Once upon a time, in the early 2000s, I helped some local government units (LGUs) in Samar and Leyte provinces prepare their Land Use Plans or feasibility studies for various projects that at the time benefitted financial support from the national government.
One night-time in an upland barangay (Cabang, Hinabangan, Samar), I found myself being “interviewed” by three New People’s Army (NPA) combatants. I told them I was helping the LGU prepare its CLUP and needed to talk to people in the community. They said they knew what I was doing and they knew the dates when I was expected to be in a particular barangay. They further told me that they already saw me the day before, in another barangay. This surprised me because except for the field work activity plan I submitted to the LGU, it would have been fortuitous for anyone to know my itinerary.
(My impression from this and similar experiences is that, like the US and other superpowers that incite wars in wretched countries to boost their economy from sale of weapons, bloody clashes between the insurgents and government forces happen only because of miscommunication or mis-encounter, because one usually knew the whereabouts of the other. The impression was buttressed further by reports during the Arroyo administration that the military was selling ordnance to Muslim separatist and communist rebels.)
The NPA in Cabang made me understand that government forces were sending “spies” using various covers, and they wanted to check. They were heavily armed, and the language they used was equally heavy with hints of “or else” threat.
One of the three also tried to imply that as a government-paid “Consultant”, I was under obligation to pay tax. I dashed the notion quickly by “digressing” about how my calves hurt from the hike (3 hours over a distance of 11 kilometers), explaining further that I could not afford the habal-habal because I had yet to get paid.
I probably had no idea of how serious the matter of revolutionary taxation was. The next day on my way back to the Poblacion, I met people who could not hide their pale faces on hearing some of my small talk, and on knowing that I was alone. Some did sternly advise me not to be too daring.
The NPA also invited me to attend their meeting with the people in the barangay, which followed right after my interrogation. I obliged. I could not recall now if I acquiesced in to the invitation out of fear or curiosity, or both.
The NPA told the community members that “higher authorities” had imposed a policy that aimed to end the selling of logs cut from the forest areas of Hinabangan and the nearby town of Calbiga. The vehement and almost violent reaction from the people stunned me (quite literally: one community member grabbed the mike from the moderator, who was one of the three NPAs). If the NPA is a terrorist organization, as some believe it is, why are these barangay folks terrorizing them (albeit in a dialogue setting)?
At that time, close to 70 percent of income by households in Cabang and at least three neighboring barangays was derived from timber-based (mostly semi-processed) products. “If indeed your mission is to promote the welfare of the poor, why are you taking our livelihood from us?” a middle-aged woman angrily asked.
The meeting ended with the NPA advising the people to raise their concerns with “higher authorities.”
A couple of years later I joined another government project that engaged communities in all stages of a development process–from discussions on common problems, identification of solutions, to implementation of projects until their successful operation and maintenance.
Together with members of a team, I again had the opportunity of visiting hard-to-reach barangays, such as those in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, and Sta. Rita, Western Samar. In Maybunga and Guinmaayohan, upland barangays of Balangiga, I described in an earlier post snippets of how people in these areas live:
“Hiking and a motorcycle ride brought one from Maybunga to Poblacion, and back. While families were relatively self-sufficient in food, they needed salt, kerosene, soap and other “luxuries” in life. To earn cash and meet those needs, they sold the usual farm crops (banana, cassava, camote, etc.) at the Poblacion. For every 150 pesos worth of deliveries, they spent 100 pesos on the motorcycle ride. For the uninitiated, the more taxing part was actually the hike on a mountainous terrain from Maybunga to Guinmaayohan, the next downstream barangay, and from where they took the motorcycle ride to the Poblacion. They could offer me 5,000 pesos to take the trek with a sack of gabi on my back, and I would refuse it on the spot.
“Maybunga used to be a thriving community. Before being down to 35 in 2003, the barangay consisted of at least 250 families in the early 1980s. Military abuses during martial law, and the conditions they created that gave rise to insurgency, led to deadly clashes that prompted massive displacement in the countryside. At one time the population of interior municipalities in Samar decreased by some 90 percent.
“In 1984, military and rebel forces clashed in Maybunga, forcing its residents to flee for safety. Many of them found refuge as internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the municipal building. For years Maybunga had zero population. In 2003, some of its barangay officials still had their official residences in Guinmaayohan.
“Having lived in Balangiga for a few years, I learned that some of its IDPs during the Martial Law years eventually resettled in Tacloban City. Others went to Cebu and Manila. Today, I find it hard not to think of the IDPs when I see slum areas–and of people living under bridges and in the streets–in the big cities.
“Most of the Yolanda casualties in Tacloban lived close to the sea. These locations are often described as high risk areas, but for the IDPs and their kind there are hardly any other place where they can afford to improvise and settle in. A recent United Nations study says that violence, conflict, natural hazards and poverty are the key drivers of displacement to and within urban areas.
“Many of those who survived Yolanda have actually been IDPs for the second time. First as victims of armed conflict and poverty, as migrants from Maybunga would show. Second as victim of a climatic disaster that was as thorough in its devastation as Yolanda.”
The Punong Barangay in Guinmaayohan at the time was Mana Maureen Escalo. I remember the times she showed us pieces of crumbled paper in which “friendly” reminders from the NPA were written. We were implementing government projects (in large part funded by a World Bank loan) and the insurgents were asking for their share. There was no way Mana Maureen could grant such requests, but she and other barangay officials remained in speaking terms with the NPA.
Then and now, especially in poor villages like Guinmaayohan and elsewhere, every effort by parents to send their children to school invariably assumes heroic proportions. One of Mana Maureen’s sons, Jessie Escalo, was at the time studying Criminology in one of Tacloban City’s private colleges, with an eye of becoming a policeman someday. I did not know that younger siblings would follow him.
And so one can imagine how proud the parents of Jessie Escalo and Julie Escalo could be, seeing them overcome huge humps to eventually succeed and become full-pledged law enforcers.
But PO1 Julie Escalo did not live long enough to show even greater success in his chosen field. He was barely starting to build a family of his own; it was beyond belief that his life, along with those of 6 fellow troopers, could end this way too soon. This fine son of Guinmaayohan perished in a freaky encounter with fellow government forces in Sta. Rita, Samar, on 25 June 2018.
The military mistook Julie and his band of brothers for the NPA whose kind once called on his mother for a cup of coffee.