Chapter Thirteen: War
By the early 1980s the insurgency war had moved to the foreground of public life in the Philippines. Then in 1983 opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was shot and killed by the Marcos military as he disembarked at the Manila airport from years of exile. That one act, more than any other, enraged and galvanized the Philippine populace. In the years following Aquino’s death we watched many previously passive and nonpolitical people become radicalized. Naome Basillo, a friend whom I had viewed as one of the nicest, sweetest people alive, once expressed the emerging national mood to us at a meal, “We Filipinos would like to pinch Imelda Marcos to death. That is our unique Filipino punishment for her”.
People across the country threw off years of accreted fear from living under the dictatorship of Marcos and took to the streets in massive protests. “Tama na, Husto na, Sobra na (Enough, enough now, too much now)” became the national cry.
Marcos continuing in power became the windfall recruiter of support for the Communist New Peoples Army (NPA). Their ranks of armed soldiers grew alarmingly. Violence increased throughout the countryside and within the cities.
During those years the NPA called for several nationwide transportation blockades and ordered the entire populace to stay off all Philippine roads. On the day of one blockade I stubbornly left Davao to make a scheduled return to Kamansi. Along the highway to Tagum which was located some 80 kilometers north of Davao I did not encounter a vehicle of any kind, not even a bicycle. It made me very uneasy. Obviously, everyone except me was taking the NPA threat seriously. Just before continuing into Tagum I stopped to survey the last stretch of highway ahead. There was not a vehicle in sight. I wavered and considered returning to Davao but I was almost at Tagum, so after hesitating a few minutes I continued on. The next day I read in the newspaper that several people had been shot and killed along that very stretch of road. They were on a bus that tried to leave Tagum for Davao. I had been very foolish but lucky. Or was it providence?
In Davao, if we felt that it was necessary to go downtown during a blockade then we would tie white handkerchiefs on the handlebars of our motorcycles to give the impression that we were on medical emergencies. We were relying on our Western status for protection. We assumed the NPA would not shoot foreigners. It was a risky and foolish thing to do.
One of our next door neighbors, a Southern Baptist, had been caught in an ambush and shot through the neck. Two young American men from another mission organization were also caught in an ambush. They were traveling along a country road and came upon a man dressed in military fatigues who waved at them to stop. They kept going as they mistakenly thought that he wanted a ride and they had been warned about giving military people rides.
Just around the corner they drove into the middle of a firefight where the NPA had just ambushed a military truck carrying government soldiers. One soldier was hanging out of the front door with part of his head blown off. Others were lying on the ground dead. One of the missionaries dropped his motorbike in the middle of the road and scrambled off through a rice paddy. The other one scurried into a ditch for cover. The NPA were shooting soldiers around him and he heard someone shout, “Patya ang Americano (Kill the American)”. But another NPA intervened, shouting, “Ayaw (Don’t)”. The American was very fortunate that he was not killed.
When the two men visited our mission home for lunch several weeks after that experience the traumatizing effect on their personalities was notable. One chatted incessantly; the other sat silent and looked stunned. A few months later both of them cut short their missionary careers and returned home to the US.
Other Americanos were being targeted and shot in various parts of the country.
NPA Death Squads
In 1984 the NPA began an urban terrorism campaign in Davao City. It was led by local NPA chieftain Rolly Kintanar who was described as a psychopath that liked to put on a bandanna and shed blood. He deployed what were called Sparrow Units (death squads) of three or four men to kill people. They executed revolutionary justice for a variety of “crimes against the revolution”, such as killing “abusado” or abusive people. That was a category open to broad interpretation. They also targeted those who opposed the revolution; those who spoke out against the NPA; and they killed anyone who hindered the revolution by helping people leave the NPA. We understood how seriously the NPA took their prohibitions when a pastor in Davao was shot in the head for convincing a young man to abandon the NPA. A CIA report circulating at the time stated that the NPA were a more violent group than the Shining Path rebels of Peru, who were considered the international icons of violence at that time.
Around this time one of our housegirls, S, told me in a hushed voice that she had also previously served in the NPA. The only way that she had been able to leave alive was by getting another NPA to impregnate her.
The NPA also conducted the Agaw Ng Armas (Snatching Arms) drive, which involved killing soldiers and policemen for their guns. Sparrow units regularly walked up to police on the main streets of Davao in broad daylight and shot them in the head. Always in the head. It was bloody. The local press started calling Davao the ‘Killing Fields’ and nicknamed Agdao, a particularly hard hit area of the city, ‘Nicaragdao’ after the similarly brutal war in Nicaragua.
Sometimes on consecutive days two or three policemen were shot for their guns. Military people were also shot in their homes. Soon police quit patrolling in public. Instead, local Marines began to patrol the streets of Davao in small groups of 2 or 3 men, each spaced about 100 feet from the next group. This spacing offered some protection from ambush.
There were also regular bombings of theaters, churches, and market places in Davao. Conventional common sense said stay away from police or military people as they were always targets. Once, NPA people threw a grenade into a crowded church service in an effort to kill a high ranking military man attending a service. They missed the military man but killed and wounded many other innocent people instead. Another time a grenade was thrown at a stage full of people during a fiesta. 117 people were wounded and about 20 were killed.
Some months up to 70 people were killed in Davao. Other months 30 to 40 people regularly died. Central Davao (not including its extensive rural areas) had a population of about 100,000 people during this time.
Local newspapers also printed numerous stories of NPA Sparrow Units going into villages and taking leaders out of the villages, charging them with crimes such as speaking against the revolution and then shooting them in the head. In previous years I had naively responded to Manobo questions about the “Communista” movement and told them that communism was bad and they should resist it. My big mouth.
Sometimes the killing brushed by too close. Missionaries on our team, D and C, were at home one day when they heard shouting outside. The wife, C, ran out and saw several men with handguns chasing another man. In a panic she grabbed her kids that were playing on the street and dragged them behind a hollow block cement wall where they crouched for protection. The armed men were chasing a neighbor and when they cornered him at the back of a parked jeepney across the street they shot him in the head.
He had apparently been “abusado” (abusive). Several days earlier he had tried to sleep while some young men in the neighborhood were up late partying and playing music too loudly. He went out and shouted at them which led to an argument and shoving. He then apparently struck several of them with his pistol. They told the NPA.
In later years when it was safe to talk about the war, one city official estimated that roughly half of the local killing was done by the military and half by the NPA. When the military killed, they called it “salvaging”. They not only killed NPA but also anyone suspected of sympathizing with or supporting the NPA. After salvaging such people the military would dump their bodies in local rivers as a warning to the general public.
I was driving toward the downtown area one afternoon and when I crossed the bridge that spans the Davao River I saw people stopping to look over the side at the water below. Curious, I stopped also and looked down to see a bloated body lying on a sandbar. Riverside residents said that bodies often floated by in the river.
