PERSONAL ESSAY: Loneliness in the Time of Martial Law

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 26 May) — He said they only wanted to return to their village and get supplies before finally evacuating for good. There were eight of them – all male, three of them minors – and they carried with them a makeshift white flag made out of bamboo and old sacks of rice. He said it was because the previous general assigned in their area advised them to always approach the military with a white flag so that they would not be harmed.

After all, international humanitarian law dictates that non-combatants carrying a white flag must be assisted to safety.

As they approached the entrance to their village, a man in uniform shouted at them, asking what they were doing in the area. They raised the flag and said they only wanted to get food and clothing from their homes while the firefight is at a lull.

“It will only take a while,” they said to the soldier who then quickly turned them away, saying that it is not yet safe to return because lawless elements were still in the area.

They retreated and started to walk back to where they came from. Just then, another soldier from the distance called them back and told them to approach. They were told that soldiers will walk with them instead to their village and that they should go quickly.

After walking for a while, one of them noticed that they were going in another direction, far from where their village is located. He spoke to a soldier and told them they were going at the wrong direction as he pointed to their village.

At that moment, they were asked to kneel down and take off their shirts, which were then used to tie their arms behind their backs.

They were brought to the military barracks where they were blindfolded, detained, and then escorted out one by one. Outside, they were told to kneel as soldiers whispered to them, “tumakbo ka na.”

It was 2013. There was no Martial Law in place; only the reality of militarization.

We met the Bagumbayan 8 the day after they were detained; their group was named after the place where they were arrested. I was then working with a grassroots human rights organization as a communications officer, and we received reports from monitors regarding their situation. A few kilometers away from the barracks, we were met by soldiers with nothing but denial.

After much discussion, we were brought to the barracks and allowed to talk with one of those detained. We asked him how they were, and he said they were being fed and were even given new slippers. We noticed a soldier was listening in to our conversation and we asked him to allow us confidentiality and leave us alone with our client.

As soon as the soldier left, the man whose face lit up earlier as he talked about food and slippers changed his tone. That was when we found out what really happened to them.

We demanded that the detainees be turned over to the police, given that there were criminal charges against them and the military had no right to detain them. When we got to the police, we demanded that the minors be turned over to their parents for lack of a separate appropriate detention facility for minors.

A day after they were turned over to the police, the military went to police headquarters and took a man out of detention under the guise of allowing him to pray his afternoon prayers. He was blindfolded and was asked to hold things as he clasped his hands together and placed them between his knees saying, “I will not do anything that you say without my lawyers.”

It took us a year before we got them acquitted of the charges against them and finally out of prison.

At the time of their release, one of them had already lost his uncle to a fatal disease, while another had lost his wife to a job opportunity abroad because he could no longer sustain their family.

What happened to them felt like Martial Law in so many ways, but there was no outrage. Back then, people on my Facebook feed were talking about Game 7 between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, the launching of Instagram’s video feature, and the upcoming new season of The Newsroom.

It was a time of injustice and loneliness, and it has long begun in this island.

This is the reality that people in the Bangsamoro live with – in unheard of places, people are arrested without warrants, illegally detained and tortured by state forces, many of them unable to go home.  That Martial Law has been declared only reinforces the reality that many Bangsamoros have known all their lives, and merely legitimizes the abuse and oppression they have always lived with.

And when the President says that his version of Martial Law of today will not be any different from that of Marcos the fascist dictator, it inevitably unearths histories of the Bangsamoro that they are forced to relive – histories that many of us have never even heard of or experienced.

In Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte, eighty unarmed civilians were made to get out of their vehicles and lie flat on their stomachs as they were shot at, pieces of bloody flesh flying into the air. In Alabel, Sarangani, a seven year old girl celebrating her birthday was killed by armed men along with friends and relatives who came to celebrate with her. In Carmen, North Cotabato, men were made to enter a mosque until they were packed like sardines and were told to pray as members of the Philippine Constabulary lobbed grenades at them. When the mosque was opened, those who entered found themselves ankle-deep in blood.

These are but three of the many massacres that killed thousands of Bangsamoros during the Martial Law of the past, massacres that continue to linger in their memories. This is why saying that all Mindanaons welcome the declaration of Martial Law in the present is insensitive at best and ignorant at worst.

As Martial Law is declared in Mindanao and as fear of it spilling over to the rest of the country gains momentum, there is a need to assess where our sincere concern for the Bangsamoro ends and where self-interest begins. There is a need to dig deep and question the efforts we have made for our Bangsamoro brothers and sisters in the past and look forward to the future that we will inevitably share with them.

The Bangsamoro’s struggle for self-determination is rooted on a long history of prejudice, neglect, and oppression. The horrors of the past that are the reasons for our current resistance are horrors that never once left Mindanao. The horrors that haunt us only in our dreams are realities lived over and over here in the southern island, and the people here in the island remember. Not once did they ever forget.

Sixty days from now, with things hoped for going as planned, Martial Law would have already been lifted in Mindanao. But as our eyes now turn to a place we hardly even think about in the everyday, may we all consider never looking away. Never again. (Marrian Pio Roda Ching is a feminist from the Southern Tagalog Region who relocated to the Bangsamoro in 2012. She works as a writer, editor, and human rights advocate who strongly supports the Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination)