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

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.  

bakwit tents
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.

first 2
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.

bakwit youth playing
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.”

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