I was going to a wake. I wasn't expected, but I had to go and pay respect. I was a day late. Would that matter to someone already dead?
I never did get to know her. She was just a little girl from Nowhere, Philippines until she landed on the front page of last Sunday's newspaper. I would have missed reading about her had I had the time to cook at home. But there we were at a restaurant and the dinner we ordered was late in coming. I picked up the paper before anybody could use it to wrap galunggong.
The article did not dignify her passing enough to formally spell out her name. No pictures either. For all intents and purposes, she was identified as a 12-year-old NPA child soldier, now dead, killed in an encounter in New Bataan, Comval on Saturday morning.
Child soldier? Yes, I'm well aware that there are children who belong to that category. But how exactly does one get to be categorically identified as a child soldier? Was to be known for posterity as an NPA child soldier a fitting epitaph to the memory of a little girl from Nowhere, Philippines? Was she, indeed, an NPA child soldier? How did the people who landed her on the front page get to be very sure of her rightful category?
Who was she, really? Evidently, she was a girl from Nowhere, Philippines. She probably had not known the import of front page stories, much less had known in life how to go about refuting being bruited about in death as an enemy of the state. She was dead.
She was twelve.
Twelve is too early to die.
Twelve is too young to be used as an unwitting pawn in the propaganda wars that played out on the front pages of the papers that this girl, had she lived, would probably never get to see. Jesus. I have two hands, the Left and the Right, hold them up high. Bang. You're dead.
I completely forgot dinner.
"Ngano nahilak ka?," (Why are you crying?) asked the voice of concern.
Because she was twelve.
"You can't make everything right for everyone. People who think they can turn rebels," the virtual voice persists.
I can grieve. We all need someone to grieve for us when we die.
Coming to work Monday morning, the radio on the taxi aired an interview with the girl's uncle. She was not twelve, he averred. She was all of nine.
Unbidden, the bile rose up from my non-existent gallbladder. Weakly, I held on to the back of the front seat, head down, willing myself to breathe in slow through my nose. The world turned around and around in lazy circles. It felt like a long time before it righted itself. Nine. Nein. Bitte, nein.
I had to see her.
My editor, Carol Arguillas, felt the same way. Lucky for me, Carol missed catching the story early on account of her losing her cellphone, else had she known she would have chased after it earlier. Carol and I made arrangements to go together.
The very same people who caused my interest by calling her an NPA child soldier eased our transit to her. LTC Rolly Bautista, CMO of 10ID, got me in touch with Maj. Joel Cabauatan, CMO of 1001 st IB, the unit that had the sitio within its ambit of operation. Maj. Cabauatan briefed his commanding general, the amiable Charlie Holganza, who in turn was kind enough to receive us at his Tactical Command Post on field in New Bataan and provide the information we sought.
As the practicing journalist, most of that information-seeking was Carol's domain. As an interested civilian, I really had only one question for my protectors: What is the AFP's protocol for categorizing a child casualty as an NPA child soldier?
I never did get a satisfactory answer. No blow-by-blow explication of the sequence that informs me a thorough and careful review of the girl's short life was made before that public pronouncement about her person was issued, to be eagerly bannered by the front page.
Did she train? Where? What did she learn? What did she do?
No, I'm sorry, there's no solid proof that says the subversive documents and firearms found in her house were her personal possessions or that she used it for the purposes not in keeping with good citizenship.
I'm sorry, but again no, I really don't care if the AFP has a million videos showing children being trained to dismantle M16s in NPA camps. I am asking about this particular child. You got a video of her training? Witness, then? No?
What our men have is a picture of her, sprawled flat on her face, the back of her little head blown off. There indeed is a loaded armalite easily within reach of her left hand, but to get that where it lay, she should have flung it over her head. Ever tried throwing a 10-lb dumbbell over your head? You probably need both hands, right? Well, let's see- you're 45 inches tall and you weigh 50 pounds. Let me see you lob an unwieldy 14.3-pounder M16 over your head. Yeah, okay, pick a hand.
At 39 inches, the rifle is about as tall as the girl. With live ammunition flying around, I really can't see her carting a long-barreled, 6.5-kilo M16 on the left hand and something small and bright green on the right hand to scramble up the incline and cross five meters of open space from the trail to the yard. It would have made sense for her to have literally dropped everything and run for her life. When you're scrambling up a 10-meter slippery mountain trail with a 75-degree incline, I would think that you would need both hands, especially when the bullets are flying.
If you were right-handed – as she was – which object would you hold with your right hand: an M16 or a pocketbook-size green plastic something? It saddens me to see her clutching in death what BGen. Holganza said was a green-backed mirror she took to the creek ten meters down where his men had seen her holding a gun. The picture shows she was clutching the green thing in her right hand. Her right elbow was smashed by a bullet. What would that hand have done when the bullet hit? How could she possibly clutch anything convulsively with her right hand tight enough to clutch it to the death?
You can argue that with me, if you want. Extreme stress situation, fine motor skills, the startle reflex – look them up and work out what doesn't add up. Because I really don't want to have to talk about it. Talking to our subdued soldiers at the TCP yesterday, I could see that none of them was happy about the girl's fate. It wouldn't have been the easiest job in the world to be the one to find her as the smoke cleared.
So who was she?
Her name was Grecil S. Buya. Her birth certificate says she was born on October 13, 1997. She was a Grade Two student at Simsimen Elementary School , Bgy. Kahayag, New Bataan. She lived in a one-bedroom shack in a mountain clearing. Everyday, she crossed the open yard to walk down the mountain trail for a bath in the creek. Most times her 6-year-old brother joined her.
She lived with her mother, Virginia Buya and her father, Gregorio Galacio, and her siblings. She was eldest. Three others came after her. Her parents still could not afford to get married, but they loved her very much.
Every morning in the last schoolyear, she set off at 6:30 and trudged three kilometers to get to school. She'd come home at around 5:30 to help her mother cook dinner. She earned three merit ribbons when school closed a couple of weeks ago. She wanted to be a doctor, but was willing to be a nurse instead.
Well, she did get to wear white after all.
She died three meters from her kitchen door.
May your soul know God's peace, little one.
(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.)