And according to street level conversation, female terrorists were raped before being killed.
Another time, I was driving along the main highway that circles the edge of Davao City when I came upon a group of people milling around in the middle of the road. Several were soldiers. There was a man lying face down on the gravel at the side of the road with blood draining out of bullet wound in his head. He had just been shot. The soldiers were quite agitated, walking back and forth tensely clutching their M16s. I drove on as it looked like a still unsettled and dangerous situation. The dead man was a barrio captain (village leader).
Months later I happened to drive past another area where an ambush had occurred earlier in the day and the military had just set up a checkpoint. As I approached the checking soldiers, one grabbed my backpack roughly and snapped, “Where are you coming from? What are you doing here?” He pulled my pack open and messed things up inside then thrust it back at me. Foreigners (notably Swiss, German, and French) were known to regularly support the NPA and we were all therefore suspects.
A French cameraman had once accompanied a group of NPA and filmed them ambushing several jeeps full of soldiers. In graphic detail the cameraman recorded the NPA finishing off soldiers lying on the road beside their jeeps. Always a bullet to the head. His pictures were published in the Philippines.
I had an opportunity to personally experience the suspicious manner in which the military viewed foreigners. One morning I took a Manobo lady, Ising, from Upper Florida to the Tagum hospital to visit her sick relatives. We were approaching Tagum when a military jeep drove up behind us and honked its horn. I stopped and their commander told me to follow him to their Tagum headquarters. On arriving, we were taken into an office and I was told to sit at a desk. Facing me was a military investigator.
He started by asking me, “Who are you?” I answered that I worked out in the Kapalong area. He then asked, “What is your companion’s name?” I replied that her name was Ising. He asked again, “But what is her real name?” I had no idea what he meant and repeated her name. Now angry, he continued to ask for her real name. I became equally annoyed in response and kept insisting her name was Ising.
He then shocked me with this: “You are an NPA commander and she is one of your amazons (the name used for female NPA). I don’t want her alias, I want her real NPA name”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and let him know that I thought his line of questioning was inappropriate. We went back and forth, becoming angrier with each other. A ranking soldier standing nearby saw that we were both becoming overheated and he then stepped in to stop the interrogation. I was free to go, he said.
Near Davao one evening the NPA ambushed a group of soldiers and only one survived. I had brought a little tribal girl to the hospital to have her broken arm treated and we arrived just as the sole surviving soldier came out of the emergency room. He was still wild-eyed with terror and wearing only his underwear. His legs and body were covered with numerous bandaged wounds and fresh blood was seeping through the gauzes, turning them pink. He tightly grasped his M16 as he paced back and forth through the waiting room, which was crowded with some of the 117 wounded people from the fiesta grenade attack. It looked as though he was expecting another attack in that very room. His manic pacing with his finger on the trigger of the M16 made all of us nervous. Waiting people gave him wide berth as he moved rapidly back and forth through the room.
The little girl that I had brought to the hospital was named Gamay (Tiny- one of the daughters of Pasita). She was due to have a cast removed from her broken arm. I had promised her back in Kamansi that there would be no pain. It is doubtful she would have come with me if I had not made that promise. I was very wrong.
The doctor had to cut open her arm to retrieve a metal pin that held her healing bones together. He asked me to help hold her down. That made me feel like a traitor and a liar. The young doctor could not get a grip on end of the bloody metal rod protruding from her arm bone and every time his instrument slipped off and snapped shut we were sprayed with fine pinpoints of blood. Gamay screamed and screamed and screamed, “Uncle, uncle, please help me, help me”. I felt sick to my stomach. Eventually, I had to sit down as I almost passed out from the ordeal.
After an hour and a half of struggle, the doctor in exasperation asked for a pair of pliers. A nurse brought him an old rusty pair and after a few tries the rod came out (the rust probably enabled friction which at last permitted some grip on the rod). Why don’t they teach them in medical school to go directly to old pliers?
One afternoon we were sitting in the living room of the mission home relaxing and listening to the hostess, R, who was playing her accordion (yes, Evangelicals are accordion freaks). She was sitting on the couch beside the large front window which began about a foot off the floor and ran up to the ceiling. Automatic weapons fire suddenly exploded right outside on the street. I scrambled around behind a wide metal pillar and R slid off the couch, landing on her butt on the floor while still strapped into her accordion. She was a very large lady and most of her upper body remained exposed above the window ledge.
After the gunfire stopped, our adrenaline subsided and we made the usual post-terror jokes to relieve tension while trying to figure out what had happened. I tensed my face and gut muscles to keep from laughing at the sight of R sitting on the floor unable to get below the window level. We had previously joked that if the NPA were chasing us then we would have to leave R behind because she was responsible for getting her own self into flight shape.
Another time we heard a burst of automatic weapons fire near the mission home and read in the local papers the next day that several people had been killed just a few blocks away.
Response to the tension of living in a war zone differed from person to person. One of the new missionaries from Switzerland, D A, used to drop by the mission home for visits. Another missionary lady, R, regularly asked him if he were afraid of all the killing. D would reply with suspect bravado, “Oh no. I’m not afraid. A Christian just trusts in God and never fears”. That macho response would exasperate R as she knew that he had to be just as scared as the rest of us. She used to return from visits downtown and report half jokingly, “Well, I didn’t get shot in the back today. Ha, ha”. It was part of the grave humor that we used to lessen the tension.
Then several months later D became ill but his doctor could not find anything physically wrong with him. D returned to the mission home later that day and as he reported the results of the checkup, he stood with both hands on the back of a chair looking somber. He then admitted to the rest of us, “You know, I guess I really am afraid of all this killing”.
Jokes to relieve the tension did not always work as intended. At a conference of tribal leaders in Davao I decided to play what I thought at the time would be a harmless practical joke. I had some firecrackers called triangles that were leftover from a New Year’s celebration. They were bigger and much louder than normal firecrackers; more like miniature bombs. I took a Manobo friend outside the house where we crouched below a living room window. We then set several of the triangles off, covering our ears to protect against concussion. After they exploded, we held our guts laughing at all the panicked shouting inside. Within seconds the superintendent, D F, appeared at the door looking shaken and barely controlling his rage. He glared at me and said, “That was not very wise. Don’t ever do that again”. I was quite embarrassed. I suppose he could have spanked me. But I agree; it was not a very smart joke for a war zone.
I had previously played the same dumb joke on the housegirls who lived at the back of the mission home. I did not know that T (one of the maids) was in the shower when I lit a string of small firecrackers outside their window. The firecrackers sounded just like automatic weapons fire. T apparently ran naked and screaming from the shower into the kitchen. When she realized what had happened she was really pissed off at me. Filipina ladies are very modest and like to dress properly. Especially at a holy mission home.
Sometimes, like B, I crossed the parameters of proper adult behavior. Ah well, you live and learn. Or not.
