here in the states could have that opportunity, but that’s not the case. They are our kaubans (comrade in Visaya), and know firsthand what is happening to the indigenous peoples in Mindanao and other parts of the Philippines.

Now we have a rare and crucial opportunity to meet and hear from Lumad leaders here in the US. This Saturday, May 21 in New York, Lumad leaders are hosting an interactive human rights forum, as part of the last leg of their  international tour, Lakbay Lumad USA. They will be sharing their struggles with us, and their resistance. Want to hear from them in person about what they are fighting for? About how you can join in their struggle? Then you need to be there.

Below, is a letter I was given before I left the bakwit  (with the translation provided by Carla Bertulfo of Anakbayan New Jersey). Sir Gideon Galicia, our kauban and a former teacher at ALCADEV (the indigenous school for Lumad youth), handed me this letter to bring to the states, so that people can know what is happening to the Lumad. The author did not identify themselves in the letter, but their struggle is one that is shared by the Lumad people. It speaks of their experience of flight, and continued resistance against very real, everyday state repression. Please read this letter, and come to the interactive human rights forum on May 21 at Christ Church (524 Park Ave New York, NY 10065) to hear directly from the Lumad leaders themselves about their struggle.

Lumad Letter Page 1

“In 1988, I was still 13 years old. Before that, I remember that I was already suspicious of our place. In my innocent mind, I wondered why my aunts and other ladies are always running.

‘Come and they are here already, it’s dangerous because they are going to rape us. They had already raped a lot.’

They hide in the farmlands while the soldiers are there. It was when I was 13 years old that I understood why my aunts would always run. That time, we were always running and were afraid because our community was in a war. In fact, there was a couple who was harassed: the wife was 9 months pregnant and raped by 10 soldiers while the husband was beaten to death. They saw each other in the Highway and directly went to the church in Barangay Diatagon asking help from the priest.

We, three families, were in the streets — hiding and walking. If we get tired and sleepy, my father would just look for a cave where we could temporarily sleep. For our food, we had sweet potatoes which we brought just enough that we could carry. After 3 days of running, however, we ran out of sweet potato and so we ate sea snake for 2 weeks. We arrived first then the niece of my father who also lived in the mountains. We stopped eating sea snake since we already have sweet potato and occasionally, we ate rice. We lived there for 6 months and when other families came back home, we also went home. But we don’t have our houses anymore because they were all destroyed, even the domesticated animals were killed.

In 1990, we evacuated again with all the people in the mountains and stayed in the streets for many years to hide. We were able to go back to our place during the fiesta. With the frequent evacuation and hiding because of the operation, I didn’t notice that I am already a lady. I was already 17 when we were able to stay longer in our place which is why I was not able to go to school. I was able to read because our priest, Father Novo, who made a school. However, it was still put down because we evacuated until I got married at the age of 19. (continued)

Lumad Letter Page 2

Lumad Letter Page 3

From the time I got married, we were able to stay in our place for 10 years. I had 2 children and we built our house at the corner of the highway road. We worked hand-in-hand to send our children to school. I built another small house (that would serve as the school) so that it would not be far and thus, would be convenient for students. We asked our 2 aunts who finished high school to volunteer and teach. They pitied the children and agreed to help so that the classes would be frequent. We agreed to this and we didn’t expect that it would be successful until now and that it is where my two children will graduate in High School- in ALCADEV. We put all our hard work for that school, with all our sweat, just to make sure that our children will not be like us.

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The ALCADEV school continues to provide education for Lumad youth while in the bakwit.

And now, the soldiers are spreading rumours saying that it is the New People’s Army (NPA)’s school — just to dismantle and put the school down. Don’t we have any right? Where are our rights to improve our culture, economy and politics as Lumad? It is our right to live in peace. It is our right to educate our children in the school that we built and funded. Now they are taking that right from us. From all the things we experienced from the past until now that I am already 40 years old, I can say that it worsened our lives. I have a wish to all that support us that are here in the evacuation center in Tandag Oval. I hope that you will not stop and waver from helping and supporting us until we claim the justice and victory of us victims of abuse and exploitation. Thank you and we are here.. waiting for you.

Thank you.. to Simon Dutagon from Surigao del Sur and the people who I have not mentioned in this letter.”

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Makibisog! Di Ma Hadluk! (Dare to Struggle! Don’t be Afraid!)

 

Bakwit Diaries: an exposurist living with Lumad evacuees

by Theresa Endoso, Anakbayan NY

In Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, Caraga, Mindanao, Philippines, I lived in an evacuation camp or “bakwit” for three months with Lumad (indigenous) evacuees forcibly displaced by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s 75th infantry battalion and its paramilitary, the Magahat Bagani.

International and Philippine mining companies with international investors and shareholders are behind these militarized and extrajudicial killings and evacuations of Lumad peoples.

It was 3 months in bakwit but a lifetime of lessons where I developed lifelong relationships and a lifelong commitment to serving the Lumad struggle for self-determination. 

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Overlooking bakwit. Not pictured are the bleachers that circle the sports complex, also overcrowded with makeshift tents.

