Our itinerant mission team arrived in Josefina – one of the parishes of the Diocese of Pagadian with Bishop Antonio Tobias as Bishop – in 1989 upon the invitation of the parish priest to help him strengthen the Base Ecclesial Communities (known locally as Gagmayng Simbahanong Katilingban or GSK).
The "total war" policy of Mrs. Cory Aquino was still in progress and a dirty little war raged across the municipality, claiming thousands of victims – both poor Bisaya-speaking lowland migrant-settlers and Subanen, the indigenous people of the peninsula.
Just to backtrack a little bit: the reader will remember that shortly after Mrs. Aquino took over as President, the GRP and the CPP-NPA came together for peace talks. However, the ensuing Mendiola massacre aborted the talks and in its wake, Mrs. Aquino – upon the instigation of the military who remained in power – declared total war on the insurgency.
For most of the martial rule, one of the strongest NPA strongholds was the upland of Mt. Malindang. Word is that – it still is until today — its guerilla base has a rather romantic name – Monterosa, or the Red Mountain.
At the height of the NPA's strength, Monterosa was a fabled place for those wanting to have a good exposure on how the Red warriors engaged the local peasantry – both Bisaya and Subanen – and fought the guerilla war with the military and para-military troops including the infamous cults like the Sagrado Corazon.
No wonder, Monterosa was prime target of the AFP's militarization scheme. There were bombings across the mountain range; there were military operations including hamletting, food blockade and outright search of homes without the benefit of search warrants. Peasant families had to relocate to big barangays or the poblacion, walking up to ten kilometers to their farms every day so they can continue tilling the land or harvesting the crops (before the CAFGUs helped themselves to the harvest).
Thousands of civilians had to evacuate their homes in the hinterlands once bombing took place. At times when they were home, all their belongings remained packed in sacks. Once trouble erupted, it was easier for them to flee to safer grounds after grabbing the sacks and carrying them on their backs.
At one time, the parish priest and the FMM sisters were confronted with more than 300 Subanen – old men, women and children – who arrived at the convent after evacuating from the uplands. Some of them got lost in the forests and a few died of hunger. Fortunately, they found their way out of the forests and reached the town. No one asked them where the men were; it was easy to guess where they were.
One of the members of our team, Dodong Villas, was a lay missionary who had finished agriculture in college. He was assigned to Calabat, the last village before one climbs towards the peak of Mt. Malindang. There was a military camp in Calabat with a squad of soldiers and more than 10 CAFGUs. One early dawn, the camp was attacked by around 300 NPAs. Dodong was sleeping in one of the peasants' homes near the camp. That was to be one event that Dodong will never forget in his life as he was afraid he, too, would not have survived such attack.
Fortunately, the combined intervention of the parish priest, the Mayor and other civilian officials averted the possibility of the village being burned by the military who arrived there after the NPAs had disappeared from the scene. But Calabat was a no man's land.
That event brought tears to the eyes of the parish priest, Fr. Felix Tigoy. Like Josefina, Fr. Felix sang the blues. In his homily the following Sunday, he echoed the lamentations of Josefina as his tears cascaded down his burned cheeks. He asked why the people must suffer, he wondered why those in power would rain down bombs on them and if war was the only way to deal with people's dreams of being emancipated from poverty and injustice.
Weeping and raging as a prophet, Fr. Tigoy reached out to the heavens with prayers for deliverance. The old women in the congregation wept bitter tears as well, holding tight to their grandchildren who had no inkling why their elders were in such somber mood. This rather extraordinary Sunday Mass was to remain in my memory for a long, long time.
Twenty years later, I would visit Josefina in the rainy days of October this year.
Gone is Fr. Tigoy who has been transferred somewhere near Pagadian City. Some of the elderly women had died and a few of the grandchildren have gotten married in this church and now have mouths to feed.
In Fr. Tigoy's place is a young priest ordained just a few years ago, Fr. Nestor Bahala whose Josh Groban haircut – complete with jet-black curly locks – makes him an unlikely pastor of an isolated rural parish in the boondocks of Zamboanga del Sur.
In the Mass I attended with Fr. Nestor officiating in Bag-ong Sugbu, roughly 15 kilometers from Josefina's poblacion, his song was unlike the blues of Fr. Tigoy. His might have been reggae, in the tradition of Bob Marley. The context was most appropriate as the occasion was Bag-ong Sugbu's Pasalamat celebration, the gathering of the village folks to thank their patron saint – Sto. Nino – for a bountiful harvest this year. Offered during the Mass were chickens, sacks of corn, baskets of cardaba bananas, vegetables galore.
In a sense, Fr. Nestor's song echoed that of Josefina's. And there is reason for Josefina to sing an upbeat tune!