In late 1985 we started initial survey of a new area on the eastern side of Mindanao in a region where Muslim rebels operated. The rebels were conducting a campaign to separate several Islamic provinces from the country (note: there were two insurgency movements in the Philippines- the Communist one that was nation-wide and the Muslim insurgency that centered mainly in Mindanao). At the end of the survey trip we were on our way back to Davao when we decided to stop for a break at a roadside store. I went around the side of the store to find the toilet. In a large purok (gazebo) at the back there were about ten uniformed men having some kind of meeting. I knew they were not government soldiers and therefore had to be Muslim rebels. I greeted them as I walked by but they did not return my forced and cheerless hello. They looked sullen and not pleased to see me.
It was one of those situations that you come on unexpectedly: go “Whoops”, and then try to make the best of it.
Later that day back in Davao we heard the first news reports that President Reagan had just bombed Khadaffi and in enraged reaction Muslim states were calling for revenge. That same afternoon the call had gone out from Muslim rebels in Mindanao to kill any Westerners. We had been very lucky by a few hours. Or, once again, maybe it was providence.
The violence in rural areas matched that of the cities. When soldiers were spotted riding on public transport, ambushing NPA would spray gunfire at everyone aboard the vehicles in order to make sure that all the soldiers were killed (in the local dialect it was called “esprayahan”). They once killed 8 innocent civilians on a bus in order to get just one soldier. Another time near Kapatagan they murdered 17 passengers on the back of a logging truck, including children, just to ensure the two soldiers riding on the truck were also killed. Aware of the ambush danger, I often felt moments of intense fear driving along country roads. The next corner could explode with terrorizing surprise.
Conventional rural common sense said that you should never ride a bus or jeepney with soldiers on it and you should never give a soldier a ride on your vehicle. The NPA had stated publicly that they would shoot anyone near soldiers. They called such civilian deaths “casualties of the revolution”. It sounded very much like the US military term “collateral damage”.
The NPA also went into villages and sprayed the houses of villagers they had targeted for killing. The thin bark walls of rural houses were no protection against bullets. Awareness of such attacks made it difficult to keep fear in check and fall asleep at night. I wore earplugs (remember those damn roosters) which made falling asleep even more unsettling. Sometimes I would hear a muffled sound and quickly pull out my plugs then wait for a few moments to validate the true nature of the sound before returning the plugs and trying again to fall asleep. Often I would repeat this several times in quick succession. The noise outside could be the footfall of someone approaching.
And any given day could bring an unexpected confrontation that might result in death.
I drove upriver one day with a Manobo friend, Upak, to visit an outreach village. Later in the afternoon we returned across the river to where I had left my bike partially hidden among tall grass. As we pushed through the grass into a clearing near the bike we encountered three armed men dressed partially in military fatigues and standing around the bike. Adrenaline pumped fear immediately froze my veins. They looked like NPA. One of them had taken a tool package from the bike and had opened it. Forcing myself to sound relaxed, I said, “Well, they are expecting us at the village just down river so we have to go”. I wanted them to think that someone was waiting for us just up ahead. I lied. Then I went over and cautiously reached for the tools and the man holding them gave them back to me, saying nothing. They were all unnervingly silent.
As I was packing the tools back onto the bike I heard a metallic click from somewhere close behind. Another soldier standing on a small rock bluff above and behind us had unlocked his rifle’s safety mechanism. I stopped breathing for a moment but dared not turn around to look. Trying not to appear too pushy or impatient and possibly upset the men, we stiffly mounted the bike and started to drive. I forced myself to drive slowly. It was very much like the published protocol on backing away from a mountain lion. Apparently, if you ran they would view that as prey behavior and attack. But if you bluffed and blustered and backed away slowly then you might spare yourself the misery of a mauling death.
As we drove away, I instinctively squeezed my back muscles together in a natural reaction to protect against a shot in the back. Only after rounding several corners and getting out of rifle range did I finally relax a little. It took longer for the blood to return to my drained face. While driving I turned and asked Upak, “What was that all about?” “I don’t know”, he responded. “It was probably NPA.”
At other times I met groups of soldiers along isolated sections of road in the middle of nowhere. Immediately, my eyes would search for signs of authenticity. Were they military or NPA? I always felt safer around the military. Local papers mostly ran stories of NPA brutality, not military abuses. NPA also tended to dress only partially in uniform, using the parts of uniforms they had retrieved from the soldiers they had killed.
Over the previous years I had often spoken against the communist violence to local people and now I regretted opening my big mouth. I had no idea who was sympathizing with the NPA. Local rumors said that young people that I knew in the villages had joined.
(Note: A Canadian director produced a documentary on the NPA, portraying them as idealistic young freedom fighters struggling to liberate their oppressed people. But at the grassroots level few NPA had any understanding of Marxist ideology or the liberation of oppressed people. When I asked NPA regulars why they were fighting, they commonly replied, “Soldiers are bad and must be killed”. At the grassroots level the Communist revolution in the Philippines was more often like traditional tribal revenge raiding than modern liberation struggle.)
Interfering With The Revolution
One of my neighbors in Kamansi was a pretty young lady named Suling. She stood almost as tall as I did at six feet. Her mature body was not awkward for her height and her medium length dark hair framed a face that would be recognized as beautiful in any culture of the world. She displayed a cheerful demeanor and easy laugh that matched Meemai’s sunny personality. They were good friends and whenever they were together they spent much of their time giggling and laughing.
In early 1985, I noticed her absence from the village. In the past she had visited her home area for weeks at a time so at first I thought little of it. However, every once in a while I inquired where she was but no one seemed to know. Someone eventually admitted to me in a whispered voice that Suling had joined the NPA. She was in the mountains somewhere. She was not actually a fighting soldier but instead helped conduct village seminars to teach NPA propaganda.
One evening after conducting a seminar, Suling had been eating supper with a female co-worker when suddenly villagers armed with machetes had burst into the house to attack them. They slashed and killed her friend but Suling was able to jump out a window and flee into the bush. However, the experience shook her profoundly and now she wanted out.
I was working in Kamansi when a visitor brought me a note from Suling. In the note she asked me to please come and bring her back to Kamansi. I agreed to do so and then went immediately to Uslarin and the village elders to ask them what they thought about her request. They replied emphatically, “Don’t have anything to do with that. If the NPA find out that you have retrieved her, they will kill you”. But she was a friend and she was asking for help. And I had repeatedly taught local people that they must be brave and willing to help others and even suffer while doing so. I felt that it would look cowardly and hypocritical if I now refused to help someone in need. I still labored under the felt Christian obligation to set a good example for others. And yes, there was also personal compassion for a fellow human being in trouble.
Further, I was not fully aware of the suspicions and stories that were swirling through the area. I had little idea what people knew, what they were telling others, and what things were being discussed or planned. As a foreigner there was no way that I could accurately evaluate the actual level of danger involved in responding to such a request.
