ZAPANTA VALLEY, Kitcharao, Agusan del Norte (MindaNews/23 June) – Mamanwa “bakwits,” or internally displaced persons, returned to their homes in this hinterland part of Kitcharao, Agusan del Norte last Wednesday, with all the hope that government troops and communist rebels stop making their place their battleground.
Three weeks after staying in makeshift tents in Surigao City, the natives rode home towards Sitio Zapanta in Barangay Bangayan, Zapanta Valley aboard dump trucks, accompanied by cause-oriented groups that helped them flee the area when fighting between the Army and New People People’s Army (NPA) broke out.
This place is so remote it takes about three hours of walking or more than an hour by habalhabal, a motorcycle with an extended seat to accommodate more passengers, from the town center Kitcharao. The road is terribly bad that often, the habalhabal would break down before reaching its destination.
Ronnie Maayo, 22, said he was happy because he can now have his normal life back.
Maayo was among 147 individuals belonging to 37 families who initially took shelter in the barangay hall of Bangayan last May 26. They stayed there for almost a week, then proceeded to Surigao City for another two weeks, staying at an evacuation center in Sitio Bacud, Barangay Luna.
Maayo said he couldn’t find a perfect place other than his birthplace in Zapanta Valley.
“It is serene here, cool and the soil is rich. Our river is clean with abundant fish,” he told MindaNews in the vernacular.
Maayo and his family rely on farming and wood gathering as their primary livelihood. He plants rice, root crops and vegetables to support the family. He gathers wood and sell these to small saw mills in the area.
Maayo conceded that life was difficult in the mountain but that is the way they live. “This is life here. It may be hard, but in the long run, you’ll get used to it,” he said.
For him, living a spartan life is much better than staying in an evacuation center, which he said is like being in jail. “You have nothing to do there, just eat and sleep. And it’s hot in there because we’re like canned sardines,” Maayo said.
Flores C. Matias, 26, a mother of two boys, also went home to neighboring Sitio Ansili. For her, coming back to the village is a way of restarting life again.
Matias said their place has seen various skirmishes between government forces and the NPA. Until a few weeks ago, the last firefight occurred in 2009. It was her first experience as a bakwit.
Flores who hails from San Luis town in Agusan del Sur, is a member of the Manobo tribe, who married a “Bisaya,” the term the lumads use to describe Cebuano-speaking non-members of the tribe, from Barangay Bangayan. She and her husband have decided to settle in this place because he has relatives here.
Most residents here say that the military routinely accuse them of being supporters of the NPA. But they deny the accusation, insisting they are just civilians caught in the vortex of violence between the two sides.
But one resident here said some of their neighbors are sympathetic to the NPA, though he denied knowledge of any coercion by the rebel group among the residents.
“It’s up to you if you offer something. But I never heard of anyone who was harmed for not cooperating with their cause,” he said.
This placed used to be one of the booming areas in Agusan del Norte way back in ’70s and ’80s because of the presence of a logging firm, Liberty.
But now the place is back to its old self – a sleepy farming village – after Liberty’s closure in early ’90s.
Bento Tal-ang, 52, a Mamanwa who used to work for Liberty as surveyor, said residents have nowhere to turn to but their lands.
But he emphasized that tilling land becomes difficult when rebels and government forces descend on them, disrupting their farming and consequently, incur damage on their crops.
But Datu Rolando “Maribuhok” Anlagan, leader of the Mamanwa tribe in the area, said they just have to make both ends meet now that they’re home, and cross their fingers that the possibility of renewed fighting would never happen again. (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)