4th of 5 parts
[This piece was first published in the book, “Transfiguring Mindanao: A Mindanao Reader” edited by Jose Jowel Canuday and Joselito Sescon (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2022). The article opens Part V on “Mediating Truths, Contested Communities, Making Peace” of the book, which was launched on June 22 this year in Davao City. The Ateneo University Press granted MindaNews permission to share the article. Bobby Timonera is one of the editors of MindaNews.]
Read the previous parts – First, Second, Third
Also in 2004, Newsbreak magazine commissioned me to take photos of the late Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. I was with Gemma Mendoza, who wrote the story (she’s with Rappler now). Cotabato journalist Romy Elusfa served as our guide, and fellow photo hobbyist Jasper Llanderal joined us in the long drive from Iligan to Maguindanao.
We went to see the still unfinished capitol building in Shariff Aguak after which we were entertained in the governor’s palatial residence. After that, we joined the convoy to somewhere remote, away from the highway, driving through rough limestone roads. I had difficulty catching up as the governor was aboard a HumVee, and his armed escorts trailing behind were in a Land Cruiser, the best 4×4 vehicles in the world. We were following them in my lowly Adventure.
We stopped in a spot where road construction was ongoing. There were dump trucks and graders and backhoes, and piles of limestone by the roadside. I wouldn’t know where exactly that was; GPS on our phones was still almost a decade away.
I learned later that the old man wasn’t happy with the article that Gemma wrote, as most politicians were with anything that was printed in Newsbreak’s pages.
We all know what happened in November 2009. Looking at my pictures of that shoot every now and then—vast open fields far from where people live, piles of limestone, graders, dump trucks, back hoes, armed men—sends shivers down my spine.
Gene Boyd Lumawag
A few months later, we were celebrating my father’s birthday at home when my boss, Carol, called to relay the news that one of our colleagues, Gene Boyd Lumawag, our photo editor then, was dead, shot in the forehead in Jolo. Carol and Gene were together in the area for a story. Boyd went out of the hotel to shoot Jolo’s famed sunset by the pier. On his way back, he was shot in the forehead with a caliber .45 handgun. The gunman didn’t steal Boyd’s digital camera; his beautiful sunset shots were still there.
The military and the police claimed that Boyd was killed by members of the “Urban Terrorist Group” of the Abu Sayyaf. This never convinced his family, nor MindaNews.
I vowed never to set foot on that island. But when an assignment came knocking a few years later, off I went. I just made it a point to be with a Tausug for a guide, who would be with me all the time, from my arrival at the airport until I boarded the plane for my flight out.
When disaster struck home in December 2011, I was away again. Together with a few others, I was driving from Malaybalay in Bukidnon on our way home when Typhoon Sendong’s eye must have passed us on Sayre Highway late afternoon of December 16, with rains and winds so strong, I had to drive slowly due to limited visibility.
Like most Mindanawons, I didn’t bother checking the weather report before driving out of Malaybalay. Typhoons don’t come to Mindanao, we’d say; they happen only up North. But Froilan, who is from Cagayan de Oro, called me every now and then, asking for my whereabouts, telling me to be careful as one of the strongest typhoons was coming our way.
At that time, Sendong’s potent threat didn’t really sink in. I was driving my wife’s small car, which was fully loaded to capacity with colleagues, plus some cargo in the baggage compartment. We were further slowed down by the traffic because of road repairs that I had to make a detour to a rough mountain road as we approached Cagayan de Oro city. Cagayan de Oro’s roads were already flooded when we got there at dusk. I would have preferred to drive all the way to Iligan to be home for a late dinner, but I decided to spend the night in a hotel downtown. I had a good sleep, tired from several days of shooting in Bukidnon and the long drive.
Around 4 a.m., my phone rang. “Tito, how’s your situation there?” I had no idea what my nephew was talking about. “My car is about to float, most of Iligan must be submerged by now.” What?! I called my wife immediately and asked if our house was flooded. Nope, the floor was dry. Wait … it’s flooded outside, but the water was just an inch away from entering our house.
I had no idea of the extent of the damage. But when I drove a colleague to the Cagayan de Oro airport as soon as the sun was up, we could see fallen electrical posts blocking the roads. We did some maneuvering to get to the airport. And there we saw the devastation on TV while we were having breakfast.
I postponed my trip back home upon hearing news of the flooded highway on the way out of Cagayan de Oro, so I stayed a few hours more taking pictures of the damage and the dead being carried on stretchers.
When I finally got to Iligan around 2 p.m., it was like Hiroshima. I parked by the highway just before Mandulog Bridge, around which was the most damage. What welcomed me near the signage that read “Welcome to Iligan City” was a jeepney by the roadside that had been swept by the waters, and was now resting atop a pile of debris and timber.
I saw people gathered around a naked corpse on a makeshift stretcher, that, I was told, was already dead, and in fact, was lying in state at the wake in his home before the flash flood came. Tired children were sleeping by the roadside, adults walked aimlessly carrying their belongings, DPWH personnel in bright orange clothing doing repairs on the bridge, 10-wheeler trucks and other large vehicles in various positions far from the road, swept by the waters. A military helicopter flew past the other Mandulog Bridge upstream, which collapsed after being battered by thousands of logs harvested illegally, I suppose, from Iligan’s mountains.
In the following days, I couldn’t get myself to write. It was too painful. But I kept shooting. As many photojournalists observe, the camera has this shielding effect. When you put it in front of your face, peep through the viewfinder, compose your shot and tweak the camera settings, somehow, you feel detached like the outside observer that you are. Only then you can continue to shoot.
I kept shooting in the days that followed, until the 40th day commemoration for the dead in January, and a few more Sendong-related events, until the fun run a year after.
My family did our share in the relief efforts, with my wife’s group of doctors, and my circle of friends among photo hobbyists, going to the evacuation centers in schools to get the list of evacuees and their needs, then going out to buy the needed supplies for distribution.
Part 5: The Fun Part, MobileMedia, Fiesta sa Mindanao, The Future
(“Transfiguring Mindanao: A Mindanao Reader” has 34 chapters with 44 authors mostly coming from Mindanao and highlighting broad topics covering the historical, social, economic, political, and cultural features of the island and its people. The book is divided into six parts: Part I is History, Historical Detours, Historic Memories; Part II is Divergent Religions, Shared Faiths, Consequential Ministries; Part III is Colonized Landscapes, Agricultural Transitions, Economic Disjunctions; Part IV is Disjointed Development, Uneven Progress, Disfigured Ecology; Part V is Mediating Truths, Contested Communities, Making Peace; and Part VI is Exclusionary Symbols, Celebrated Values, Multilingual Future. Edited by Jose Jowel Canuday and Joselito Sescon, this book is a landmark in studies on Mindanao.)
Get your copy from the Ateneo University Press, Shopee, or Lazada.
Watch the book launch here.