So I assumed the elders were overreacting and against their advice I sent word back to Suling that I would come and get her the next week.
It was a half-day drive to the mountain top village where Suling was waiting in the village center when I arrived on my motorcycle to pick her up. There were no visible NPA around and I assumed that everyone up there must know about it anyway so perhaps the NPA did not mind me taking her out. Maybe their normally harsh rules of retaliation did not apply to me as a foreigner. No one seemed particularly nervous. I then gave Suling my helmet, hoping that would help disguise her for the one military checkpoint that we had to pass. I was afraid the military might arrest her and I had heard the stories of rape, beating, and salvaging of female NPA.
Suling and I wound our way back down the logging road from the mountaintop. After a half-hour of driving we approached the checkpoint. I was quite apprehensive because she was now my full responsibility. Luckily or providentially, whichever you prefer (I never know), there was a logging truck at the checkpoint and the on duty soldier was busy talking with the driver. I drove around the other side of the truck and kept going, hoping the soldier would not call out. He didn’t and we were free.
I took Suling back to Kamansi and we secreted her in the village.
Weeks later, I stopped by a carienderia (barrio restaurant) in nearby Kapalong for lunch. A soldier sitting and drinking at a nearby table called out hello. “Hey Joe”, he asked, “Are you the Americano who brought the NPA lady out to hide in the village?” It was quite unsettling to discover that people throughout the wider area already knew about it. I wondered if the NPA also knew.
From Kamansi I then visited the military headquarters located at the provincial capital of Tagum to find out how to surrender a returning NPA. They told me that the Catholic nuns had set up a returnee rehabilitation center on the other side of town and I could take her there. Suling would spend several months at that center.
Throughout 1985 we had more frequent contact with NPA in the villages. One day I drove north of our old village of Kapatagan to visit the isolated riverside village of Pagatpatan in a remote rainforest area. I was driving down an abandoned logging road near the village when I came across the local NPA commander, named Dante. He was walking along the logging road with his girlfriend who was a pretty student from Manila. She looked very much out of place, dressed in a neatly pressed military uniform and carrying his M16 very daintily by one hand holding its top-of-gun grip, like a purse, as she carefully picked her way among the boulders on the washed out road. Dante looked more macho wearing two belts of rifle grenades criss-crossing his chest. The grenades looked like huge fat aluminum bullets. They were some four inches long by two inches thick with rounded tips. I had always wondered what that extra tube under some M16s was used for.
I stopped to chat for a few moments then drove on ahead into the village.
Later that afternoon I went for a walk through the village and saw Dante squatting outside a house. I went over to talk to him, feeling the nervousness and fear of someone who is not sure how he stands in the eyes of potentially harmful people. As I squatted down in front of him, he asked me, “What do you think of our revolution?”
“I think it is necessary to replace Marcos”, I replied, fishing for words and phrasing that would not seem offensive or too contradictory. I wanted to appear agreeable but at the same time not compromise my religious position of neutrality and nonviolence. He held the M16.
“It is very bad in the Philippines now and we need new leadership”, I said, “But I think it is best to change governments without killing”. There; I had said enough and faithfully expressed my principles. I then felt that I had better shut up for a while so I could find out what he was thinking.
He disagreed with my advocacy of nonviolence. “That is what the religions teach, that we must not fight. But there will have to be killing if we are to find freedom from Marcos”. In response I nodded that I was hearing him and at the same time I tried to convince myself that I was not compromising principle but I was also not overly concerned if he took my nodding as more full agreement with his statement and not just a nod of “I hear you”.
The M16 was still across his lap. What if he got angry and grabbed it and just shot me? Crazy thoughts flickered across my mind. I brushed them away. You can’t function if you let yourself panic.
Then after some further small talk, he surprised me by asking if I would take a picture of him and his girlfriend. Of course Dante. Whatever you want. I thought it was a bit reckless of him. What if I turned the picture over to the military? I took the picture. Then the counter thought came to my mind: What if soldiers at a checkpoint search me and discover the film? It would look like I was involved with the NPA. Fortunately, when I returned to Davao the next day I was not stopped or searched at any of the checkpoints.
I had the pictures developed in Davao and made extra copies for myself. Then I returned one set of pictures along with the negatives to Dante so that he would think that I was not trying to report on him. I thought it might build trust a little and he was an influential local commander.
We later heard through local gossip that other NPA leaders did not like Dante having a girlfriend. They apparently gave him an ultimatum to get rid of the girl or leave the NPA. The NPA were very moralistic and did not want revolutionary energy wasted on sex. They were very much like the Italian soccer players who abstained from sex during the World Cup competition so that they would have more energy to kick the ball. It appears that sex energizes some people but enervates others.
During another visit to Pagatpatan a young NPA soldier about 15 or 16 years of age came over to talk. He proudly showed me his rifle and its bullets, handing me one to look at. I pretended to be interested. Then I asked him, “Why did you join the NPA?” He replied, “Because the Marcos soldiers beat up my grandfather”. That was the most common reply that I heard from NPA regulars when I asked them why they were fighting the government- military abuse of family or friends.
I told the young man that God did not want us to kill others. But he disagreed. “Its good to kill soldiers”, he responded. “They must die because they are so abusive to our families”.
My position on passivity and nonviolence did not deal with the conflict that one young priest faced and which drove him to eventually join the NPA. In his village the military had apparently raped, beaten, and killed his parishioners. He explained, “The very people who were supposed to protect us, harmed us. Therefore, I had to take up arms to defend my people”. In that situation he was probably right.
It reminded me of what a generally pacifist Christian had once said, “If someone attacks my wife and children, I’ll grab a 2 by 4 and beat him over the head and when he is unconscious on the ground then we can discuss passivity, nonviolence, and turning the other cheek”.
We continued to visit Pagatpatan regularly because we had introduced coffee projects there. We had no idea that there was a sizable NPA training camp just outside the village in the surrounding forest. NPA from the camp regularly visited the village and asked for a variety of medicines to treat their illnesses. Our response was to give to anyone who asked. Besides, M16s are persuasive. But it was also personal policy to help anyone who needed help. I had always admired Jesus’ ability to help any person without setting conditions. It was a free generosity that he extended to even the most undeserving- his enemies.
We also felt that providing assistance to the NPA would enhance their toleration of our working in the area. But we had no idea what their true feelings were toward us. We misread the situation entirely. One morning a local villager and friend, Martin, told us that he had heard the NPA discussing plans to kill us. “They decided not to shoot you because they are afraid the American government will retaliate with bombing”, he said. That was one time that I was grateful for being viewed as an Americano.
Further up the road in Agusan del Sur, just beyond a large regional logging camp, we had begun visiting another village called Bago. I went there one day with D A to discuss a variety of projects with the villagers. After several hours of discussion we decided to return to Pagatpatan. Army trucks loaded with soldiers were rushing by as a firefight encounter with insurgents had just started several kilometers up a side road. We could hear “Pop, pop, pop” of the automatic weapons fire.
