Addressing Racism: Steadfast Wherever My Feet Lead Me

By Midpantao Midrah G. Adil II

(This essay is the winner of the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

In search of great treasure, one must first learn to defy the limits. This is the particular teaching that my parents left me before they went to the afterlife.

Having been left as an orphan at an early age, I never really had the wits to decipher what was their truest intent. The only thing they left me was a piece of vague philosophy that even a fifteen-year-old boy would never understand. So, it was then when I decided that it was about time to start my very own crusade—to look for life’s greatest treasure.

As a natural-born Maguindanaoan, I was raised to love my tribe’s culture. My father instilled many great things in my young naive mind, including the exquisite wonders of our family tradition. He was indeed a great fine man, and just like any father, he was my biggest support system.

I could still recall my ten-year-old self indulging in the euphony of authentic kulintang music while engaging my eyes in a colorful show of Muslim ritual dances and feasting over lavish food during certain occasions such as kalilang, or traditional wedding ceremony, within the family. Truly, everything was a remarkable experience. On the other hand, the abundance of elaborate tapestry draped all across the house was a sign that our kin had an affinity for big celebrations. It was part of our culture.

As a child, I was also a big dreamer. Taking myself to greater heights was something that ignited the fighter in me. My burning passion for self-expression taught me to become vocal about the things that concerned me one way or another.

I dreamed of becoming a writer. However, some of my aspirations were too much for me to handle; also, most turned out to be impractical in the eyes of my family. All I had was a heavy amount of disapproval from my kin. They wanted me to embrace the family tradition—to become a lawyer, not “a lousy journalist,” as they called it. But deep within my heart, I knew I needed not follow them. It was clear to me that my heart longed for something extraordinary.

At a very young age, I have always been committed to the urge of looking for life’s truest meaning. My feet have dragged me from various places throughout the island to find meaning in my existence.

Mindanao has been my home for the past twenty years. I was born and raised in the province of Sultan Kudarat. Although most of my ancestors were from Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, my father decided to settle in Tacurong to give me a good urban life. As a lawyer, a city was the best place for him to earn a living. In the city, I was enlightened about many things in life. And almost nothing was sugarcoated.

The struggle began when my parents sent me to a private Catholic school. Living in an island where Muslims are commonly stereotyped as terrorists, suicide bombers, and enemies of the state, it was very hard for a kid like me to fit in. There’s a stigma with being a Muslim. Many non-Muslims fear that my families might be affiliated with terrorist groups. In effect, I often became the target of bullies.

My heartbreaking experiences from my critics made me resilient. In fact, I never hated my bullies. If anything, I became quite grateful because, for what they did, I grew up as a strong man. It’s not that I tolerate these kinds of acts, and I know I must not. It’s just that, without them dragging me down, I would have never risen and become the person that I am now. For me, they made me who I am.

Way back in my childhood days, I was labeled with far too many harsh words: terorista, moros, damak na Muslim, and many more. I was considered inferior because I was a Muslim. The proud race that I had grown up in became my greatest downfall. Without noticing it, I became ashamed of my ethnicity and felt that I had to blend in. Many of my relatives may be outraged why I did this, but it’s human nature. I needed to be liked.

It is quite unfathomable how some people could develop a bad sense of racism against the culture I have. Suffice it to say that I cannot point my fingers directly at these people. This exact feeling makes me remember something that occurred two years ago.

In 2017, parts of Marawi City were bombed into rubble by the local ISIS terrorists, the Maute group. This marked the dawn of Mindanao’s desolate fate. I never personally witnessed the tragedy; however, as a student journalist, I remember my eyes being tightly glued to the late evening news. That was an imperative trait—a social responsibility, at the least—for a scribe.

The bullet-drilled infrastructure along with the ghosted streets of Marawi was a clear implication that everything was out of control. It felt real. The fear crippled me knowing that it might also happen in my town if not controlled by the authority.

The televised view of the cold frigid bodies of the casualties being pulled away from the bombarded buildings broke my heart. The tragedy made it to the headlines of all media networks that day. With peace becoming a scarce commodity in the market, hope was held hostage by fear.