From the Lumad elders, leaders, youth, students, activists, children and the staff of both the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS) and the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), I learned firsthand the principles and practices necessary to be an effective member in revolutionary organizing.

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Students of ALCADEV practice traditional ceremony and dance for their Values Education curriculum.
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Students of ALCADEV perform traditional Lumad dance at a solidarity night in bakwit.
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ALCADEV students in bakwit have very limited access to school supplies, but take diligent notes and try to keep notebooks clean in their wet and muddy “dorm” tents which function also as makeshift classrooms.

 

The incredible will power, the perseverance of the Lumad people is rooted in love: love for the natural environment, the rich ancestral domain and one’s community. Family, land, culture, and history are all bound by this deep love.

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ALCADEV students take a study break in their “dormitory” tent, exhausted from the brutal heat and noise of bakwit. But how they love one another! The sweetest of teens.

 

Love in Lumad communities is active, collective, and militant. It is revolutionary. Love is what unifies different villages and even tribes. Love is what gives the people undying strength to face such dismal challenges from militarization to massacre to displacement and surviving the conditions of bakwit.

Education in Lumad communities is one of the deepest expressions of this love. Community schools of TRIFPSS and ALCADEV are the heart, the pride, the promise of the Lumad struggle.

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ALCADEV students perform modern choreography to express the plight of their people and the unity of comrades. (This was at a special solidarity night put together for me on my last night in bakwit. Most memorable evening of my life.)

 

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Children find new ways to make beds for the night. Here they are sleepping on a wood plank used as a makeshift chalkboard for TRIFPSS classes. The already limited resources like plastic potato sacks for cots, tarps, and bamboo become so worn and torn from the climate and unsanitary conditions, that bedding becomes limited.
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Students perform their 5 AM daily chores, including cleaning up the trash around bakwit.

 

The Lumad children are consciously and actively concerned about the next generation. We often hold this expectation to elders, but for children to be so invested in the well-being of the land and future generation is incredible. In drastic contrast to Western values and socialized ideas of success, the children’s aspirations center on community empowerment, as opposed to individual gain. These principles are inherently embedded in the cultural fabric, but are especially encouraged in the community schools.

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ALCADEV students working on miniature houses or “mga balay” for their Technology and Home Economics class.
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ALCADEV students and their teacher varnish baskets woven out of wild rattan, income generating products (IGPs) created by practiced Lumad artisans in evacuation.
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ALCADEV students working on miniature houses or “mga balay” for their Technology and Home Economics class.

 

The Lumad youth are incredibly empowered by the culturally relevant education they receive in their own schools. For these schools to be shut down by militarization and government oppression would mean ethnocide, an entire livelihood of indigeneity threatened.

 

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ALCADEV students participating in a workshop and lesson I created for them. These opportunities allowed the students to continue to teach me Bisaya and Manobo languages and for me to continue to tutor English language.
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ALCADEV students focusing on a lesson plan despite the harsh and distracting environment. Uncomfortable, but motivated!

 

The living conditions of bakwit are simply not fit for living. There is neither sufficient food nor water and illnesses are rampant from UTI’s, ulcers, asthma, fever, flu, cold, allergic reactions to bakwit diet, and much more serious illnesses as well. 

Most days, the public water supply (needed especially for cleaning the public bathroom and washing away waste) runs out first thing in the morning after being rationed amongst families. So, there is not enough to meet all the needs of bathing, drinking, washing clothes, washing dishes, cooking, and bathroom use. The bakwit is overcrowded which makes cooking, sleeping, studying, and teaching very difficult.

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A baby plays in an empty water basin. We called her “kulot” or “curly.” Her mama always invited me to sit in their tent and rest from the hot sun.
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Children playing next to an empty Red Cross water dispenser.
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An ALCADEV student prepares a dinner of fish for her classmates. Most meals in bakwit consist only of rice, instant noodles, cans of sardines. Fish is a special occasion, a donation from an organization, church, or other visitors to bakwit.

Lumad community schools not only pass on the rich culture of their respective tribes, but provide the tools necessary in asserting self-efficiency and self-determination.

Literacy alone helps to ensure that Lumads will not be insidiously misled into signing away their entitled ancestral land rights. But these schools offer so much more than any Department of Education school could. Each subject is tailored to relate to the everyday lives (farming) and political climates of the Lumads.

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Drumming on a donated agong while children dance together.
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ALCADEV students rehearse Lumad dance
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“Boys dorm.” Making traditional beaded bracelets
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ALCADEV students getting ready to dance at a solidarity night hosted by the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), a progressive church dedicated to serving the political struggle of the Lumads.

The Lumads have friends in local government, churches of many faiths, political organizations, environmentalists, academics, activists and many other communities and individuals who recognize the severity of the situation and the intrinsic value of the Lumad livelihood and its legacy. However, it is not enough.

MORE and STRONGER international support is VITAL in securing the safety and respect of rights of the Lumads across Mindanao.

 

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A drawing by teachers of TRIFPSS of their homes and schools that they long for every day while in evacuation.