I left first and drove back a ways down the main road toward the logging camp. D was slow getting started so I stopped at a bend in the road to wait for him. I could still see the village from where I waited. As I sat there with my Honda running, I looked up absentmindedly at the trees and bushes at the top of the bank beside the road. I could not see the armed NPA who were waiting in ambush among the trees.
The army trucks continued to arrive from the opposite direction and turn off onto the side road back at the village. The passing soldiers looked at me waiting at the bend in the main road. Then a few minutes later D came along and we continued south through the logging camp and on to Pagatpatan which was only several kilometers as the crow flies.
We had just arrived back in Pagatpatan when we heard automatic weapons firing back in the direction that we had just come from. “Pop, pop, pop, pop…..pop, pop….pop, pop, pop”. It continued for a while. Excited NPA in the village emerged out of houses with weapons in their hands. They began running toward the shooting. I asked one of the running men what the gunfire was. He slowed and even though I had asked in Cebuano he replied in accented English, “It’s a face to face encounter”. He then continued running in the direction of the shots.
I stood there in the middle of the village. A local lady came over and stood directly in front of me, clasping her hands together just under her chin as though she was very cold. She looked up into my eyes with a pained expression, saying nothing. We both stood there silently looking at each other and sharing the same feeling of fear, helplessness, and disgust at hearing people being killed a short distance away.
A pickup truck driven by two security guards was on its way back to the logging camp. They were carrying a woman passenger in front and four soldiers in the back. They turned at Bago where we had been visiting and drove toward the camp. Just as they approached the very bend where I had waited for D a short while ago, the hiding NPA opened fire, killing all 7 of them. The woman and the two security guards had become ‘casualties of the revolution’.
The other soldiers that had passed us earlier at Bago had also seen me waiting by the roadside where the ambush occurred and they subsequently assumed that I had set it up. They also knew that we were working in Pagatpatan where the large NPA training camp was located and they had heard that we were giving medicine to the NPA. Consequently, they started telling local people that we were “doctors for the NPA”. We had no idea at the time that these stories were circulating and that paranoid people on both sides were trying to link us with those whom they viewed as their enemies.
We had previously raised the issue among ourselves of what the military or NPA might think if we happened to pass some place and shortly afterward an ambush occurred. It might look as though we were involved. Our dreaded worst case scenario had now occurred.
A week later I returned alone to Pagatpatan. No one was in the village so I continued on to the regional logging camp. When I arrived at the outskirts of the camp several residents of Pagatpatan ran out from roadside stores to stop me. One woman, the same lady who had stood silently before me the previous week, now cried and pleaded, “Please help me. The soldiers have captured my husband and are beating him. They say he is an NPA sympathizer and they will kill him. Please help me”.
Others also urged me to intercede with the military to save the captured man. Caught up in their emotion, I agreed. Then just as I was leaving, the village leader came over, grabbed my arm and warned me, “The local military commander said to tell you that the next time you come in here, they will salvage you”. I stopped and stared at him trying to comprehend what he had just said. I was stunned but I had agreed to help and did not see how I could now back out.
As I drove through the logging camp grounds and continued on toward the road on the other side I found myself repeatedly accelerating the motor then backing off as my mind raced to find a way out of what I had just foolishly agreed to do. I told myself that I was crazy to go on. The military would never trifle with something that serious. But I had just promised the lady that I would help. Once again I was caught by what I had taught people. I had urged them to be courageous and willing to suffer in order to help others. Now what kind of example would I be if I backed down.
I drove down the side road past Bago where the firefight had occurred the previous week and into the little village where they were holding the captured husband. The soldiers guarding the village had built a fortified bunker on top of a 30-foot high hill beside the village. Around the entire perimeter of the bunker they had constructed a low two-foot thick wall of rocks supported by a woven bamboo fence on both sides. The buildings inside the bunker had low ceilings and were partially buried. Meshed chicken wire was suspended above the roofs in order to keep attackers from throwing grenades all the way inside. The bunkers were always such a stark reminder that we were in a war zone.
I stopped at the barrio captain’s house just across the road from the bunker. They were holding the captured man there under house arrest. One of the soldiers from the bunker came down to join us. He was angry and barked questions in a rude manner. He and his friends still thought that I had set up the ambush where their friends had been killed the previous week. “Where is the big NPA training camp at Pagatpatan?” he snapped. I told him that I did not know of any camp and only partially lied. I had only heard rumors of its location and I did not want the NPA sympathizer sitting with us to report back to his comrades that I had revealed something to the military. He continued to scowl at me as though he did not believe my denial.
Looking around the barrio captain’s house, I saw that he had dug a number of elongated foxholes in the dirt beneath the partially opened floor of his kitchen. They were like shallow graves that people could dive into if there was a gunfight. It added to the feeling of being in an active warzone.
I asked the soldier what I needed to do in order to secure the prisoner’s release. He told me to go further up the road to the regional military commander and ask him. I left in the late afternoon with one of the village men and drove to the regional headquarters. There we found the commander. He was, surprisingly, a pleasant and accommodating man who agreed to let the captured man go on my word that he was not NPA. Obviously, the salvaging threat had not come from him.
It was already dark when we left to return to the village. Cloud cover had moved in and the sky was raven black. While driving along mountain roads on those dark nights, bats would sometimes fly in toward my headlight, darting off to the side at the last moment. As they flew closer to the headlight their shadow on the road and trees grew to look like some huge dinosaur-age bird swooping in from hell to devour the hapless. Connecting the huge beating shadows to bats took a few seconds and it scared the spit out of me in the intervening moments. I found myself wincing and twisting back to avoid what appeared to be a horrific collision, only to see a little bat flit off to the side at the last moment.
When we drove back into the village I noticed a lamp burning off to the side of the road but thought nothing of it. I had forgotten that the tense soldiers had set up a checkpoint. Recently, they had been attacked several times. I continued driving through the village. About halfway to the other side there was, I swear, a cannon boom. Fear tends to exaggerate things. The sound shock froze my heart in my chest for a few seconds. The soldiers had shot at us. The man riding with me reacted instantly, screaming, “Don’t shoot him. It’s the Americano. Don’t kill him”. People in houses started screaming the same thing.
I braked and stopped. I sat there terrified, wondering if I should shut the bike light off in order to make less of a target or would that only spook the soldiers even more. After waiting a few moments, the man riding with me said that it was all right to go ahead. We drove on slowly to the headman’s house and spent the night sleeping on the floor beside the foxholes. They warned me that NPA attacks could happen at any time. It was not a good night sleep.
Marcos And Friends
Political tensions had reached an explosive threshold in the Philippines. Marcos had called a presidential election in early 1986 and was up to his old tricks. He was sending money and rice out to rural areas to be given to villagers in return for their votes. He knew how to manipulate the people’s sense of “Utang nga loob” (a Tagalog expression describing a sense of gratitude and obligation to a benefactor).
