Fear Takes a Back Seat

By Ma. Isabelle Alessandra M. Mirabueno

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

How far do the lives of Mindanaoan civilians lie outside of over-exaggerated social stereotypes? Growing up in General Santos City, I would travel beyond the city perimeters and witness how, in reality, this really depends on where people lie on the broad spectrum of economic status and security. In my case, there’s a fortunate scarcity of bullet shells and bomb explosions. Of course, the life of a resident in Mindanao isn’t complete without getting used to the rumors of bomb threats going around every few months and the red alerts here and there. How we are able to live with these so-called norms—a sad observation—speaks that we all have our own stories to tell, some more tragic or peculiar than others.

I still remember it, clear as day. It was a normal school day in the year 2015, the year when the move to formally approve and implement the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was under heavy political debate. I recall the confusion and curiosity when all of the ongoing classes were put on hold and the entire junior high school population was abruptly called for an assembly in the covered court. My schoolmates and I figured that it would be some kind of drill or important school announcement, but then the introductions commenced and we found out that we were all called out for an orientation and seminar of sorts to be conducted by several representatives of a pro-BBL organization.

I was an eighth grader, but I was already aware of how controversial and sensitive the issue was at the time. Due to this, I was impressed by the school administrators’ open-mindedness when they agreed to hold the event, especially since we were in a typical “conservative Catholic institution.” The speakers were really competent in what they were doing since they managed to sway and gain the approval of the majority of the students inside the court. They managed to explain and explore in simple terms the details of the then-proposal in a way that did not, by some miracle, drive us restless teenagers to boredom. It was a rare sight; the high school students were intently listening, and many were actually participating by asking questions, driven by their curiosity.

Wala naman akong nakikita na masamang madadala o resulta ng batas na ito. Bakit hindi pa ito ipinapatupad?” (I don’t see any disadvantages that may result from this law, so why is the government hesitating to approve and implement it?) was the innocent query of a tenth grader to the speaker. The speakers obviously failed to touch the area of possible disadvantages that the law would bring. I hid a smile because I knew it just wasn’t that simple. It would never be that simple. The entire beginning process would be far from the utopia that the speakers painted inside our heads. The speaker responded in a lengthy and passionate lecture that supported the student’s inquiry. It was all noteworthy, and the teachers were nodding in approval; however, I was taken aback by one line that stuck with me, one that until now would still occasionally reverberate inside my mind.

Kung hindi maipapatupad ang batas na ito, gusto ni’yo ba na magkagulo na rin dito sa Gensan? Lalo na ang BIFF, hindi yan sila papayag. Barilan, mga patayan. Isipin ni’yo na itong malaking covered court ninyo, maaaring mapuno ito ng mga biktima na nawalan ng bahay at pamilya galing sa pag-atake ng BIFF” (If the law is not approved, do you want Gensan to become a war zone? Especially the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, they will not respond well to rejection. Gunfights, bloodshed. Imagine this spacious covered court of yours being turned into a makeshift evacuation center for victims who lost their homes and families from BIFF attacks) was what the speaker said with finality. I remember the shift of my relaxed attention toward the spokesman into one of surprise and disbelief. Was that an indirect threat? I remember asking myself. Honestly, I might have been overreacting, but it definitely felt like one.

We walked back to our classrooms after the seminar, and I kept wondering how the speakers were able to get away with literally using fear and imageries of inevitable doom in their speech to further convince the students—students who were all minors and easily influenced no less. Not that it was anything new; we were all used to the possibilities of terrorist attacks that could happen any minute upon the slightest fluctuation on the quality of security. I took a look around my classmates, and I could see that I was not the only one who felt uneasy because of that statement. Even if you try looking at it in different angles, it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t right.

The infamous generations-long conflict in Mindanao all affected us one way or another, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones. As I sat down back in my seat, I was left reflecting how, as a child several years before, every news story was like some sort of morbid fairy tale that happened outside of the safe, sheltered bubble that I lived in. Reality hit me at some point of course, and it was when a member of my family faced a risk due to his commitment to his occupation.

My father is a specialized surgeon, one of the few in his field in Mindanao. This is why while growing up, I was used to my father going out for emergency operations at even the most ungodly hours. However, one case stood out. It happened on an otherwise normal evening. My father drove us home earlier in the night than usual after a family gathering and, after a series of phone calls, proceeded to prepare to leave. I didn’t bother to ask at first because I thought it was just one of his late-night scheduled operations. It was almost midnight when my phone buzzed with a notification that lit up the screen. It was from a new text message. I got up groggily and wondered who in the world would send me a text that late in the night. I opened the text and found out that it was sent by an aunt. A few moments later my sleepy disposition slowly faded when the words slowly sank in: Please pray for the safety of your father. He was sent for an emergency operation in Cotabato City. He is accompanied by several armored vehicles with armed military escorts to ensure his safe journey.

It turned out that my father left in a hurry because a teenage child of a co-doctor who was residing in Cotabato took a bullet to the head. The situation was a matter of life and death; every minute and second wasted could possibly tip the scale, and the only doctor who specialized in that field was more than a hundred kilometers away. It did not help that during those years, it certainly wasn’t the most ideal time to travel by land all the way to Cotabato. The local news was abuzz with another wave of discord that was washing over Mindanao. It all seemed as though it belonged to a tragically intense scene in the movies or one of those dramatic medical documentaries. Only this time, it was not as exciting or thrilling as it would have been on the big screen.

What can I say? I was eleven, and my hyperactive imagination mixed in with my fear was already making up a thousand different scenarios a mile a minute, each one wilder and more outrageous than the previous. All of the years’ worth of news flashes and stories of bloody massacres that frequently occurred north of my city, unfortunate victims who were robbed and brutally dismembered, the terrorist groups who mercilessly unleashed gunfire that rained on and pierced the air—they were all running through my memory. What if his convoy gets ambushed? It’s the dead of night, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to erase all their traces and take cover. What if his escorts fail to protect him and he gets kidnapped? What if he gets caught in a crossfire in the middle of the procedure? What if terrorists suddenly attack the city? What if fate chooses this as the perfect moment for a bomb to go off the minute he sets foot in Cotabato?

Looking back, it all sounds like the ramblings of a person going through a severe case of paranoia, but it was at that brief period that reality finally sank in. Each story and news article was real; they all happened, and thousands of casualties, regardless of race or religion, had to suffer in all those decades, and it was very possible that my father could have been one of them if the circumstances aligned. I tried to push all those thoughts away along with my unease just so I could get all the few hours of sleep I had left before dawn, hoping that I’d wake up and welcome my father tired from his journey but otherwise safe and sound.

Until now I’m still grateful that he did. He was obviously exhausted and sleep-deprived, but he arrived safely back home around just a little after dawn. I remember laughing, partly due to relief. My father is never one to let fear take over situations; he actually enjoyed the whole affair, as could be seen in how he was radiating with the gleeful energy of a schoolboy who had defied his curfew and gone gallivanting around the city with his friends. As if he wasn’t a middle-aged man late in his forties who had just conducted an intricate operation across the island that took long enough to rob him of the slightest wink of sleep, he recounted the whole experience with enough excitement that he was able to muster. He described it as an “adventure.” He told me that he felt like he was in some action movie. I guess being surrounded by military escorts in the middle of an armed convoy en route to dangerous territory as if you’re in the middle of some top secret mission may have been as thrilling as it sounds.

Needless to say, the teenager survived. My father’s exposure to risk to his life and safety proved to be worth it in the end. This experience was one of the first few nicks that formed the major cracks on my naive perspective of a peaceful reality. That experience paved way for other small actions fueled by my defiance to terrorism-induced fears, a mind-set that I picked up from other residents of Gensan. Yes, from the outsider’s perspective, it might sound like the perfect reckless—not to mention stupid—way to get yourself killed in an “untimely” explosion or assault, but it’s either we let fear control us or we take risks to do what needs to be done.

Recently, after the events of the Marawi siege, Gensan received information that members of the same group who led the assault had managed to infiltrate the city, and news of an impending attack being planned behind the scenes was spread around in the form of text messages and formal announcements. The red alert meant that security would be rigid and would stay rigid for weeks on end, the military would roam around the city in their armed jeeps, and the city would be under a lockdown of sorts. Our classes were once again put to a stop in the middle of the afternoon, and we were all urged by the head of discipline to call our fetchers and head home immediately—no detours. We should all stay in our houses until the threat subsided.

We were told during the emergency announcement that we students were especially at risk if we continued to stay inside the school grounds since we were part of the large population under the well-known Catholic institution. This was also the same week when my research group stubbornly ventured to conduct our experiment in the laboratories at the main campus of the university, a location with higher chances of getting attacked. I can still recall the words of the college student who assisted us when I told her how I noticed that a lot of the students were risking their safety because they chose to stay to do their work in the university. She simply scoffed and told me, “Bahala sila diyan eh kung mag-atake sila. Wa mi labot. Tingnan natin” (We don’t care if they attack us. Let’s see how they’ll fare). It was a perfect example of dauntlessness that was simultaneously admirable and absurd and could have only been formed in an environment similar to that of Mindanao.

I did not encounter any tragic or heart-wrenching experience brought by the unceasing conflicts that would leave any reader emotional, but like I said, we were all affected in matters big or small, and through it all, I saw that more generations will continue to be affected if ever things fail to change. Maybe the stereotypes of an island plagued with violence and bloodshed aren’t completely exaggerated, or maybe they are for those who are privileged enough. I’m young, and I still lack adequate experience; I may talk brazenly in the face of danger, but eventually, I’ll realize that there are some things that are not worth risking my life for. This is my story, merely a novelette out of the countless who already have full-length volumes in their memories. However, after recounting my experiences, I realize that despite all the diversity, there is one thing you’d find common in most of us—fear does not and will not run our lives.