Twenty-three-year-old Merila Lukina is seated among boxes and plastic bags inside her makeshift tent at the camping grounds of the College of Human Kinetics, UP Diliman. She is one of the hundreds of lumad from various points of Mindanao who trooped to Manila for Manilakbayan—with the aim of airing their grievances to the people here.
The Alabel, Sarangani native left her two young children in the care of her husband. It’s a big sacrifice that she feels she must make, if only to tell her individual story and the lumad’s collective story of oppression and silence. It’s the story of their lives, but we here in the capital don’t know about it, nor care to listen to it, just because it seems so far removed from us.
We have probably heard of the killings and the resulting fear and evacuation among the lumad people of Surigao del Sur. A few of us are aware that the same thing is happening in many other places in Mindanao, in different degrees, and most of these instances are not even reported.
For example, Merila’s community in Alabel—a two-day walk from the center—was bombed eight times in March this year. She says the military has been accusing them, members of the B’laan tribe, of being members of the New People’s Army. Out of fear for their lives, Merila, her family and many B’laan gathered their belongings and stayed at the premises of the United Church of Christ in General Santos City.
“There were 441 individuals inside the church,” Merila narrates, in halting Tagalog and in her soft voice. She is apologetic that she could not communicate better. Her children fell ill during their evacuation and after more than a month, she was thankful when other members of their tribe advised them that it was safe to return home.
Home was a humble farming community, where they planted bananas, camote, corn and coffee. The people built their own school to educate their own young, because they were hardly within reach of formal education channels. Merila’s sister, Judet, was a volunteer teacher. Her own four-year-old daughter was in pre-school.
Even then, the military pursued them. When they harvested their produce, they were accused of giving it to the rebels. Charges of kidnapping, murder and other crimes are made on their menfolk indiscriminately. Her own brother is one of the many facing pursuit—in his fear, he is hiding. There is a case against her 26-year-old husband, too. “But he is a brave man,” she says. “he is not hiding. He is at home taking care of our children.”
Her only wish, Merila says, is for her and other lumad to stop living like this. They want a quiet life—maybe not one in luxury, but one without fear.
One would think she would want a more lucrative future for her children. A college degree, perhaps, or a high-paying job in the city when all this is over. But no, Merila’s dreams are as simple as they are noble. “I wish they would be in a position to serve the needy. They should help the people when they grow up.”
Wrapping up the interview, I asked if I could take her picture. She obliged and smiled shyly, and I was careful to take a shot that was not against the light—the sun was fierce that late morning, scorching everything outside the roof of the tent.
“May I have a copy of the picture?” she asked.
For a moment I wondered how I could tell Merila that I had no intention of producing a hard copy of her photo, taken using my cell phone. But why not? I relented. I could have it printed on photo paper and send it to her community via courier or even snail mail.
I asked her to write her address on my notebook, at which point she froze, and shoved the pen and paper back to my hands. I scanned her eyes and thought I saw something like fear or doubt or worry.