It was the hottest time of day inside a rickety bus last April that I think I fell in love with Visayas. My skin was dark and burnt, having spent the last four days on polar ends of Cebu, and my forehead was dripping wet with sweat as we made our way from the Remegio Port back to Mactan.
The five-hour ride was excruciating for the body. My legs, shoulder and back were all sore, and I could not catch a sleep due to the heat. Keeping awake was the best thing I did, it turned out. Because Cebu is strikingly beautiful that to miss watching it for five hours would be to miss so much. You would be driving by a glistening ocean the first hour, and swaying through mountainous roads the next. The open green fields are a delight, and no matter how many snaps you make on your smartphone, the feeling would never be captured. It was love, I have decided.
The Story of Haiyan
I spent only a day in Bantayan Island in the northern part of Cebu, but a day was enough to appreciate something that I would later realize was true for all Visayans — that the people are kind, if not the kindest. Bantayan Island was where Super Typhoon Haiyan made its fourth landfall on that fateful November day in 2013. The recovery of the island since then has been significant, and what I have noticed is that they refuse to make tragedy a main plot in their narrative. Tragedies come and go for the people of Bantayan Island, but their resolve remains the same: to continue to live in peace, happiness and abundance.
Of course it is an entirely different story when you cross over to Tacloban City, Leyte, where Haiyan or Yolanda is a nightmare nobody could seem to wake up from. I saw Tacloban days after Yolanda struck. I saw the desperation and the loss of hope. I came back again on Yolanda’s anniversary, and saw the same desperation and loss of hope. I wondered, where do the people here get the will to go on?
I met a father who was still living in a shanty beside the rusting shipwreck that killed his wife and children. I met a wife grieving on the coffin of her husband on a stilt platform in a no-build zone where they continue to seek shelter, a year after Yolanda. I thought that I could never go back to Tacloban without feeling a stinging pain inside my chest.
But I owe it to Tacloban to try.
Last May, upon descending from our vehicle and seeing the Coca-Cola can that is now iconic in my mind, I thought I was going to cry. But I held it in because I felt that Taclobanons deserved so much more than pity.
My friends and I walked around town for a couple of hours. We strolled around the Church and took on the breezy uphill walk to the city hall, then we came back to feast on the street food before going on the search for the best Lechon. It was the most fun I’ve had in all my visits to Tacloban but it was still an emotional time because you just know that everybody you encounter in the city knew somebody who died that day in November 2013.
That even after nearly two years, the tragic story is still fresh and that it’s something that they will carry for the rest of their lives. And I will never understand the courage that it takes to continue to smile despite that.
That trip is very special because before going to Tacloban, I spent two days in Limasawa Island in Southern Leyte where I met teachers and missionaries who have dedicated their lives to educating children. Men of the islands were fishermen, while the women struggled to get jobs. Theirs is a sixth-class municipality that grapples with the lack of opportunity, resources and sometimes, social service. As in any poor town, education is seen as the saving grace.
And so an adventist missionary named Manny Janoyan has made it his mission to strive to educate children. He spends most of the year in the island apart from his family, and there are months he does not receive salary. But he does it because it’s what Visayans do. They help each other. They help everyone.
Ephraim Arriesgado was with us in Limasawa. He is a travel blogger from Ormoc City and like Manny, an adventist missionary who takes to heart the meaning of compassion and goodwill. He welcomed us to his home in Ormoc because we had nowhere to stay for the night. He showed us Lake Danao and on that day, with him and his fellow Visayans and my companions from Manila who I was meeting all for the first time, I learned that maybe this is what it means to be a Filipino. To always extend a helping hand. To think of others all the time.
I am a proud daughter of Luzon. I was born and raised in Tarlac but has spent the last 10 years of my life in Manila. But when you ask me to tell the best stories of the Filipino, I would immediately think of my time in Visayas.
I would think of the time when I was 20 years old and learned patriotism from two teachers in Bohol who had given up their careers in New York to educate children in a rural town in Jagna. I would think of Charlie and Bienvenida Villacorta from Guiuan, Eastern Samar and their son Crisanto who expressed nothing but positivity when they saw their new coco lumber house after a year of living inside a tent. Bienvenida calls it their mansion and her and Crisanto planned their decorations as if it was a spacious cemented house.
In Visayas, I saw optimism, I saw aspiration and I saw people who thrived.
The Story of Mindanao
The context changes a little bit in Mindanao. The region has been afflicted by armed struggle for decades, and on all fronts too, the moro struggle and the communist movement. The first time I set foot on Mindanao, it was to cover war. I was sent on the second week of the MNLF’s occupation of parts of Zamboanga City. The Zamboanga siege was just one of the many war stories that the media sought in Mindanao.
Two years later I would meet Zambaongeños who complained that they were, once again, painted by the media as a war-stricken city. Theirs is a city of colorful vintas and colorful traditional cloth, of delicious food, of sophisticated Chavacano language, of pinks sands and clear beaches, and of articulate people who would not think twice of calling out a Manileña for having the wrong perception.
We had to cover war and conflict; we had to. But is it really all there was to cover? Is war really the only story of Mindanao? How about the Davao region, the best performing economy in the entire country in 2014? In a national economy touted by experts as one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, Davao Region was the strongest force. According to data from the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), Davao region’s economy grew by 9.4% last year, better than all other regions in the Philippines, and faster than the national average of 6.1%.
Poverty in the South
But that of course is lost in the conversation whenever we say that Mindanao is a poor region. Statistically, it is true. Ten of the poorest provinces in the country are in Mindanao: Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Zamboanga del Norte, Saranggani, North Cotabato, Bukidnon, Camiguin, Sultan Kudarat and Sulu.