In fact, as soon as I walked near the chapel, a young boy barely 5 years old continously rapped a line when he saw Fr. Nestor: "Nia na si Pader! Nia na si Pader!" (Father is here). By the looks on his face and the chanted line, one can see the innocence of youth manifesting joy.
For the moment, the war scenario has disappeared from Josefina's landscape. Not that the area is no longer militarized; in fact, the military camps and checkpoints are still in place. Word is that the guerilla zone in Monterosa also remains in place. But both sides have avoided armed encounters; unlike other parts of Mindanao – especially those in the southeastern side – the NPAs have not conducted daring raids to seize arms.
The statistics related to those who lose lives owing to armed encounters, the number of victims of human rights violations, killings of any sort, have dropped in the last few years in Josefina. Military operations that used to terrorize the civilian population have been few and far between; so also hamletting schemes and the like.
The peasants are left in peace by both sides; there were attempts among a few of the villages to declare peace zones precisely to be free of interferences from both sides. The farms that used to be neglected for long periods of time are now laden with both crops and fruit trees. One sees mahogany and other hardwood trees planted in what used to be idle lands.
They no longer place their belongings in sacks as they do not foresee the need to evacuate on short notice.
There was bountiful food shared by the whole community after the Mass, where before they could not even prepare a decent meal on the day of their fiesta. And surprise of all surprises: a few kids had bicycles for toys – a luxury in these parts of the town in the 1980-1990s.
All-weather roads have been constructed. A huge bridge was recently built across the Salug River allowing for vehicles to reach Bag-ong Sugbu. Before, the folks who had horses were lucky as they went to town on horseback; the poorer ones did so on foot. On rainy days when the roads turned muddy, the trips were most unpleasant.
There are other things to be grateful for. The town has a covered gym; it also has a retreat house owned and administered by a group of Franciscan congregations.
The people no longer have to depend on overloaded jeepneys and habals-habals when they need to go to adjacent towns. As there is now a road connecting them to Dipolog City, there are Rural Transit buses that ply the route regularly.
The best news, however, has to do with the last local municipal elections. Even as Governor Panlilio of Pampanga hogs the headlines, there is a quiet shift in terms of those who hold responsibilities for Josefina's local governance. The shift is not bound to attract the attention of national media, but the changes that took place in this little town in Zamboanga del Sur is at par with the shift in Pampanga politics.
For ensconced now in the municipal hall of Josefina are a Mayor, Vice-Mayor and a few SB members who would ordinarily not win elections. When I heard about this turn of events upon my return from my sabbatical, I could not believe something remarkable has happened in Josefina. Indeed, the people themselves were very pleased with the outcome of their local elections, for they had elected non-traditional politicians.
Maria Fe Mahinay-Pitogo, elected Mayor, looks like she is just out of college. This is her first attempt at an electoral position. Having been an honest, successful businesswoman, the people believed she had enough entrepreneurial skills to do well as their town Mayor. The Vice-Mayor is Catalino Adapon whose life story might have been chronicled in Maala-ala Mo Kaya. When he was just around 16 years old at the height of martial rule in Josefina, his whole family – father, mother, siblings and a cousin – were massacred by the military. If he were not visiting a relative in a nearby place, he, too, would have been killed.
First SB member is Ralphie Asuncion who looks like he had just finished high school. A former Franciscan (OFM) seminarian, Ralphie could easily fit in as head of the SK. Instead he is SB No. 1. Being single, he is the most sought bachelor in this part of the island.
Next to him is the lay missionary who, one very early morning in 1990, thought his life would end with the NPA's attack on Calabat's army camp. Dodong Villas had survived that incident and fallen in love with a local parish worker while we were doing our mission in Josefina. He stayed on after we completed our task in the parish and married Fely. Today he cultivates a farm, manages a sari-sari store and, with his wife, takes care of their four children.
With the likes of Maria Fe, Catalino, Ralphie and Dodong taking charge of Josefina's governance, the people are optimistic that things will change for the better. Echoing Fr. Tigoy's prayer, they continue to wish that peace will continue to reign in Josefina. They also pray that with the new set of local officials, there could be some improvement in their lives, especially in alleviating poverty.
One is not yet sure at this stage if peace will reign in Josefina in the years to come. The guns may have been silenced for the moment. But the warriors are just biding their time. Those who allow themselves a critical mind know that nation's present socio-eco-political situation cannot yet guarantee that places like Josefina will bask in the light of peace in the years to come.
However, there is no question that in just a few years after the guns in Josefina were stilled, the lamentations ended.
In just one generation, the songs have dramatically shifted. No longer does Josefina sing the blues.
It is reggae time down below the peaks of Mt. Malindang, in the shadow of the Monterosa!
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw])