Virginia and I both became mothers in 1997. I gave birth to my daughter Sage on the last day of September. Two weeks later, Virgina gave the world Grecil, her firstborn.
My Sage is well and happy and is a joy to her father, her sister and me. Virginia's Grecil, on the other hand, is dead. The little one was felled by a bullet to the back of her head. It happened one summer morning while the sun shone bright and the nearby creek merrily gurgled along.
Virginia brought her daughter's pitifully small body home to her mother's house for the wake. Her one-bedroom shack up in the mountains was in no condition to host those who came to pay respect and offer condolence. For one, there was no place to lay the coffin. For another, the shack was riddled with bullet holes. The inside was ransacked and nobody had yet the time to put things back in order.
Virginia could not cry anymore. She held her two younger children, 4-year-old Balery and 2-year-old Angelina, as her son, 6-year-old Garry, sat beside her. The empty look in her eye as I held her hands in sympathy told me that she had gone beyond grief. It made me want so much to call her back, but maybe she needs her time in that dark place. We women must understand death. It often is all that the world would let us have.
Virginia said that Garry wouldn't speak about that time when he and his sister lost each other in the creek. She had watched helplessly as I gently held her sobbing son, allowing him to relive the terror of having been alone and running for his life there in the creek where he and his sister used to play.
It's all right, Garry. You can cry. You were afraid. There's nothing to be ashamed of.
She reached out to gently wipe away his tears as the boy trustingly leaned against me. I did not have the words to tell her about stress debriefing, but somehow I conveyed to her that what Garry needed after that heart-rending storm was the empathetic ear of a responsible adult. I could not explain to her to her what I as a practicing psychologist had been trained to do, only that I wished her and her son well.
She gave Garry nodding permission to go with me back to where it happened. We left her sitting on that bench, her hands full with the two younger children. She stayed to keep Grecil's wake.
Garry remembers looking back sometime during that terrified dash to see that Grecil wasn't following, but he was too far gone and too scared of the bullets to come back for her. He ran and ran until he got to where there were people.
Garry is too young to understand the ideals of democracy or the ideology of communism and why his community had turned into a battlefield. He can't explain what is meant when you say justice. All he knew was that he'd lost his sister out there where the two of them used to play, and that the next time he saw her she was already dead. He was crying because in his young soul he knew that it was not right.
For Virginia, justice is just a word that she has heard. She did not believe it applied to her or to her children. Up there in the mountains, things happen. You just deal with it and go on from one moment to the next, because there's nobody who would make things right by you.
Sometimes, bands of armed men came and requested something. Maybe cook in your kitchen or sleep on your bed. Sometimes, too, men in uniform with guns came by, asking about those other armed men and whether you helped them go about their business.
It doesn't matter who come. They all have guns. You did what they asked, if you knew what's good for you. Maybe if you gave them what they wanted, they'd go away and leave you alone. If, God forbid, they got here together, their guns talked to each other and never mind if you're in the way.
Be careful what you say, lest they think you've taken sides. People end up dead because of a careless word, and who is to protect you? Armed men come and go, but they never stay. Meanwhile, life goes on from one precarious moment to the next.
Up there in places too insignificant to show up on the map, I sometimes do community work shoulder to shoulder with our men at arms. Every now and then, our work gets rudely interrupted by the security situation, especially when the village gets to be identified as benefiting from the resources of the AFP. Every now and then, I confront the frustration of the men in uniform at not being able to do more to serve the people there.
Every now and then, too, I ask myself if we are doing more harm than good when we try to level the playing field somewhat. Some people in transit up there do not want our highlanders to have more than the little they have right now. You see, if our upland communities improved, they can't point to the abject conditions of the masses as the raison d'être for their movement. The hinterlands are a battleground in more ways than one.
When bands of armed men meet up with our uniformed men up there, that is a legitimate encounter. When a nine-year-old girl gets in the way of the bullets flying, she ends up as collateral damage. We bury her and we move on. It happens too often that perhaps we have become inured to the tragedy of it. We sometimes forget to honor the little one's memory.
Worse, in death, those legitimized to protect her sometimes reject her. Why, you ask? Well, perhaps it's easier on their conscience to make themselves believe that she had gone over to the enemy and that she deserved to die? Certainly, it would look better on a tin soldier's war record if her death is chalked up as a legitimate kill rather than collateral damage. It doesn't speak well of a battle unit's effectiveness – or of its commander's – when the collateral damage mounts.
Our men have named the enemy. They know whom they are fighting. But perhaps sometimes our men need to be reminded who it is that they are fighting for.
Whenever I need to be away from my daughters, I bring a wallet-sized picture of them inserted between my cigarette pack and the clear plastic wrapped around it. The picture is to remind me of my girls and my duty to try and keep my patch of the world safe for them and their generation.
The picture on my cigarette pack becomes a talking point most times. The last time I took it out, I had Army officers telling me that they too had children. That was to say that they felt bad that a nine-year-old girl died at a legitimate encounter. They must have felt bad. She was after all a civilian that they had pledged to protect.
I would like to believe that when a soldier has nothing left to give in the service of nine-year-olds, he would give up his life. I, like countless civilians in this country, have immense respect for our men at arms. My respect is not misplaced, that's why I insist for the military to work to deserve it. This is to remind them to work to earn the trust and respect of six-year-old Garry, inasmuch as it is now too late to earn the same from his sister.
In death, as in life, a nine-year-old could not take sides. The decent thing to do is not to make a dead nine-year-old take sides. Please honor her in death if you haven't been able to honor her when she lived.
(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)