The general explanation for this is because of conflict. The resources are untapped, investors cannot come in and a lot of social services could not be established because of the hostilities. In Agusan del Sur I met tribes people in a rural community who were only beginning to earn from an alternative livelihood using coconut husks. Before that they had nothing. The government’s 4P program could have helped, except they weren’t beneficiaries because they weren’t surveyed.
They told me in a hurt tone: Marami kaming kakilala sa ibaba, titser pero 4P, may asawang sundalo, pero 4P, kami rito na walang wala, hindi kami 4P. (We know of people in town who are under 4P, a teacher under 4P, someone whose husband is with the Army under 4P, we have nothing here, and we’re not under 4P.)
4P stands for “Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program,” the government’s cash transfer program for the poorest families. Anomalies have recently hounded the 4P program when the Commission on Audit (COA) found out that there were beneficiaries ineligible for the program.
I was in the Caraga region to touch base with the Lumads of Surigao del Sur who evacuated to Tandag City after three of their leaders were killed by armed men in their community up the mountains of Lianga. I went there because it haunted me not knowing how they are, and not being able to listen to their stories.
Their story is a little complicated. It involves mining, it involves the fight for ancestral domain, it involves tribal war, it involves the New People’s Army (NPA) and it involves the military’s anti-insurgency campaign. There are a lot of nuances in the tragic narrative and I would have to go back a thousand times more to really understand.
What is not complicated, however, is this: three people were killed by men who still roam free. What is not complicated is that close to 3,000 people have been living in tents for a month. What is not complicated is that students have not been able to go to school for a month. What is not complicated is that people have been getting sick, a four year old girl died due to fatigue, mothers have given birth to their children in that condition, and the infants are now being raised in cement bleachers that get so hot during the day and cold during the night.
What is not complicated is that a girl named Dahlia has quit college to volunteer as a health worker in the evacuation center, working 24-hour shifts everyday because according to her, “minsan lang pumunta ang DOH dito tapos hindi rin sila 24 hours. Walang tigil ang mga pasyente dito.” (DOH personnel does not come often and if they do, they do not stay for 24 hours. Patients here come non-stop.)
But ask around in Manila and the rest of Luzon. How many people know of this ongoing crisis in Surigao del Sur? On the three-hour trek to the mountain of Lianga I thought hard and long why we are so detached to the plight and successes of our own people in that side of the country.
The Battle for Peace
Why, I wondered, when we speak of Mindanao, we only speak of the Moro struggle when only 20% of Mindanao are Muslims? (Source: Philippine Statistics Authority, 2005)
And why, when we speak of the Moro struggle, do we fixate on the later time in history when our muslims brothers have taken arms? There is a need to broaden the conversation to include the history of the moro struggle. We are taught of our heroes who fought the Spaniards and then the Americans to give us freedom. But nobody ever highlights the fact that when we gained independence, the Muslims became minority in their own home. And nobody ever really talks about their right to self-determination.
And when we speak of the moro struggle, we speak of nothing but the kidnappings and beheadings by bandits, but we don’t speak of the 1968 Jabidah Massacre where dozens of Moro fighters were found in Corregidor tied and burned to their death, with bones and flesh lying on the ground like tattered remnants of a battle doomed to fail.
But they did not fail. There is now the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a product of decades-long peace negotiations that is expected not only to put an end to conflict, but to also free the region from the shackles of poverty. But when you speak of BBL, there will always be people — most of them from Luzon — who will cry out for an all-out war, who will proclaim that it’s better to just drop bombs on Mindanao and cleanse our country off of rebels.
I wish we could cleanse our country off of this disgusting hatred and ignorance.
I met a social worker in Butuan City who engaged me in a long, deep conversation about Mindanao. She told me stories of struggles of her people, of the difficulty to farm when it’s the dry season, and of the difficulty to empower communities that there are a lot of things they could do for themselves. And that these efforts could be further improved only if there was better national attention.
She looked at me softly, as if apologizing for what she was going to say next: Araw-araw niyong headline ang traffic sa Maynila, ‘e ang mga tao rito minsan wala nang makain. (Manila traffic is always your headline, when people here sometimes do not have anything to eat.)
What was I supposed to say except ‘sorry.’ But what is my ‘sorry’ good for? I salute each and every person I met in Mindanao who are stepping up for their communities. And I salute the communities who are determined to improve their lives: the Lumads who continue to fight for their right to their ancestral domain, the farmers and the fishermen who are breaking their backs everyday to put food on their table, and our muslim brothers and sisters who are unwavering in their resolve to bring peace to their home.
My collective experience from Visayas and Mindanao and the people I met along the way have deepened my appreciation for this country that I say I love so much. I love the Philippines even better now because I have seen how Visayans and Mindanaoans love this country, and I have seen how fervently they have fought for their home and their people and I can only hope that someday I may find the same courage and devotion. So one day I can also call the Philippines my own as rightly and as worthy as them.
Ang mga nakaila nako sa Visayas at Mindanao pinaka-maayong tao sa akong kinabuhi. Salamat. Nalipay Ko.
[Entry 99, The SubSelfie Blog]
Author’s Note: As of posting, two unidentified men reportedly attacked a Lumad evacuee in Haran, Davao City. The Philippine Collegian reports it was a foiled murder attempt. Close to 700 Lumads have been staying with a Protestant Church since June after escaping the alleged militarization of their community. This comes two days after Lumad houses were burned in Kitao-Tao Bukidnon, and a week after a Lumad was killed in Agusan del Sur. It is precisely because of injustices like this, injustices that go unnoticed that I wrote this essay about Visayas and Mindanao. SubSelfie.com will continue to tell their stories until more people start to listen.
About the Author:
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.