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Chapter Twelve

ARAKAN VALLEY

 

 

We were in Arakan Valley from February to November 1986.  The PIME Italian Missionaries had invited us to give a mission in their parish which is part of the diocese of Kidapawan, North Cotabato.  The Arakan mission was different from previous missions because the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) were already established.  The diocese of Kidapawan had adopted the formation of BECs as a diocesan thrust.  Thus, all the parishes within the diocese had formed BECs.  The diocesan structures and commissions were all geared towards the support of the BECs.  The diocese attempted to replicate at the parish and BEC levels the various diocesan commissions and apostolates: lay liturgical leadership program, catechetics, primary health care, family life, social action, tribal filipinos, youth, etc. The diocese had also set up a training center for organic farming and appropriate technology designed to train technicians for BECs.  There were parishes that set up multi-purpose cooperatives and linked these with the BECs in order to address the problem of the exploitation of the farmers by the local comprador-capitalists or middle-men.  The cooperatives provided credit, marketing and consumer goods to the members -- most of whom were farmers.  Thus, the diocese implimented the idea of BECs as vehicles for socio-economic development and transformation.

 In spite of the seemingly advanced stage of BEC organizing, the diocese  had also experienced military harrassment and persecution.  Many of the leaders and members  of BECs were arrested and some were even killed.  The latest victim was Fr. Tullio Favali, an Italian PIME missionary,  who was brutally murdered by CHDF militiamen led by the Manero brothers.  Arakan Valley was not spared from militarization.  The military operations which were supposed to drive away the NPA  affected the BECs.  The raids and bombing operations disrupted the activities of the BECs and many stopped attending these out of fear.  Although the massive military operations had stopped by the time we got to the area,  many of the BECs remained inactive. They had been traumatized.


Our role was to revitalize and strengthen the BECs in Arakan Valley.  This could be done through a renewed evangelization of the people.  The PIME Fathers assured as that there was no need to do organizing work.   Thus, all that we had to do was to give evangelization seminars and Misa-Pamalandong.  Because the objectives were limited, the time frame needed to  achieve these was short. 

The mission team at this time was composed of two Redemptorists (Fr. Manny Cabajar and myself) and four lay missioners (Fe, Meren, Portia and Dodong). An aspirant, Raul,  also joined us.   Later, four major seminarians from St. Mary's Theologate (Ozamiz) spent four months of exposure with us.  Some of our novices also had an exposure with us for about a month.  Among them was Karl Gaspar, a former executive secretary of the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference, who joined the Redemptorists after his two-year imprisonment.

When we started our mission in the first week of February 1986, the situation was still very  tense.  One morning  I walked up to a  moutain barrio  with two lay missioners to do an ocular survey. As we entered the barrio center, I noticed that it was very quiet. Suddenly,  we found ourselves  surrounded by CHDF and Scout Rangers with their guns pointed at us.

“Raise your hands and do not move!” Their team leader shouted.

We raised our hands and I noticed my companions were pale and their hands shaking. The scout rangers approached us and inspected our backpacks.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” The team leader asked.

“I am Fr. Amado Picardal and these are my companions. We are Redemptorist missionaries and we had been invited by the PIME priests to give a mission here in Arakan. We will be here for nine months. We just came to the barrio to see the place and the people and to schedule our entry mass.”

“Oh, Sorry, Father, we thought that you were NPAs.”

We shook hands and talked for a while about the peace and order situation in the area . He and his men left as we proceeded to the barrio chapel.

 

After the EDSA Revolution   which ousted the dictator, the tension lessened. The post-EDSA euphoria was at its height.  Many expected things to get better with Cory in power.  The democratic  space was expanding.  The Scout Rangers became friendlier although the CHDF remained suspicious.  The people's attitude towards the military was also changing.  From being an occupation force, they were perceived as friends of the people.  One time farmers and the students staged a strike against the Agricultural School administration. When we went to the area to express our support, I was surprised to see the Scout Rangers mingling with them. They set up their tents near the people's encampment.   When I asked one of the leaders of the strike about the presence of the soldiers, he told me that they were providing security to the strikers.

In the more remote parts of the parish, however, the spirit of EDSA revolution was not yet felt.  The people continued to live in fear as the barangay captains ruled like warlords with the CHDF  as their private armies. In one community, I made a courtesy call on the  barangay captain.He was insistent that we ask permission from him carry out our mission activities. Even the schedule of the masses and the seminars had to be approved by him. I reminded him that there was a separation between church and the state and there was no need to ask permission from him to do our mission. I also told him that  Marcos was gone and that we were now living in a democracy.


Meanwhile, the NPA guerrilla units were still around although they were avoiding armed encounters with the government forces.   Once I was conducting a Misa-Pamalandong in the chapel in Naje. During the break, a farmer came and whispered to me. “Father, the NPA commander wants to talk to you.”