Marcos lost the election but foolishly declared himself re-elected anyway. That act brought the country to the brink of all out civil war. The Reagan administration, equally foolishly, continued to support Marcos. That angered local people who viewed all of us Westerners as Americanos and we felt that it put us in more danger. I wrote a letter to the US embassy blasting Reagan for his thoughtless support of what he called an old friend of the US.
Then Jerry Falwell, in an incredible display of misguided zealotry, visited the Philippines to offer Marcos his support and encouragement. He said that Marcos was better than communism. Hello Jerry. What about Cory Aquino and the many other credible opposition candidates? Falwell helped me to understand how a little knowledge (a polite term for ignorance) can be such a dangerous thing.
The close encounters in the villages and along the roads continued. I was returning to Davao one afternoon, driving through the banana plantations just outside Tagum when out of the corner of my eye I saw some men running through the banana plants off to my right and just a few hundred feet in front of me. I could see that the angle of their path would intersect with mine on the road ahead so I slowed. They were carrying M16s and running fast. At first I thought they were fleeing. Maybe they had shot someone and were being chased. But they were not looking back over their shoulders. They were looking ahead and around to the side as though they were looking for someone.
My mind did the clothing check. They were wearing bluejeans and T-shirts so they could not be soldiers. Were they NPA- a Sparrow Unit? I slowed almost to a stop as they ran up onto the road right in front of me, rifles held ready to fire. They looked up to check the people riding in the back of a dump truck that was just passing us, going in the opposite direction. Then one of the running men stopped in the middle of the road, turned and looked directly at me, pointing his rifle toward me in firing position. I quickly dropped the top of my head in his direction hoping to protect my face and head from a shot. It was a futile defensive response as I was wearing a cheap plastic helmet. He shouted something loudly that sounded like “Hey boss”, still holding his M16 pointed at me in firing position. After pausing a moment he then turned and continued running with his companions into a house yard on the other side of the road and on through the yard into the rows of banana plants on the other side.
Shaken and still in the chilling after-freeze of a heavy adrenaline rush, I continued driving slowly a few hundred feet up the road. There I stopped beside another man who was sitting on his motorcycle looking back. I asked him, “What was that?” He replied, “I don’t know”. I was still pale and shaken when I arrived at the mission home in Davao an hour later.
Despite the danger our anti-Communist commentary did not stop entirely. One afternoon D A and I stopped by a tiny hamlet of 3 or 4 houses just a few kilometers beyond a larger village, Singko, where the NPA had located a permanent presence. We told several men in the hamlet that the NPA had begun collecting a revolutionary tax in the big village down the road. For most families the tax was paid in chickens or rice, which they could not afford to give. But refusal to pay would mean death.
We told the men in the hamlet that they would soon be taxed and they became quite agitated on hearing that. They did not say anything specific about how they would respond to the NPA tax collectors and we did not give them any suggestions on how to respond, other than just pay the tax. We then left, not thinking too much about the visit. We assumed they would just pay the taxes as everyone else had done.
Then a few days later I read in a Davao newspaper that two young NPA soldiers had gone to the hamlet the day after our visit to demand a pig as payment for the revolutionary tax. The men in the hamlet had grabbed their machetes and hacked the two NPA to death. D and I immediately realized that we would be suspected as having been involved because we had been in the hamlet just the day before. We could only hope that perhaps the NPA would not make a connection between our visit and the deaths.
Sometime later while D was residing in Singko, the NPA stopped by and asked to borrow his new Honda motorcycle. There had been a firefight and several of their companions had been wounded. They needed a vehicle to transport their wounded friends to medical help. They took the Honda, against D’s protests, saying that they would return it soon.
Days passed and they did not return the bike. Then one afternoon D watched in surprise as a logging truck passed his house with his bike on the back. The NPA were taking it up to a neighboring village.
D left immediately, hiking on foot all 10 kilometers to the village. There, he confronted the NPA about their promise to return his bike, noting that days had now passed. He demanded that they give the bike back to him immediately. They did.
It was a brazen thing for him to do and it could very easily have cost him his life. He was lucky that one of the NPA did not just shoot him there on the spot. An OMF missionary woman had been recently stabbed to death near Manila for trying to prevent a thief from taking her things.
My response was that your life was worth more than a motorcycle. But D loved that shiny red Honda 200. After a trip to the mountains he would spend hours in Davao washing and polishing it. And he was also one stubborn German.
Soon after that I had the near death experience that ended my 11 years of missionary work in the Philippines.
D and I had started visiting a little village on the top of a 5000-foot high mountain in the middle of NPA territory. It was the same village from which I had retrieved Suling when she left the NPA. We were making weekly visits back to this village.
In April 1986 we were grinding our way up the mountainside to that village, driving in low gear when we came upon three men walking beside the road in the same direction that we were going. I had already picked up a passenger so I was hoping that D would stop and give one of them a ride. Instinctively, I felt they were NPA and we should not antagonize them unnecessarily. D stubbornly ignored the men waving for him to stop and drove on by. Damn those offensive Germans. All I could offer them was a nod as I passed.
I had sometimes wondered why D had bothered to come to Mindanao. At times he had expressed his dislike of tribal people and had even stated with disgust that they were all liars and selfish beggars. He did not understand why they could not be as blunt, outspoken, and honest as he was. I then assumed that D, like many other missionaries, was serving the Lord under threat of damnation if he did not spread the good news.
After we drove by the men I felt trapped. The NPA were now between us and the lowlands on the only road out of the area. I had been experiencing that trapped feeling for the past 2-3 years. It fluttered up and made my lower intestines feel queasy every time I passed the last military checkpoint on my way into the mountains. I felt that I was leaving the relative safety of lowland government for the unpredictable and potentially dangerous governance of generally anti-Western terrorists.
We drove through the first mountain top village where we would be staying overnight and continued on to pay a short visit at another village a few kilometers further up the road. My guts were in a nauseating knot during the entire time that we were walking around the village. I forced myself to interact with people despite the intense focus that my emotions were making on my lower abdomen. Something was wrong and moreso than usual.
Around 5:30 PM the last sliver of the top crescent of the sun went down behind the trees and it was time to return to the first village where we would spend the night. I left early as D was usually slow getting started. I then stopped about a kilometer down the road in front of a 20-foot high dirt bank to wait for him. While sitting and waiting on my bike I looked up at the plants clinging to the wall of dirt, trying not to think of the NPA in the next village. Then unexpectedly a dark sense of terror came over me. Something was profoundly wrong. It was a sick in the gut, panicky feeling. I have always believed that such intuitive feelings were like superstition so I tried to brush it aside but I couldn’t.
A few moments later D came along and we rode on to a stream just a few hundred yards before the village. We had previously stopped there to bath before going into the village for the night. As we bathed we tried to engage in light banter but our hearts were not in it so we gave up and finished in tense silence. The stream was cold and while bathing I lost some of my body heat. Along with the chilling fear of the unknown situation just ahead, it was a double whammy of cold. We changed and continued into the village. It was completely dark now.
As soon as I had stopped in front of the house where we would be sleeping, I swung my right leg backward off the bike and tried a cheery greeting, “Kumusta (How are you?)”. My foot had just touched the ground when a man walked forward out of the darkness holding a rifle pointed at me and barked harshly, “Lets go”. Filipinos never greet foreigners that bluntly or harshly. Never. My already fragile façade of relaxed cheeriness collapsed into a stunned terror. For a microsecond I thought of running between the houses but then realized that he would only shoot me in the back and there might be a cliff just beyond the backyard bushes. I remembered seeing it during daytime visits.
Instantly, scores of conflicting thoughts erupted into furious debate in the forefront of my brain. Where was D? Could I run and leave him? What would his wife M think? Would the people here help us? Should I just refuse to go with this man? Could we work something out by talking? Would they shoot us immediately? I don’t want to die here in the dark loneliness of the forest. I’m so scared but I shouldn’t cry or beg for mercy as that would appear cowardly, or should I?
The pitch-black of the night intensified.
The following words simply can not express the intensity of the overwhelming dread that churned through my guts. But let me try to capture something of what it felt like to face a brutal death. I have never felt such unmitigated and dispiriting terror in my life. I knew that I was going to be shot and I did not want to die and rot there in the forest.
Immediately, I started to experience shaking muscle spasms as we were outside in a light breeze at high altitude. I had not regained the body heat that I had lost when we bathed in the stream.
The NPA soldier directed me to walk away from the flickering lamplight in the clustered houses in the center of the village, off into the dark and away from the dubious protection of people we hardly knew. I can still acutely remember the overwhelming panic as I walked in front of him to a rocky area at the outer edge of the village near the forest that sloped away from the mountain top. As I walked with the armed man I felt partly disembodied; as though my spirit was desperately trying to escape the soon-to-die body that had no where to run. And it would be a brutal death. A shot in the head.
There was one isolated house nearby with a lit kerosene lamp inside.
D was already standing there in the dark but I was more intensely aware of the four men standing in a circle around us with their rifles pointing directly at us. A fifth man without a rifle appeared to be the leader. I forced myself to greet him but he did not respond. Then I sat down on the rocks as I was becoming too weak to stand. It was also a defensive response to try and create some appearance and sense of relaxation. I was fighting to stave off outright panic; to keep my freezing terror inside and function despite it. I had no idea what to do because I had never been in such a situation before.
I had read about too many of these situations in Davao newspapers. They were so frighteningly predictable and merciless. A Sparrow Unit (NPA death squad) would go into a village and take a village leader or other suspected resident outside the village and detail their crimes- speaking out against the NPA; encouraging someone to leave the NPA; hurting an NPA; reporting to the military; or hurting the revolution in some general way. And then the accused person was shot in the head. Always in the head. I had never heard of the NPA granting mercy to anyone. Now here we were as suspects. Other Americanos had also been killed by the NPA in other parts of the Philippines. The situation in the country had seriously worsened over the past three years.
And we had made some serious mistakes in the preceding months.
The leader squatted in front of me. He asked, “What are you doing here?” I started to reply with my standard response about helping the poor and teaching people but he cut me off in mid sentence. “No. You’re spying for the CIA. You are here to monitor this insurgency movement”. He tone was exceptionally harsh and so uncharacteristic of what we had come to expect when conversing with Asiatically polite Filipinos.
Also, belonging to the CIA may seem like a ridiculous and even bizarre charge to make, but it had been reported in the media that the CIA had tried to get missionaries to report on rebel activities in the areas where they worked. There were also grassroots rumors about the CIA helping the military in Mindanao and stories about the CIA storing military supplies in various parts of the island.
And in fact, Bob’s uncle, a CIA employee, had once asked B during a furlough if he would work for the CIA. B had refused and his uncle had then apparently asked him if he would at least provide some information on the situation in Mindanao. B claimed that he had also refused that request.
The leader continued to charge us with being spies for the CIA. I responded, “But I am from Canada and we are a separate country from the US. We don’t even have the CIA in Canada. It is only in the US”. It made no difference. Rural-based insurgents were not well versed in geography and my distinctions probably made little sense.
While we were talking, my body continued to undergo regular spasms of shaking. I was cold, terrified, and I could not regain sufficient body heat. When the spasms of shaking were about to start I would try to smother them by tensing my muscles. Despite my overwhelming fear, I did not want the NPA to see that I was shaking or afraid. But even in the darkness they could hear the tremor in my voice.
The interrogator asked D about his calendar with pictures of Switzerland that he kept at his house in Singko. Beside the pictures D had recorded daily notes of interesting events, similar to a diary. One note stated, “NPA stopped by today”. After recording that visit, another NPA had dropped by to visit D and as D showed him the pictures, the second insurgent saw the note about the previous NPA visit. He suspected that it was information being reported to the military.
So that NPA soldier then reported the calendar of D’s to his local commanders and they had passed on the information to our interrogator. He now stated bluntly, “You gave that information to the military”. It was a serious charge and I had nothing to say in defense. D tried to pooh pooh the charge but with his halting Cebuano he did not sound convincing. I also felt that he was being too blunt in his manner of response and this may have been due to the fact that he did not seem to have fully comprehended the danger that we were in. He also had a very limited language ability at the time.
Then in a very sarcastic tone of voice one of the armed men asked me, “Do you believe in love?” I knew that something was not quite right by the way he asked the question so I fumbled a bit trying to figure out what he was getting at. I then responded with a weak, “Yes”. He sneered right back at me, “No you don’t. If you did, then why did you have our two friends killed up at the hamlet by Singko? You teach hatred”. I could only pleadingly respond that we did not want anyone killed and we had not told those villagers to kill the two NPA tax collectors.
With each new charge our situation became more terrifyingly hopeless. The charges were all worthy of death. Numerous people had been killed for less serious violations of any one of the multiple charges that they were making against us. And they had not yet mentioned my taking Suling from this very village. Surely, they all knew about it.
Local people later told us that the NPA were also angry with us for teaching Manobo to resist the insurgency movement (Damn my big mouth). Verbally challenging and resisting the revolution was another activity worthy of death.
The leader continued making charges. He said that they suspected we were part of an operation to stockpile US munitions in Mindanao. His interrogation seemed interminable and the sense of hopelessness intensified as the minutes passed. I was sick with a terror that only deepened with each new charge. I knew they were going to kill us. I felt like crying and begging for my life but my spirit was too frozen with fear.
At one point, someone carrying a lamp started to come down the steps of the house behind us. The NPA leader barked, “Uli kad (Get back inside)”. The person scampered back up the steps.
