PERSONAL ESSAY: Who would pull the trigger against this gentle Tausug?

Alber Husin is dead. Like Gene Boyd Lumawag, Mindanews’ photo editor, he was gunned down. Both were very dear to me.  Alber was shot in Pagadian City evening of February 10 and died at 4 a.m on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

When Gene Boyd died in Jolo in November 2004, Alber took my storm calmly and compassionately when I raged like the Ilongot headhunters over his senseless killing. He did not even budge when I “pushed him against the wall” revealing my prejudice against the Muslims and reflecting it back to me.

I was shocked with my raw emotion and the biases that I did not even know were there. When I saw Alber at Gene Boyd’s wake, he was awkward and unsure how to situate himself with me and in the funeral parlor. My heart went out to him. He was a Tausug from Jolo and right in the middle of a crowd crying out for blood. I walked up to him and I apologized with a contrite heart. Alber smiled at me and simply hugged me, assuring me of his understanding and support.

Alber, an anthropologist, was trained to take people seriously. He always tried to understand how people interpret and act in the world, and put it into context. He also strived hard to be of help to others. A natural networker, he would go out of his way to bridge people and relations. Was that why he was killed?

Who would kill a peace advocate, a development worker, an educator who cared passionately for the education of Moro and indigenous peoples? Who would pull the trigger against this gentle Tausug, who together with Leah Vidal, Jowel Canuday, and I hang on to one other when we crossed the flooded rivers of San Fernando, Bukidnon to reach a Matigsalug community; who cried unabashedly in front of me whenever a girlfriend broke up with him; who often nudged me to drink my coffee or eat my lunch before it gets cold because I was so engrossed with whatever I was doing; who always made sure that he smelled so good by spraying perfume all over his body and also carefully styled his hair with gel; who never failed to make fun of himself and his Tausug identity by asking, “mukha na ba akong moks (short for moklo, a derogatory term for Muslims) nito Pen?”, as he put on his glittery bracelet, red Nike high-cut shoes, matching red backpack, and signature shades.

Alber was happiest when he married Irene in May 2006 in Zamboanga City. I remember him telling me that he finally met his match and that she is one of a kind. Oh how he enthused about their wedding plans and how he worked hard to raise the necessary funds so Irene will be able to remember it as the most memorable day of her life. When I showed up in my grubby fieldwork clothes with my backpack at sunrise on their wedding day, Alber gave me clear and specific instructions right at his parents’ doorway: “Pen, huwag mo talagang iwanan si Irene ha” (Pen, don’t ever leave Irene).

“Huh? I am the maid of honor?,” I quizzed him as I had yet to meet his bride. But Alber was unable to explain. Although confused about what was going on, I carried out his marching orders like one dutiful lieutenant: stay by Irene’s side. One by one, the women from Alber’s large family, dressed in their elegant and colorful silk dresses, took turns in paying homage to Irene, embracing and welcoming her warmly to their family. I believe that the only constructive contribution I made in the whole affair  was to take lots of pictures and to hand Irene a pen for her to sign their marriage documents.

Towards noon, Alber took me aside to another secluded portion of their big house and inquired if I would like to witness a female circumcision ritual. “What?! You’re joking right?,” I was horrified that they have this practice and that of all days it has to be during their wedding day.

“Hindi. Totoo ‘to (No. This is real.),” he said. “Gagawin sa aking mga pamangkin (It will be done to my nieces).”

“What?!”, I exclaimed.

“Ano man? (What now?),” Alber prodded that I should see it.

For ethnography’s sake, I said, “yes”. But on human rights terms, I was conflicted. I was put in a moral, ethical, and political dilemma more so when I saw his sister and her two young daughters with an elderly woman sitting in a circle on the floor, and at the center a small glass lamp burner was lighted. I approached them nervously, asking myself should I stop it or not especially when the elderly woman began heating a small blade on the flame. It is not even sterilized! Then she started praying in Tausug. What am I going to do? When I was about to speak out, she made some hand motions to one of the girls whose legs were now spread-eagled. As it turned it out, female circumcision was symbolical. There was no cutting of flesh. No blood dripping. No screams.

Soon after, Alber came back for me with a sheepish smile on his face. I punched him on his upper arm and laughed with relief. By then, visitors were streaming in. As the wedding ceremony drew near, the Husin women helped Irene put on her red long skirt and white long sleeved blouse made of silk and other traditional shiny wedding ornaments on her head and neck. I watched Irene carefully retouch her make up and slip on her white shoes. She was composed and resolved. Then her sister burst into the room. Irene brightened up especially when she was told that their father was also outside. It was only then that I understood that her mother had yet to accept that her daughter was marrying a Tausug and converting to Islam.

