The War inside My Head

By Virgilio R. Nabua III

(This essay is a finalist in the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

We forget most of the memories from our toddlerhood. It’s up to people who were there with us to share little pieces of our lives when we still sought our mother’s breast for us to sleep. Growing up, I heard a lot of stories from my relatives and neighbors about how mischievous I was—how I always cried when my mother wouldn’t let me eat fresh bananas, how one time I slipped on the floor and almost cracked my head open, and how I spent almost a week in the hospital, making my parents worry about the bill.

Of all the stories people told about me, the most significant one yet was this: when I was one year old and we were living in Kiamba, my mother, our old babysitter, and I hid in the basement of our old house because of the gunshots heard around our barangay. Later, I learned that our area was actually a route for rebels to move to some other camp.

I was eavesdropping on my mother and my old babysitter when they reminisced this shared haunting experience. Even after I heard about it, I never really spent exhaustive thoughts on it. But now, with the recent conflicts here in Mindanao, I remember the retelling of that specific but vague excerpt from my childhood, and I think about it a lot.

It was on the 23rd of May, summer of ’17, after my family had moved to Glan, when I woke up to my mom and our neighbors’ muffled gossip. As I adjusted to the noise, I heard them talk about the Marawi citizens and their encounter with terrorists.

Even though our house is on an elevated area, we still have no access to the internet. I still have to walk down to the foot of the hill to at least get a glimpse of what is truly happening outside Glan. Because I live in a generation where everyone is right and Facebook likes are the measurement of self-worth and value, every article I saw was blurry or straight up false statements, each article different from the others. Confused and disappointed, I went home still anxious. I waited for the daily evening news, and as expected, the headlines were almost about the war in Marawi.

I found out that the government forces clashed with the Maute and the Abu Sayyaf. With growing fear crawling through my veins, I tried to imagine the worst. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine the possibility of me being held captive. I couldn’t help to be scared, probably because I was still processing the fact that an actual war was happening in a nearby place, on the same land I was standing on.

The next morning, I received bad news: First, SarBay was canceled, and second, martial law was declared. Due to the recent encounter in Marawi, the Sarangani Bay Festival organizing committee decided that it was unsafe for people to travel to my hometown. Furthermore, adding to a list of negative consequences due to the war in Marawi, Duterte declared martial law all over Mindanao, which caused a lot of commotion in social media.

People brought back the Marcos regime and how it affected the country afterward. I made it my obligation to educate myself by searching archives and articles about Martial Law, back when Marcos was still the president. I remembered reading an article once about a human rights worker who was arrested in Davao and was sexually abused and now suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome and paranoia from her ordeal. With these threats possibly coming back to Mindanao, a lot of activists and human rights advocates were enraged by the decision of the present president.

Days after the war in Marawi started, things quickly shifted back to normal. People went back to their usual routines—elders buying vegetables in the market, teenagers posing at the beach thinking of how many likes they would get, old men gambling. It looked as though they had forgotten that there were people being killed in Marawi and there were people who were probably going to be killed and tortured because of the declaration of martial law.

With this environment, I started being less scared, and I told myself that I would survive this. It didn’t really take long to persuade myself, because if I based what would happen the next day on how people behaved in Glan, it was going to be another normal day.

I was right. Even after martial law was imposed in Mindanao, it still felt like a normal day. We were back to school, and everything felt fine. There was a curfew for those who were below eighteen only, as if terrorists passed by older people and were only interested in children, or the government just wanted to offer the terrorists the decaying souls of middle-aged men drinking beer at night at neighborhood stores.

The curfew only lasted for two weeks, though. The cops in charge probably became tired of driving around town on the same empty streets: The baywalk, which was filled with singing, which almost sounded like shrieks for help, from a karaoke bar nearby. The town plaza, which has a monument of José Rizal, one hand on his chest, another on his side, holding a rolled piece of paper. The town market, abandoned at night with the exception of a homeless person who slept in the public market. The Christian church in front of our high school, its walls covered in moss due. Those were the places where the cops usually went, not finding any minors. Young people in Glan were smart. They drank beer in the cemetery to avoid being caught and sleeping in a cell.

There were also checkpoints. Sometimes, whenever the police officers felt good, they would check the cars passing by their posts. But sometimes they were lazy, and I would feel thankful to them because I would not be late in class and I would not miss dinner at home.

The nonchalance with the war in Marawi and the martial law was appalling. It seemed as though most of the people in Glan had forgotten that the conflict still existed and, because of that conflict, many people had ceased to exist. While we were living in peace, killings were happening outside Glan.

Many activists continued fighting for human rights and calling for Duterte to step down from his post. The topic of the war in Marawi eventually shifted to the issue of Duterte’s competence as a leader. The actual victims of the siege were being talked about less and less. People talked more and more about the war between the Duterte and Aquino administrations. Activists in Luzon went to rallies and waged a war against the people who supported the president, some of them saying, “I live in Mindanao, and even with martial law enforced, we still live peacefully.” It wasn’t just a war in Marawi anymore. It had become a war within the Philippines.

History has shown that Martial Law was ineffective and inhumane. Marcos claimed that its main purpose was to quell the rising wave of violence caused by rebellions, but thousands of Filipinos were murdered, tortured, and disappeared in the fourteen years that it was imposed. But just because it happened before doesn’t mean that it will happen now. I think martial law isn’t the answer, but I’m grateful that so far, there have been so much less tortures, murders, or sexual assaults recorded since Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. The only thing that makes me melancholic is that even after the Marawi siege was over, people still engage in bitter arguments about what went wrong.

Even though I was not physically affected by the war, a different war started to shape inside my head: Should I feel grateful that I’m still alive? Should I feel sad that I am still alive while others are dying? Should I feel angry with the actions of the people around me, or should I mope because I know deep down inside me that I am one of those people? The war in my head was slowly reaching its reckoning, and when I was able to find the answers I was looking for, it enlightened me.

Looking back, the war in Marawi affected me in a lot of ways. Firstly, it affected and changed how I see other people, how they work when their lives are in danger. They repent, of course, but they still go back to the way they were when the danger subsides. It also changed how I see the world. Something sparked within me that made me want to scream out of frustration, out of anger, towards how people act without thinking critically.

The war in Marawi divided the country. The division made the war more tragic because it was a time to be united but politicians and their followers took advantage of the situation and make it about themselves.

The conflict has affected my own personal improvement and growth. It made me realize that I am not a bad person. I am empathetic, and I am human. It made me realize how fortunate I am to be alive and to be safe with my parents. At the same time, it made me realize that terrorism is real and it’s not just something people do at their leisure—it also shapes the values and the future of a country.

The conflict made me realize that I shouldn’t take my life for granted because anyone can be a victim of terrorism any day. It makes me sad because we are still not safe from terrorism and the government does nothing to prevent wars. It only limits the casualties. It made me think—to be informed and to cure my ignorance. It made a huge difference in my political beliefs, which I believe I can use when my voice is heard by a lot more people. Now my voice is much clearer.