REMEMBERING: On the way to the clinic, the boy died in my arms


(Fr. Eliseo R. Mercado Jr., OMI, would have turned 73 today, 29 May 2021, the day his remains were buried at the OMI Cemetery in Tamontaka, Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao. Fr. Jun succumbed to cardiac arrest on 23 May 2021 after weeks of fighting COVID-19 in the Cotabato Regional Medical Center in Cotabato City. A day earlier, his RT-PCR test showed he had finally tested negative of SARS-Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
This piece, written in 2000, provides readers an insight on why working for peace in Mindanao became Mercado’s life-long commitment).

Remembering the years of Martial Rule in Mindanao, particularly in Muslim Mindanao, is both a panful and cathartic journey….

I am presently editing my journal on the occasion of my 25th Priestly Jubilee. A good portion of the journal is about the war in Mindanao and our struggle during the martial law years.

The war in Cotabato between the Blackshirts and the Ilagas was one of the reasons cited by Marcos for declaring martial law

The lines were defined along religious as well as ethnic identities. Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP),  Integrated National Police (INP) Civilian Home Defense Forces (Barangay Self Defense Units) and the dreaded Ilaga paramilitary units were “Christians.” On the other side of the “line” were the Muslim Blackshirts who would, in time, become known as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The war was akin to a viral epidemic engulfing municipalities and provinces.

In many  ways, the war divided the people of Cotabato Provinces on their stance vis-à-vis martial law. The Christian populace, with a few exception, accepted Marcos’ reason for declaring martial law. They sided with the AFP and the Marcos regime in their “pacification” of the Blackshirts/MNLF. The Bishops of Mindanao were also torn on the issue of martial law and the war. The prominent anti-martial law advocate was Bishop Tony Nepomuceno, OMI.

It must have been difficult for him to go against the martial law regime in the midst of the raging war between government troops and the MNLF. Bishop Tony was firm in his stand against martial law.

Fr. Elseao “Jun” Mercado, OMI This was the last profile photo he posted on his Facebook page on April 23, 2021

My Muslim friends narrated the atrocities of the AFP troops in their barrios – burning houses, killing all that moved and looting their possessions.

How many remember the “fire” bombs (napalm) that leveled Tumbao and Buldon? How many still remember the Manili (Carmen) Mosque massacre where combined troops of the INP, Philippine Constabulary (PC) and the Ilaga wantonly massacred Muslims at prayer on that fateful Friday assembly?

But perpetrators of atrocities were not limited to the AFP. MNLF forces had their share, too. It was a nightmare – a grave sin against humanity perpetrated in the name of religion. If we are revolted by Kosovo, Bosnia, ethnic cleansing … we had them earlier in Mindanao … in Cotabato at the height of the war from 1972 to 1976.

The most traumatic experience which has forever marred my psyche happened on June 14, 1976.

At around 9 a.m. that day, two grenades were lobbed at the classrooms of the second year students of the Notre Dame of Dulawan. The first exploded in the midst of the students, the second turned out to be a dud.

Seven students were killed, 41 were injured.

Until now, I can still remember the sound of the grenade blast, the cries of the students and the scene inside the classroom when I entered a few minutes after the blast.

That scene is always replayed in my mind: I grabbed a bloodied student in my arms to rush him to the Notre Dame clinic nearby, On the way to the clinic, the boy expired in my arms.

The boy’s name is forever imprinted in my heart: Abdul Rahman Tungao. He was only 13.

Sometime around early afternoon, I had to tell the father about his son’s death. Full of rage, I told the father that the perpetrators should be punished. The father simply shed tears. Allah, he said, shall take care of his son and He, too, shall deal with the killer. The stepmother wailed at her husband’s feet.

But there was NO JUSTICE!

The grenade-throwing was perpetrated by the MNLF against their own sons and daughters!

One Christian died in the blast. His name was Samuel Choi. I buried him with deep anguish, pain and near despair.

“Why? Why? Why young people,” were the only screams I could hear in my heart and mind. Why young people? Why must babes be sacrificed in the so-called altar of freedom and liberation!

Today, if I hear martial law, the war, the classroom, the blood of Abdul  Rahman, the father and mother grieving, immediately come to mind.

The grenade throwing against our school was but an instant in the chain of killings, destruction and violence of that undeclared war! Killings and salvagings were daily occurrences in Datu Piang in the early and mid-1970s.

The sympathizers of the MNLF were killed in the night and the sympathizers of the AFP were killed the following night

I learned how to jump from bed and dive for cover during shootouts. Yes, it was hell!

In the midst of this insanity, Bishop Tony, Bishop Manguramas and Ustadz Bajunaid formed the first Muslim-Christian Religious Leaders Association in Cotabato. I got involved in this association in 1974. The military under the leadership of General Fortunato Abat, the military commander of Central Mindanao, tolerated our group. We were called by the people when  their barrios or sitios were subjected to military zonas, especially in the fast expanding Campo Muslim. During zonas, all the people in the community were told to leave their houses and they were gathered in the central place of the barrio / sitio. Cedulas were required and those without cedulas were hoarded to the six by six military vehicles and brought to the hill (PC Hill) for interrogation.

The Muslim-Christian  Religious Association was the earliest interfaith Human Rights group in Cotabato. We had to go to the Hill to seek the release of the victims of zonas. Other times, we had to go to the PC Zone in Parang to visit the detainees. Oftentimes we were successful in getting the detainees released … but seldom did we succeed in securing the release of detainees who were suspected as MNLF/Blackshirts. They were confined at different jails and detention enters until they finally “disappeared”!

No one knows  what happened to hundreds, nay thousands, who had disappeared! No one made an accounting of the casualties of the war, the civilians who were caught in the firing, civilian homes that were bombed and burned, people who died in the refugee centers.

Yes, each one in Cotabato had a story to tell… but the sad part of the story is that we seem not to learn from the lessons of those tragedies of the 1970s and the 1980s.

Today, the same war continues to rage between the AFP and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front).

We continue to witness thousands of evacuees caught in the crossfires, their homes looted and burned.

People in the cities are often unaware that evacuees have human faces … and they, too, have a religion and ethnicity!

The same cry of “why “ continues to be heard in my heart and mind. The insanity continues … and the end is NOT near at hand.

(This piece was published in the book “Turning Rage into Courage: Mindanao under Martial Law” published by MindaNews Publications and launched on 21 September 2002 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the declaration of martial law.
Here is the note about the author at the bottom of his essay:  Fr. Eliseo R. Mercado, Jr., OMI, sent this piece to mindanao1081 e-group on 7 February 2000. The end, indeed, was NOT near for the next month, Joseph Estrada unleashed his “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, sending nearly a million people in Central Mindanao to evacuation centers, leaving hundreds killed, most of them children and the elderly in congested evacuation centers. Since the 1970s, Fr. Mercado has been actively pursuing peace advocacy, has convened various groups such as the Mindanao Peace Advocates Conference and Kusog Mindanaw. He is presently on sabbatical leave after serving as president of the Notre Dame University for 10 years. But he refuses to stop working. He now heads the National Peace Advocates Council)