When I talked to Irene that morning Alber died, she was at a loss as to how to tell their kids that he is now gone. How indeed can she shepherd her two children in front of Alber’s grave that same day he died? I bit my tongue so as not to cry while she was bawling. When she had to put down the phone because they will be traveling back to Zamboanga City where they will bury him just before sundown, I felt so empty, numbed, as I stared blankly at snowflakes falling from the sky. Suddenly in seconds, there was this sharp pain in my heart as if some unseen hands were wringing and ripping it apart. I could not breathe.

I have long accepted the reality of our work, having Zambanga as my fieldwork area. Gene Boyd was killed in  that region – in Jolo, one of the most wounded islands of archipelagic Philippines. It is home to the Tausugs, who are historically known for their heroic courage to resist American Occupation at the turn of the 20th Century that caught the United States military by surprise through their suicide attacks or constructive self-destruction with their kris, muzzle loaders or brass cannons in defense of their homeland and liberty. To this day, they remain in their struggle for their Bangsamoro homeland.  I have also  been to Jolo and found it greatly misunderstood just like the rest of Western Mindanao where  cultures and peoples are so diverse; and where poverty and wealth distribution is disparately insane. The Zamboanga and Sulu islands are consistent bottom-listers in the Philippine Human Development Index. Foreigners, tourists, priests, development workers, teachers and even the lowly cafeteria cooks were kidnapped that donor agencies now tend to shy away from Zamboanga Peninsula. Human rights abuses against the Yakans, Tausugs, Kolibugans, Subanos, Bajaos, and migrant settlers are rampant but often go unreported.

I, too, had my share of harassments. From a mere participant observer, I moved across the continuum and became a “vulnerable observer” that I had to abandon the field about thrice, which led me to a complex peripatetic, multi-sited ethnography on mining and indigenous peoples. Of course, at one time or another in the research process, my observational method was filled with irreducible inconsistencies and uncertainties that caused me confusion both intellectually and emotionally.

I recall that in one of these three occasions when I hastily packed up and rushed home to Davao, I immediately went to Mindanawon and sought out our mentor Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ or Paring Bert for a “debriefing” to help me process my field. He was showing some visitors his new addition to his butiki (lizard) collections made of different materials at that time and he motioned for me to come and join them. Paring Bert, the anthropologist and poet as he is, has this fascination for these small harmless reptiles quietly listening in and observing the goings-on of the world up on a ceiling or on a wall. After a minute or so of awkward silence as we all looked at his butikis, I blurted out, “Alam mo Padz, doon sa Zamboanga pinipintik ang mga butiki” (You know Pads, there in Zamboanga they target and hit the lizards with a slingshot). Indeed, Nancy Schepher-Hughes is right, that “we cannot delude ourselves into believing that our presence leaves no trace, no impact on those whose lives we dare intrude.’’ A butiki when it falls on your head jolts you out of your jibbers and gives you shivers down your spine.

I worried about Alber being in Pagadian knowing that people are burned alive in Zamboanga del Norte, del Sur and Zamboanga Sibugay to silence their grievances. But because he was a Tausug, a child survivor and witness to a massacre of his family members in Jolo, and raised in Zamboanga City, there was no doubt in my mind that he was well equipped to face the hazards of being in that field. I also thought that he would be able to survive the bullet wound that pierced through his diaphragm, kidneys, liver and some portions of his lungs specially that Irene sounded positive last Monday that he was already conscious and stable, but still needed to be in the intensive care unit. He was able to run for a good 500 meters away from the site and called Irene for help. He also woke up about after 11 hours of surgery, to provide information about his assailants. I was almost certain that Alber would be able to bounce back, and live to tell. In fact, I was looking forward to hearing his accounts on Skype in a fortnight and imagining what funny anecdotes he would tell about the incident.

It seems that it was 2004 all over again. The difference is I am not raging. I can only weep quietly for Gene Boyd, for Alber, for the priests, religious and journalists who were murdered; for those who I encountered in the fields of Mindanao deeply traumatized with the violence of bloody sieges, ambushes, and massacres that has gone on and on even before I was born; for the widows and orphans of Maguindanao, Jolo, Basilan and in other conflict areas of Mindanao. I no longer cried out to God to show me His face that I may understand why this has happened. He has nothing to do with evil. He has also given us free will to sin or not. So now I offer my tears and sorrow to our Creator for mercy for the souls of these persons who killed Gene Boyd, Alber, Marlene Esperat, Father Pops, Father Roda, and the many others who were giving their best to become beacons to Mindanao’s darkness. But again, again, I weep for our Mindanao.

Right now, there is this coldness that I feel inside. It is far lower than the minus 40 temperature that Saskatchewan is known for. It might as well be that we have eight months of winter here.

(Penelope Sanz  of MindaNews met Alber Husin at the Mindanao Anthropology Consortium at Xavier University where they became very good friends. She is currently attending the University of Saskatchewan in Canada for her doctorate studies)