“Where are they?” I asked.

“They are just around”

“Do you think it is safe to talk to them here?”

“No, problem Father. The Scout Rangers are not around.”

“O.K., I’ll talk to them after the Mass.

After the Mass, I asked the messenger where I could meet the NPA commander.  He pointed to the house at the back of the chapel.  When I went inside, I saw a group of armed men inside the house.  The commander was seated behind the table, cutting a native tobacco with his knife. His  .45 caliber pistol was on the table and his M-16 armalite was leaning against the wall. He looked up and smiled to me and asked me to sit in front of him. After introducing himself, he asked me: “Father, what is really the  purpose of your mission.”

“The PIME Fathers asked us to revitalize the BECs in the parish. Because of the militarization, many BECs have become inactive. So we are conducting seminars and Misa-Pamalandong so that we can revive these communities.”

“Do you think it would be better if we coordinate our activities and work together?” He asked.

“We are always ready to have dialogue with you. But we have a no-linkage policy. We cannot coordinate with you nor work with you. Our mission is religious in nature. Besides, this is for our security. You know very well that there are a lot of DPAs (deep penetration agents) in the movement. If the military discovers that we are working with you, they can easily harass and arrest us."

He nodded his head and said:”We understand, Father. Yes, you are right about the DPAs. That ‘s our main problem now. We are trying to discover who they are. We have become suspicious even of our own comrades.”

I  then asked him, “So, what do you think of our new government? Do you think the time has come for a ceasefire and peace-talks?”   

“We are still on a wait-and-see attitude. We are waiting for orders from the higher organs. If the government wants to talk peace, maybe we will give it a try.”

After a while I told  him that it was already late afternoon and I had to go. I also asked him not to conduct any operations and killings in our area since it could just provoke the military to come and commit attrocities. 

As I was on my way back to the parish center, I met a Scout Ranger unit on patrol . They were on  their way to Naje.  The Team Leader greeted me and asked, “Where have you been, Father?”

“Oh, I was in Naje, conducting a seminar and celebrating the Mass. Where are you going?”

“We are just on foot patrol. We are going to Naje and maybe the neighboring barangay.”

“Good luck, I have to hurry back to the convent. It is already getting dark.”

I walked so fast, I almost stumbled. I didn’t want to be caught in the cross-fire.

 

In our data gathering, we found out that  Arakan Valley used to be  a "Red Area."  This meant that most of the communities were indoctrinated and organized by the NPA as their mass base.  Armed propaganda units would come in late at night and gather the people for teach-ins.  Sometimes they would even use the chapel.  Later, the residents were organized into three sectors: the peasant sector (for men), the Women sector and the Youth sector.  This was referred to as solid organizing because everyone was expected to become part of the mass base.  There was no room for neutrality. Those who refused to cooperate or who were suspected of being informers were executed. Thieves and carabao rustlers were also executed. Thus, all the residents  became part of the support base of the revolutionary movement. They  paid revolutionary taxes.  They provided food and shelter to the NPA.  Many young people were recruited and became members of the guerilla unit.  Thus, many communities  became  BECs and  NPA mass base at the same time.  In due time, when the military discovered that Arakan was a "Red Area,"  they started conducting military operations. Army batallions combed the mountains in their “search-and-destroy” operations. Airforce planes and helicopters bombed suspected NPA positions. The NPA could not defend their bases and they withdraw into the remote areas. The military believed that without a mass base, the NPA would not thrive. They considered the NPA as the fish and the mass base as the water. They had to empty the water so that the fish would not survive. So they targetted the communities that they identified as NPA base areas. The  military would arrive in the middle of the night and herd the people into the barrio center. A man whose head was covered by a buri bag with slits near the eyes would point his finger at people he identified as active supporters of the movement. Those identified were taken away. Many were imprisoned. Some were executed and buried on shallow graves. Many residents were forced to evacuate leaving behind their homes and farms. Arakan valley was turned into a "no man's land." By the time we arrived, the military claimed that they had dismantled the NPA mass base, neutralized the NPA and drove them away from Arakan.

 I felt sad as the people in the BECs recounted their stories. This led me to write this poem:

 

Lamentation from No Man's Land

 

                        In the middle of the night

                        you appeared

                        claiming to be our friend

                        and savior.


 

                        With a gun in your hand

                        you revealed to us

            why we are poor and hungry.

                        You proclaimed to us

                        the good news  of revolution.

 

                        We fed you.

                        We shared with you

                        the fruits of our toil.

                        We gave you

                        our brave sons and daughters.

 

                        We believed and hoped

                        you could give us

                        a better tomorrow

                        with that gun in your hand.

 

                        So many tomorrows

                        have come and gone

                        but we are still poor and hungry

 and we have lost

                        our brave sons and daughters  forever.

 

                        Our farms have become

                        a battle ground.

                        Our furrows have become

                        shallow graves.

 

 What can we harvest


 when only bullets and bombs

                        have been sown?

 

                        Since you came

                        other strange monsters

                        have also appeared in our land.

                        Like vampires they swoop from the sky.

                        We keep hoping this is only a nightmare.

 We dread the barking of the dogs

                        and the knocking on our doors

                        in the middle of the night.

 

                        We had to pack up

 and leave our homes and farms,

                        our carabaos, pigs and chickens.

                        We are exiles

                        in our own country.

 

                        You told us political power

                        comes out from the barrel of the gun.

                        Now we know

                        only death, more hunger and terror

                        come out from the barrel of the gun.

 

                        We are the casualties

                        of this protracted war

                        and this total war.

                        The bursts and explosions

                        drown out our cry

                        for justice and peace.


 

 You promised us

                        a land we can call our own

 and all we got

                        is this no man's land.  

 

It was very difficult to revitalize and re-evangelize the BECs that had been weakened by the military operations.  The people had been traumatized.  Some were suspicious and afraid that we were working with the NPA and that we were trying to recover the areas for the movement.   They did not want a repeat of the spiral of violence.  It took us a long time to gain their trust.  We spent three months in each barrio or sitio.  As usual the lay missioners and seminarians on exposure were  immersed in the communities  while Manny and myself acted as roving coordinators.  We conducted a lot of seminars and Misa-Pamalandong. I moved from community to community visiting the lay missioners, the leaders and members of the BECs.  For me, this involved long hikes and jogging across the rugged mountains and crossing many rivers.  Each night, I slept in different houses and different communities.  The work of evangelizing the poor became an experience of being evangelized by them. 

There were a  lot of things I learned from the poor. I learned about their situation – the poverty, the misery, their suffering. I also learned about their faith – their deep trust in God whom they knew would never abandon them. They were people full of hope – that in the end, God would deliver them from the darkness of evil and bring forth a future better than the present.

From living with the poor I also learned to play the violin. As I worked among them, I noticed that there were farmers who played the violin. This  was a very unusual sight for me. We would be in the chapel for mass and we would be accompanied not just by guitars but by violins. I was even amazed when I learned that they made their own violin from the Nangka (jackfruit) wood. I asked them to make me a violin and to teach me how to play it. After a month, the violin was finished and I started my violin lessons. The farmers actually did not know how to read music. They played by ear. That’s how I learned to play – by ear. It was magical.  I discovered that I could play any music I heard from the radio. I would play along with a tape recorder playing a minus-one music and it would sound like an orchestra accompanying me. I could play all the popular tunes. But Bach and Chopin – that will have to wait.

I enjoyed working with the lay missioners. I became very close especially to Portia and Meren. Portia had been working with an outreach program of the Redemptorist Retreat House in Cebu since 1977. She finished her Social Work degree in Silliman and topped the national board exams. She joined the team at the beginning of our mission in Arakan. Meren graduated from St. Theresa’s two years earlier with a degree in Social Work. She joined the team during the mission in Iligan. Since they were both new in the team, I also supervised their training. I often visited them in their mission areas to see how they were doing and we met as a subteam once every two weeks. These meetings brought us closer to one another especially as we shared our thoughts and feelings about what was happening. Meren was a lissome young woman who had a sunny disposition. She could laugh even when we crossed dangerous rivers and climbed steep mountains. We would sometimes talk late at night. Once, when I got sick  she rubbed my back and chest with a Chinese ointment.  It was during these moments that I reminded myself that I was a celibate. I knew  I could easily fall in love with her. So I was very careful  to maintain a safe distance while we remained close friends and co-workers. It was not easy because we met constantly, but I was able to do it. When I heard that Jack – a  Redemptorist assigned with the  Cebu mission team – left and got married to a lay missioner he was working with, I was not surprised. It could also have happened to me. It didn’t happen because I was constantly aware that I had promises to keep and that I wanted to celebrate the diamond jubilee of my profession and ordination.

I didn’t keep a regular diary during this period.  I only had one entry which I wrote towards the end of  the mission.

 

September 30, 1986.  

For the past eight months, the mission team has been working here in Arakan Valley helping strengthen the BECs.  We have experienced the life of the poor, living with them, eating with them and reflecting with them.  In the process, I have learned a lot from them, from their own experiences and reflections, from their wisdom.  With these poor and "ignorant" farmers, I have come to a deeper understanding of the faith, a deeper experience of God. The mission experience here in Arakan is to me a living out of the theme of the Congregation for the next six years: "To evangelize the poor and to be evangelized by the poor."


To be evangelized by the poor.  This is what is happening to me as I try to evangelize the poor.  I am being evangelized by the situation of the poor -- by their poverty.  In entering the world of the poor, in living with them, in experiencing their stark poverty -- I have been evangelized by them.  By listening to them, to their problems, hopes and aspirations, to their reflections on the Word, I have been evangelized by them. It is in living with the poor and listening to them that I have been evangelized by them.  To be evangelized by the poor is to be evangelized by the Risen Lord himself who is present in the poor and the oppressed.  My encounter with the poor is an encounter with Christ.

I am experiencing a process of theological contextualization.  Whatever I have learned in the seminary -- Dogma, morals, scriptures -- are being relearned in the context of the situation of poverty and oppression.  I am beginning to approach these subjects from the point of view of the poor and the oppressed.  I am re-learning theology not from the classroom or from the seminary professors or the library.  I am re-learning theology from the field, from the BECs, from the poor and from my experience.  The proper locus theologicus is where the people of God are, where God is acting at present, where the risen Christ can be encountered.  Thus, it is from the grassroots that an authentic theology can be developed.  This is a theology developed from and with the poor -- with the Christian communities at the base.  My task is to listen and to gather the scattered faith-reflection of the people, systematize and present these back to them.  This is an ongoing task.  This is what I would like to become -- a grassroots theologian.

How do we experience God?  This is the question that the poor in these communities have reflected on and shared during these past months.  The dominant answer has always been -- during times of crisis: in times of hunger, fear, sickness, oppression. For the BECs in District  8 and 9, God was experienced  during the time of the barricades.  The farmers recalled their experience in Doroluman when they barricaded the agricultural school to support the striking teachers and assert their right to the land.  According to them, they experienced God's presence in the barricades struggling with them, giving them  strength.  I am reminded of the millions of people during the EDSA revolution who barricaded Camp Crame and Aguinaldo.  For those people, it was an experience of God's presence -- a liberating presence.  It was this presence that freed  them from fear, that united them, gave them courage to face the tanks and the marines.  It was this presence that liberated us from the hated Marcos dictatorship.


As it was during the Exodus, God reveals himself today as a God of the poor and the oppressed -- the God who liberates.  He is a God who accompanies his people in their struggle for freedom and liberation.  The God that we believe in is a subversive God -- a God who "scatters the proud in their conceit, who casts the mighty from their thrones, who sends the rich  away empty."  This is the kind of God that the poor can easily believe in.  

 

In November 1986, we finished our mission work in Arakan.  We felt that nine months was not really enough to strengthen over 50 BECs.  We realized that what was needed was not just a renewed evangelization but also organizing work. The communities had structures which looked good on paper but were not really functional.  The Kapilya  Pastoral Councils in each BEC which were supposed to be the council of leaders were not functioning.  The socio-economic projects like the communal farms and appropriate techcnologies were not yet operational.  But since our objectives were limited and we had to work within a given time-frame, we had to  end our mission in November.  We left it to the PIME fathers and their lay pastoral workers to  continue the ongoing task of strengthening the BECs.  A parish general assembly was held  in the early part of December and then we said goodbye to Arakan.  When it was time to go, I ran the 50 kilometer distance from Arakan Valley to Kidapawan.

            Back in Iligan I met Jogan and Ike again. They were all smiles. The ceasefire had been announced and the local peace talks were about to begin. They were no longer in hiding. They had safe-conduct passes. They were the official representatives of the NDF in the local peace talks with the government panel. Bishop Capalla requested us to provide them with accommodation in the monastery during the period of the local peace talks.  The night before their first meeting with the local government panel, Jogan told me that he did not have decent clothes. So I gave him my new polo shirt, a pair of pants and a pair of shoes.

In December, I wrote this letter to a friend which reveals what was happening at that time:

 

Christmas 1986

Dear Alice,

Warm Season's Greetings from the Philippines!  Sorry, I haven't been able to answer your letters. We have just returned from Arakan Valley, North Cotabato, after nine months of mission work. I'll be staying here in Iligan until December 26 to celebrate my mother's first death anniversary and  to join my family and community in celebrating Christmas.

I'm sure you have heard about the good news of the cease-fire agreement between the military and the NPA.  The local peace talks are starting. This is what I have been waiting for. We'll be having a peaceful Christmas for the first time in so many years.  I hope the guns will be silent for good.

After Christmas, I'll be spending a month up in Busay (Cebu). Lliving alone in my hermitage up in the hills   will surely help me rest, relax and reflect about my life. After that I'll be running a marathon in Manila and see old friends.

By March we will proceed to San Fernando, Bukidnon where we will be giving missions for the next two years. The Pastoral Year for the newly ordained priests will be transferred from Tacloban to the Iligan Mission Team.  I have been appointed as the Director of the Pastoral Year Program.        

Well, all the best.  I hope you are finding happiness there in Germany in spite of the snow and the occasional loneliness. Please extend my greetings to  Bernhard.