Later, when reflecting back on the interrogation, I thought it amazing that even in such a desperate situation there were still deep-rooted feelings of male pride asserting their presence from the back of my mind. I was raised in a macho culture where men did not cower to one other. If someone threatened you, you stood up to him and you never let yourself appear cowardly or afraid. Real men were not cowards. But in those teenage strutting situations there were no weapons and no serious threat of death. This was so different and demeaning. There was no option to play brave or macho. That would quickly be cut off with a bullet to the head. This was an entirely new experience of helplessness and terror. The guns were pointed right at us.
Despite my terror, I kept trying to suppress my shivering as I felt it would look like cowing fear. The muscle spasms made me feel embarrassed on top of the gut-sickening terror. A lifetime of being programmed to smother and suppress unmanly feelings in a macho culture would not break down completely even in the most desperate of situations- that of facing violent death.
Finally, in a desperate last gasp I remembered the military salvaging threat from up north near Pagatpatan. I told the interrogator, “Look, if we are CIA then why are the military up north threatening to salvage us for helping your friends? We gave them medicine and we were charged with being doctors of the NPA and the soldiers have threatened to kill us for helping your friends”. That was a convoluted presentation of the facts but it came out anyway. The salvaging threat was actually in relation to the ambush of soldiers that occurred right where I had been waiting on my motorcycle some months previously. Never mind. It just came out the way it did.
My voice was still shaking but I no longer cared. I did not want to die then and in that remote place.
For the first time since our interrogation had begun the leader faltered and sat silently. Sensing his hesitation I pressed my line of arguing for all it was worth. I desperately wanted to live. When he did not respond, I continued, exaggerating our efforts and risks up north. “We were risking our lives to help your people and as a result we were threatened with death. How can we be CIA?” I was even sounding somewhat indignant. Here I am- your friend, helping your revolution, and look how you are treating me. Shame, shame.
He was quiet for a while, thinking, and then after several long moments he said flatly and harshly, “All right. Before we kill anyone, we investigate matters first. But don’t come back into this area”. It was such an abrupt change in the flow of adrenaline and levels of emotion. After the last half-hour of inevitable build up toward a brutal execution, I could not immediately believe that he had actually backed off and said what he just said. NPA never fairly “investigated” anyone or showed mercy.
The sense of relief was profound but still precarious. Adrenaline doesn’t just leave the blood like that. We hesitated a few moments before standing up as we watched for body language that would allow us to go. The armed men continued to stand for a few moments with their rifles pointed at us then reluctantly lowered them. I sensed that the love questioner was disappointed that he could not shoot me. But it was over. We would not be killed this time.
So D and I cautiously left and walked back to the house of our friend. My back muscles were tensed all the way to the house because the NPA might rethink their decision to let us go. And it was not a relaxed night sleep. I wanted to leave the village immediately but realized that a sudden departure would look suspicious and might spark second thoughts on the part of the NPA.
Early the next morning just after we woke, a young girl about 11 or 12 years old came over, climbed the steps, and sat down in front of us on the porch. Excitedly, she said, “Uncle, last night we knew they were going to kill you so I tried to do something but the NPA leader told me to get back into the house. I was going to get the village men to come and grab their rifles”. She had been the person who had come out of the house with a lantern. I had never before even noticed her in the crowd of kids that usually gathered around when we visited those villages. It seemed an uncommonly compassionate and unselfish thing for a child to take such a serious risk for someone they hardly knew. It left me somewhat astounded. It also confirmed my own feelings about the seriousness of what had happened the night before. She had also understood what they were going to do. Another man in the village said that he had told a friend of his to accompany us as he also knew that they were going to kill us. I remembered this other man standing in the darkness off to the side of the house, too afraid to come closer.
On the return trip down the mountain later in the morning I was still uncertain about whether the NPA had changed their minds and might now be waiting along the road to ambush us. At every bend in the road I expected someone to jump out of the bushes and start shooting. It was a further unnerving extension to our near death experience. I did not relax until we were well into the lowlands.
During the entire previous night I had not prayed once. There had not been enough time to waste on sidetracking thoughts. Perhaps there are not all true believers in foxholes.
It was now time to go home.
Later while discussing the incident, D stated, “Maybe your shaking influenced them to show mercy to us”. He was once again trying to communicate that he had not shared the fear that other mortals felt. I knew then how Renate had felt about his pretense to macho fearlessness in the face of danger. He was also spared a true sense of the danger because of his lack of language ability.
A few weeks later we visited a village which was crowded with NPA. One insurgent asked my Manobo friend Upak, “Which is better- the military or the NPA?” Without a pause to blink Upak answered, “I love all people, both military and NPA”. Upak was bright, slippery as an eel, and competent enough to save his ass in any situation. Later, we almost choked laughing over his quick nonpartisan response.
As noted earlier, in February 1986 Marcos had arrogantly dismissed the election results and reinstalled himself with dictatorial powers. But a nationwide people power movement led by the winning presidential candidate, the housewife Cory Aquino, rose up spontaneously and eventually drove Marcos from power. His own divided military also turned on him and joined the people in the streets.
It was an inspiring example of peaceful revolution and something that I had come to expect from the socially advanced Filipino people. They had a history of initiating social revolution and social change.
The people power revolution caught the NPA and its umbrella organization, the Communist Party, off guard and left them disoriented on the sidelines of change occurring in the country. People had become disgusted with their increasingly violent insurgency. The bloodshed had repulsed people across the nation. The Communists would never again recover their former influence in the country.
During the people power uprising some of us attended political rallies with local friends. One friend, Naome Basillo, said after the revolution, “It meant so much to us that you were willing to stand with us and support us during the revolution”. OMF leaders, however, were upset with our political participation. Some of them warned us ominously about such worldly involvement.
Despite the warnings, numbers of us felt that neutrality in the face of the widespread corruption of the Marcos regime was too much like the passive inactivity of the German people under the Nazi scourge. One author (The Banality Of Evil) had said that passivity in the face of wrong is as great an evil as any other. Human history has long been cursed with the devastating consequences of such passivity.
And while the situation in the country was worsening around the time of the February 1986 national election, OMF leaders had met in Manila to discuss how Christians should react to the crisis. One local pastor got up and walked out of the meetings, exasperated with the indecisiveness of leaders who preferred to sit around and talk. He thought they were wasting time, fiddling while the country burned. He took his congregation to the streets to join the hundreds of thousands of others in actively opposing the Marcos military dictatorship.
Other local Christians expressed resentment that OMF missionaries had not prepared them for more active participation in the revolutionary change that was transforming the country. But OMF, as a Fundamentalist group, viewed the world and any participation in the world as evil. You did not engage that defiling world. You avoided it at all cost.
During that time of widespread people power revolt I enjoyed flashing the people power hand signal (fingers forming an L for “Laban”- fight) just to irk OMF leaders and watch their faces drop in holy dismay.