I asked God that time that if he was watching, why was he letting those things happen? If life mattered to him, why was he allowing those poor innocent lives to be taken away? If it was wrong to kill, why was he letting the evils of mankind slaughter the entire city? I myself could not find the right words to answer my questions. I had too much doubt in my mind.

As an eighteen-year-old during that time, I already had some maturity to weigh the rationality of things. The Maute group was fighting for the empowerment of their clan. They might have sparked a wrong kind of fight, but it shook me to a realization. If there had been peace, harmony, and equality within the island, no one would have ever craved for destruction. No one would have plotted for supremacy. However, they did. That’s the saddest conclusion that I could arrive upon. Is this a war of races, and whoever is non-Muslim gets beheaded? This was the thought in my mind.

The Maute group was fighting for dominance of Islam in Marawi. It was a crusade—the evil form, to think of it. Race and religion were dividing the island into non-substantial factions. It was the embodiment of the bullying I had received when I was still in elementary school. But now, it was us who had become the bullies. I know people will counter-argue that the Maute group was not true Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace, but I am talking about the times when all they ever wanted was to eradicate the non-members of their faction. This is the brutal truth.

It was later this year when the Bangsamoro Organic Law was finally pitched in Congress. Because it was offering to be a substantial answer to the conflicts arising within the island, I became quite ecstatic to hear the news that the government was finally taking a stand on the empowerment of my people—not only the Moro but the tri-people in general. It painted a warm smile in my face after seeing how people of different races came together in the fight to address the problems of Mindanao.

For the past decades, Mindanao has been a place of bloodbath. With the uprisings and revolts that have taken place, one might begin to ask, Is God still here? I don’t know. Lives have been lost, and souls have been wasted. This isn’t the Mindanao I had in mind as a child. No one ever understood the severity of the situation. However, I’ve never lost hope.

I have been to various provinces within the island. I have been to Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, South Cotabato, the Davao provinces, Bukidnon, Sarangani, Maguindanao, and more to learn the substantial differences between the peoples of Mindanao. Not every expedition was entirely fruitful, but I consider everything as a stepping-stone, to say the least.

Is Mindanao really at war? Everywhere I go, I hear stories of conflicts and despair. Deprivation of rights to land ownership as well as struggles to find adequate support from the government has awakened me to fight alongside with the victims. As a student journalist, these have been my inspiration for my craft.

With my fellow campus journalists in Cotabato, I ventured to Barangay Kisante in Makilala to conduct an extension activity in a young Lumad boarding school in 2018.  There, one thing caught my attention—a group of young people walking in the vicinity with schoolbags on. It was definitely a heartwarming sight.

It was pleasing to see that despite the poverty and lack of resources, the children were still sent by their parents to school for them to have access to education. This might be the kind of improvement that their ancestors might have dreamed from the beginning.

With boarding schools like the one we visited, the young Lumads of Cotabato are given education about their socio-economic, political, and cultural rights. They are able to gain empowerment and protect their ancestral domains and exercise their rights to self-determination.

The stories that I heard from the children broke my heart a thousand fold. Most of them lacked decent clothes to wear and notebooks to write on. The stories made me realize that my responsibilities crossed beyond the boundaries of conventional writing. I must help change the world one story at a time.

My family, being inhabitants of Maguindanao, took me around to witness the growing poverty in various Moro communities. I was exposed to the kind of life that many of our people have. Pagalungan, a small municipality at the heart of Maguindanao, is one of them. I am not from the place, but my father was. Despite the small amount of time I’ve been there, I was able to tell that most houses in the area lacked potable water sources and access to modern facilities. As how I witnessed politics in Muslim areas, there might also be bloodbaths. Unfortunately, that is how life is there.

In search of more stories to tell, I never stopped exploring. My curiosity brought me to a trip in Arakan, Cotabato. About 88 kilometers away from Kabacan, where I was staying at the time, is the hidden gem that is Bani Falls, also called Matigol Falls by local trekkers. Sitio Inamong, Barangay Datu Ladayon, where the waterfall is located, is a small village that is home to the indigenous peoples Manobo and Tahurog.

I was quite astonished how these people had managed to live atop the mountain and display vibrant smiles on their faces. Life there was decent and, well, peaceful. Because they were way too far to be reached by amenities and government services, they found ways to improvise things. They made me realize that happiness doesn’t always have to come with a price.

The people there are one of the most welcoming peoples I have met in my entire existence. They accompanied me and my friends throughout our trip. They shared with me the gifts of Mother Nature. Indeed, the memories we had in that journey have been truly worth remembering.

From the young Lumads in Makilala, Cotabato, to the Moro in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, and even the indigenous tribes in the rocky mountains of Arakan, Cotabato, my pen has painted stories that are truly close to my heart. Mindanao is my home, and the people here are my soul.

For the past five years, I have dedicated my life to the journey of finding the said treasure. I have been to various islands within the country looking for meaning and trying to defy whatever limits life has imposed on me.

From Pampanga to the highlands of Baguio City and the busy streets of Metro Manila, I have explored places in search of stories. Every time I travel, I meet new people, blending with their culture and eventually becoming one of them. Learning about people’s traditions and embracing their culture is my biggest contribution in addressing racism and breaking the stigma. If I have learned anything, it is that no race or ethnicity is above any other.

Despite the various places I have been, Mindanao is the only place for me that feels like home. There is truly a fine line that separates this great island from the entire Philippine archipelago. Mindanao is filled with gems and treasures. It offers a rarity that is beyond the imperial. The part of the culture that I left home still echoes back to my heart. Mindanao is the haven of the brightest treasures in the country. What are its treasures? Its diverse people.

In my search for the greatest treasure, I have learned to defy the limits. I learned to set aside my selfish desires and individuality. These stories made me into someone who is well aware of his identity. As I embraced far-flung cultures even though they aren’t close to mine, I became complete.

My parents have taught me that the beauty of life only reveals itself the very moment you allow yourself to discover its greatest secrets. The instant you break free from the stigma is when you learn to find meaning in your life. You see that the world is truly full of hidden treasures.

Being different is not a liability. It’s a gift. We should celebrate our uniqueness. Our diversity. Our roots. Our race. The sun will shine one day with the peace I’m fervently praying for already in our hands. If there is one thing that I have learned throughout my journey, it is that the Philippines has a lot to offer. And I can’t wait to board another plane to my next destination.

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.

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.

To Pull a Hook

By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador

(This essay is the winner of the 1st Lagulad Prize.)

Ako na pud kuya bi,” my younger brother Sean said while trying to take the fishing rod from me.

Paghulat gud,” I told him, moving the rod out of his reach. “Nagahulat na ang talakitok sa akoa o.”

Ganina pa man ka.

Lima na lang ka labay,” I promised him. I whipped the line out into the sea, away from the shore.

* * *

My fancy for fishing started with envy. I was hooked into it after seeing an episode of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on television. The titular character and his rowdy gang of country boys had run away from their homes and were fishing in the Mississippi River to feed themselves, competing who had the biggest catch in the process. I watched with envy as they roasted the fish over open fire and devoured them when they were cooked.

I was seven years old back then at my grandparents’ farm somewhere deep in Polomolok, South Cotabato. There was nothing much to do except for the daily trips to the river that my grandfather and I had to take to tend the cows. People in Polomolok mostly farmed for a living. On special occasions, a cow, maybe a goat, and a couple of chickens would be butchered for a feast, but the daily diet consisted of vegetables, which was virtually everywhere, and fish—fish from the market and fish from the river. My grandparents were able to buy fish from the market, but I wanted to try eating fish that I myself had caught.

Fishing was originally developed to find food in the wild for survival. As time progressed, fishing evolved to include the activity as a pastime. Recreational fishing is a luxury for those who have pockets full of money with time on their hands to cast carbon-fiber retractable fishing rods with high-end reel and a line of nylon connected to a floater or a sinker with a plethora of colorful artificial baits, one for each type of fish. While this is so, the tackle, or the entire fishing equipment, used in Polomolok only consists of a good-length bagakay (a kind of thin bamboo) for a rod, a coil of thin, transparent nylon, and a single hook. Baits can be found wherever there is moist and healthy soil.

Tay, bakal na bala sang bunit,” I requested my grandfather one day.

Sa sunod ah,” he answered.

The dialogue continued for days.

Same plea, same answer—always sa sunod, sa sunod, sa sunod.

One morning, I woke up only to see the sun high above the coconut trees behind our house, too late to join Tatay down the river, as he should have been already back by this hour, but not too late for morning cartoons—time to watch Tom Sawyer and his friends again. As the house lacked walls, I immediately saw Nanay at the sink, busy with the dishes. I asked her where Tatay was.

Nagkadto sa Proper,” she replied through the clinks and clanks of plates.

Somehow, someway, I thought that the time had finally come.

I took a late breakfast of rice and inun-unan, fish cooked in vinegar. Midway through my meal, the sound of Tatay’s motorcycle engine came sputtering toward the house. The loud barks of our dogs welcomed him. He appeared at the doorway moments later with a plastic bag in his hand.

Ano na, Tay?” I asked while trying to peer through the white, plastic bag he was carrying.

Mga gipangbakal ko sa Proper ah,” he replied.

He unloaded the things on the table: a pack of dried fish, three cans of sardines, two packs of instant noodles, and a bundle of sweet bananas. That was all. Disappointed, I resumed eating my meal, thinking that perhaps I would receive it sa sunod. Then a small plastic pouch landed on the table just in front of my plate. Without uttering anything, Tatay immediately went into his room, the only room separated by walls in the house. In the pouch was a coil of new fishing line and a set of fishing hooks. His room might have been surrounded by walls, but his heart wasn’t. I was glad.

I went out on my first fishing trip with Tito, Tatay’s nephew, three days after Tatay bought the materials. We couldn’t find a good pole, so we only took a fishing line coiled around a tin can. We started toward the river after breakfast, at about eight in the morning. It was about thirty minutes’ walk from the house, past the purok center, through a cornfield, and finally, down a hill. The sound of the deep, masculine gush of the river was a welcoming sound to hear after the hike under the summer sun. I couldn’t wait to wade in the water to get across to familiar grounds where Tatay’s cattle were grazing.

I thought it took forever for Tito to get across. Together, we went further down the riverbank where we thought the water was deep and there would be plenty of fish. We sat on a grassy patch and prepared our fishing line. I watched Tito, also a first timer, took out an earthworm and skewered it with the hook. I shuddered as I watched the hook emerge on the other end of its body—I still do whenever I remember that moment.

Whenever there was a slightest movement on the nylon, we would immediately pull out the line, hoping that a fish was hanging at the end of the line. It was maddening. The fish didn’t seem to be biting. Every time we pulled it out, the worm would emerge in one piece. I felt pity for the worm. I felt stupid sending it again and again into the water.

An old man happened to pass by. He was barefoot and wearing shabby short pants and a dirty old jacket over a ragged shirt. His skin was dark with shades of crimson, like fine-aged leather. “Gaano kamo da?” he asked.

Gapamunit, Kol,” Tito answered.

Ahay!” blurted out the old man. “Indi kamo makadakop da. Didto kamo sa hinay ang dalihig sang tubig ho.” He pointed downstream, at a spot where the river curved. He looked terrible in his shabby clothes, but it seemed that we were more pitiful than he was. He had the wisdom we didn’t have. He had the experience we couldn’t hold a candle to. To him, we were the worms that needed help.

We followed the advice of the old man. We waited and waited. Every time we noticed movement in the line, we pulled it out. This time, we were at least getting some results—the worm would come out nibbled. We had to replace the bitten worm every time. On one try, half of the worm’s body went missing. It was funny how fishing in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was easy as could be: The characters only had to sit on the edge of the water with a fishing pole, and all of a sudden, they already had something scaly for lunch. Huckleberry Finn even survived living by himself in the forest by eating fish he caught from the river. Not only is truth stranger than fiction; truth is harder than fiction, too.

If Tom Sawyer had his Mississippi River, we had our Silway River. It had brown, muddy water, and at its deepest part, it only reached the hips of adults. Silway River is the river that runs from Polomolok to General Santos City. In Google Maps, it looks like a giant snake slithering through the two places before finally joining Sarangani Bay at Barangay Labangal in the city. There were plenty of ways on how fishing was done in the river. The most common was by using a fishing pole. Another common way was pangurinti, done by stunning the fish with electric rods connected to a car battery. Another one was pang-atas. I only saw this once on our way home, but from what I remember, the men isolated a part of the river with a long tarpaulin, and as the spot ran out of water, they used a net to catch the fish that were trapped and swimming downstream.

Hala! Ari na, kuy!

Tito’s voice distracted me from watching the cliff on the other side of the river. I turned and saw him with his arm raised, struggling to pull the line out of the water. Something had taken the bait! We had caught something! Could it be a tilapia? Could it be a catfish or even an eel? I didn’t have a clear view of it when he lifted it out of the water. Black and white, black and white. It was all that I could see. The fish was spinning with the line? Was it a fish? It had limbs. A turtle? We caught a turtle? A snake-necked turtle!

Tito immediately went into action: He took the snake turtle and laid it on its soft, leathery carapace. We had to remove the hook that had pierced through its cheek without getting bitten. Every time Tito’s finger went near its pointed snout, the turtle snapped violently and without hesitation. Back then, we knew—I knew—that there was only one way to remove the hook out of the turtle’s mouth. But I wanted to try all other possible ways first.

Butunga na lang nang hook, Tito,” I said.

Di pwede kay masangit iya punta,” my uncle said.

I knew it was impossible. The hook had a barb, and pulling the hook would embed the barb deeper into the flesh.

Utda ang punta eh,” I said.

Tito fell silent. He didn’t tell me that what I had suggested was almost impossible to do, too.

So he had to do the inevitable: using the jagged edge of the lid of the can where we were keeping our worms, he tore the turtle’s cheek, and then he removed the hook with his hand.

I could not imagine how it must’ve felt for the turtle. The pain must’ve been unbearable—to have someone slice your cheek, going from side to side, until the soft, delicate flesh tore open and the hook could be removed. I thought that the turtle must be envious of us humans: there were no hooks to catch us.

If the turtle could talk, I’d also like to ask it why it bit something that wasn’t meant for him.

We continued fishing until the afternoon and we ran out of bait worms. The turtle was the only catch we had for the whole day. On our way back to the house, some of my Tito’s friends saw the turtle inside our net bag. “Mas namit pa na sa manok ba,” they said. “Amon na lang na bi.”

We declined. It was our sole prize, and we were determined to take it home.

Ay abaw!” exclaimed Nanay when she saw the turtle in the net bag.

Kanami sang dakop niyo ba!” said Tatay with a laugh.

We put the turtle into our empty concrete fish pond where guppies, mollies, and carps used to swim.

Sometimes, I would bring over other kids in the neighborhood to show them the turtle. “Baw, dako dako ba,” gushed one. That might’ve been the first time they saw a turtle snake as big as an adult’s hand. “Gin-ano niyo na pagdakop?” one of them asked.

Ginbunit eh,” I said.

Ti, ano ginapakaon niyo sina hay?

Ambot ay. Kung ano ang ihaboy da eh.” Banana peels, rice, pieces of leftover fish, fruits, anything, I explained.

In an article published in the Philippine Star in 2013, it was revealed that the Chinese softshell turtle is threatening the freshwater fish population in Central Luzon. Fishpond owners and operators grew weary of the invasive species since they prey on local fish species, especially milkfish and tilapia fingerlings. Farmers are complaining of receiving bites from snake turtle hiding beneath the mud of their rice paddies. However, I rarely heard of them as a problem before in Polomolok. In fact, people would be happy if they managed to catch one of them.

In a segment of Born to Be Wild aired in 2017, I learned that Pampanga has the biggest population of Chinese softshell turtle with a market for its meat: people are really buying live snake turtles for food!

I didn’t know why, but the turtle died after about a week of captivity. I still try to figure out what happened, but as a kid, I thought that maybe we should have let Tito’s friends slaughter it. At least, it would not have died for nothing. It died alone, away from its habitat, away from its home, its carcass buried on the soil where coconuts grew.

Days after, we went on another fishing trip. This time, Tatay went with us. We woke up early in the morning and hastily ate our hanggop, or cooked rice poured with hot water and flavored with salt.

Dal-a tong silupin,” Tatay said, pointing to the plastic bag containing hooks and lines.

Wala man ta stick,” I said.

Pati lang bala.

The three of us began hiking at about six in the morning. The morning air felt as though they were seeping through my arms and into my back, causing me to shiver from time to time. Tatay seemed amused. We were cold, while he was warm in his jacket.

We followed the usual path to his parcel of land beside the river. He then made Tito and me wait in a hut surrounded by foxtails, brushwood, and all kinds of balubagon. He returned after an hour. “Dal-a ning paya oh, kag kadto kamo to sa may puno sang ipil-ipil,” he told us. “Kalot kamo to kag kwa kamo ulod kay may kadtoan lang ko anay. Kita lang ta sa may pispan sa likod sang bayog,” he said.

Tito and I took a coconut shell lying on the ground and went to the ipil-ipil tree, while Tatay went about his business. The worms under the tree were larger than the worms I had seen before, about the size of my fingers back then. I couldn’t help but wonder back then if what had made them grow so big. I managed to catch a few of them. The way the worms moved about in my hands tickled, so I dumped them into the shell as soon as I caught them.

We made our way through the thick wild grass to the fish pond behind the clumps of bamboo called bayog, just in time to see Tatay walking toward us, carrying three stalks of bagakay, a thinner family of those big, towering, and heavy ones. One of them was fifteen feet long, much longer than the others.

Almost every body of water has its distinct smell, and this wasn’t any different. The pond smelled of putrid mud and algae, but there were tilapias and paitan, or small freshwater fish with bitter flesh. The word rotten may be associated with death. It is synonymous with decay, the slow and gradual decline of life. But to us, this smell was only superficial. Life thrived in the waters: fishes and snails, tangkong and takway, and whatnot. Each contributed to the system we were living off. It was rotten, putrid, pungent, and acrid, but the pond, entirely by its presence, told a whole new different story, brought a whole new meaning. I wonder if it’s the same with us.

When we started fishing, I understood why Tatay took a longer pole. Tito and I, with our shorter poles, had to stand close to the putrescent waters of the pond, our feet tangled in takway and tangkong, while Tatay sat on the grassy slope away from the water. I envied him, looking so relaxed and carefree. I wished I also had a longer pole.

We didn’t catch any despite fishing the entire afternoon. I nearly had one. Through the clear waters, we saw the fishes nibble at the worm. When I saw a tilapia took a huge bite of the bait, I instantly yanked it out of the water. I saw a small fish hanging at the end of the line. But just when I thought I finally had my first catch, it fell back into the water!

A few days before leaving for General Santos City to start the school year, I went to the river with Tatay to see the extent of the flood that the previous day’s rain had brought. I saw a number of local kids walking and kicking about in the brown, muddy puddles that were formed when the water rose above the riverbank. We approached them, walking through the ankle-deep puddles.

The biggest kid of the group was carrying a big can of powdered milk. Not concerned with our presence, they continued kicking the water around. To my surprise, a fish jumped out of the water! A kid then shoved the fish out of the water to the taller grass, the few which were not submerged in floodwater.

Gaano kamo da?” asked Tatay.

Nagapanakop isda, Kol,” said the kid carrying the can.

Bi, palantaw sang dakop niyo bi.”

The kid showed us the can. They had managed to catch four tilapias, wiggling inside the cramped space.

Ay bi, panghatag man para may sud-anon kami,” Tatay joked.

Indi pwede, Kol, kay sud-anon man namon ni,” the kid said.

The huddle broke up, and they resumed kicking in the puddles again. Envious of their catch, I went to a large puddle nearby and started kicking around the water.

Ara! Ara! Dakpa niyo! Dakpa!” a kid shouted.

I turned around and saw the kid pointing at something on the grass. I followed the kids as they rushed toward their friend. There, on the ground, on its back, was a snake turtle, slightly smaller than the one we had caught earlier in the summer.

Tatay, the other kids, and I gathered around the turtle. The big kid slipped through, sat down, and picked it up. The turtle immediately retracted his long snake-like neck. He gave the can of fish to one of his companions.

Bantay ha,” tatay warned them. “Makagat kamo sina.”

Tagai bala ko sang stick,” said the kid.

One of his companions gave him a bamboo twig. The kid proceeded to aggravate the turtle, poking its snout with the twig. The turtle in turn snapped at the object. The huge kid continued teasing the turtle. Once, it firmly bit the twig, and he pulled it away, causing the turtle’s neck to extend.

Pabay-i niyo na lang na,” I said.

I don’t know if they heard me or they just chose to ignore me. Not contented, the kid once again pulled the turtle’s head and twisted it. I saw the life fade away from the eyes of the turtle.

I felt someone tap my head. It was Tatay. “Dali na, kuy,” he said. “Puli na ta.”

I still wanted to kick around the puddles, hoping I could still catch some fish. I followed him as he made his way toward the riverbank. I turned my head around in time to see the kid throw the turtle to the flooded river.

It was already dark when we reached the gate of Tatay’s farm. Two neighboring teens passed us by as they ran toward their homes. They were shirtless, dripping wet, illuminated by a motorcycle’s headlight. I saw that they were carrying fish impaled on a thick strand of nylon. It was the last time I saw someone carrying fish from the river.

I’ve never spent a whole summer in Polomolok after that, but over the years, on some weekends, we would visit the farm, and if time permitted, we’d go on a trip down the river. I was told that the poles were given to relatives living near the river, and in one of those trips, I saw that the poles were still around, stuck on the roof of their hut. I couldn’t help but wonder how many fish they had caught using those.

The envy? I no longer felt it. It was gone. Like the pond we used to fish years ago.

* * *

Naay nipaak!” I said while the waves of the sea gently crashed on my thighs. “Naay nipaak!” I could see the tip of our cheap carbon-fiber fishing rod bend against the weight of the fish.

Sige, sige,” my brother said. “Biraha lang pirmi.”

I spun the reel handle as fast as possible while constantly pulling on the rod. When I finally pulled it out of the water, a talakitok was hanging at the end of the line.

Paunsa ni tanggalon ang taga, Sean?” I asked my brother. The hook was completely stuck in the talakitok’s cheek.

Ambot. Wala ko kabalo.”

I began to twist the hook in all directions, but still it wouldn’t come off. It reminded me of the turtle my tito and I caught years ago. It kept me from trying hard enough. “Unsaon nato ni? Buy-an na lang nato ni?

Ayaw na oy. Nagadugo na man gani na iyang aping oh.”

It was either this fish or the memory of the turtle. One had to go.

I let my brother take a try at removing the hook. “Di man nako kaya, kuya,” he said after a while. “Ikaw na lang. Imoha bitaw nang dakop.”

So it was decided. The thought of the turtle had to go. I forcefully pushed the hook, which removed it from the talakitok’s cheek.

“Sorry, fish,” my brother said jokingly as I pulled the hook out of the fish’s mouth, “but a man’s gotta eat.”

I wrapped the fish at the bottom of my shirt and took it to our cottage, where the rest of my family were. There was no reason to show them my catch. Perhaps I just wanted them to envy me. As I grew up and came to know the world a little bit better, I understood that we were not any different from the snake turtle: we were also prone to bite things that weren’t for us.

We ate the talakitok for dinner, wasting none of it. We didn’t make the same mistake as before: to waste a creature’s life for nothing. After twelve years, the purpose of the turtle’s death was finally realized, and its thought lived on.

Treasures for a Lifetime

By Niccah T. Carillo

(This essay is a finalist in the 1st Lagulad Prize.)

The darkness starts eating the whole place. It’s a sign that I should be at home. But unlike a normal teen, it’s a good thing for me. It’s my rest day from work, so I better savor moments when I’m still free, embrace the day like it’s the real freedom from struggles and problems, enjoy it as if there’ll be no more upcoming stressful days, and make the most out of its last, peaceful hours.

I am sitting on a bench here at the city plaza, silently observing people go by. It’s just another passing day for a teen to witness. There are kids eating ice cream, couples holding hands while walking, families sitting on other benches while eating street food, vendors encouraging people to buy, athletes stretching, boys skating, and girls talking about random topics.

If only I was luckier not to have the problem that my family is facing right now, maybe I can do the same stuff.

As I look at these people, I can’t help myself from reminiscing.

Far from where I am at now, the place where I was born seemed left out by progress, but I grew up a cheerful kid. I experienced some enjoyable “larong pinoy.” There are some memories I treasure dearly: playing as a mother at a young age because of “bahay-bahayan,” kissing solid ground and tasting rough sands because of “tumbang preso,” and arguing with playmates after losing in a game of “chinese garter.” I’ve been hurt because of playing tug-of-war. I’ve been cheated in a game of rock-paper-scissors. I’ve been scolded because of hitting a playmate while playing “shatong.” I cried over a candy stolen by another kid. I stumbled in “luksong-baka,” scarred my knees playing “patintero,” and got wounded because of playing hide-and-seek under the crescent moon’s light. How can I simply forget these childhood memories? Whether they gave me a smile or a frown, they’re all worth keeping.

Many moons have ascended, and I am now changed. I have come of age. I’ve witnessed and experienced myself “grow up.” After those childish acts, I became a teen. I can remember myself cutting classes, engaging in fights, and climbing the school’s walls (the so-called “third gate”) with other girls. Walls are easy compared to trees—I once fell and got a sprain because of climbing fruit trees with my classmate. I’ve also been chased by our school’s security guards for sneaking out. (I just wanted to buy snacks!) I was once marked absent because I was in the library taking a nap instead of attending classes. I got told to gather garbage because I was late for the flag ceremony. I got spanked by my older sister for swimming at the dam. (Obviously dangerous!) And the most unforgettable “teenage” memory? I used to be teased by my friends because of a crush on one of my classmates. I was also courted and had my own share of heartaches.

Thousands of babies are born every day with their futures unpredicted and unknown. Some wind up with rich families and are fed with golden spoons while some with the middle-class or poor families. Although mine is poor, I consider it the coolest. We have lots of debts, but we’re also full of care and love.  But it’s true that happy times start to fade when greater challenges occur. My family experiences a regular crisis, financially speaking. I spend holidays far from home because I choose to continue my studies as a working student. I used to cry under the fireworks hoping that my family are by my side during those merry times. I clean dirty kitchens and comfort rooms, but I still remain optimistic as the day ends, knowing that my hardship will bear fruit. I have been nagged and scolded by former employers, but I’m still full of hope, knowing that fortitude is the key to graduating and getting a stable and decent job.

At times, I would be envious of some teens who can buy stuff without shedding tears and sweat. I had also wished to have the same elegant and magical debut celebration as experienced by other girls turning eighteen. I also prayed to have the same time and life like other teens who can spend quality time with their parents and siblings. But wishful thinking aside, I’m still standing firm and aiming for a brighter future. I set those wishes aside because I know God has planned something greater for me.

With the setting of the sun, some lose hope. But as long as the sun rises in the east, I will remain resilient. I will still face the hard life full of determination and courage. Like a soldier of valor, I will patiently wait for another day when new hopes are visible. It’s telling me that I did a great job, that I can and I will. Like a newfound friend to encourage me to rise above the strong current, the strong waves of troubled waters, with the knowledge that one day, it will be calm.

From a beautiful and healthy child, I grew up into a whining grade school kid and became a fragile, naive teen. I’ve really changed a lot. With each birthday, I simply don’t have another digit added to my age. I also have spiritual and mental growth. Molded and shaped by my environment, I am happy for what and who I am now. I’ve been through many ups and downs, and I’ve frowned and cried many times, but I am still aiming for more treasures. Hopefully it’s a crown.

Soon I’ll reach the summit of success and I’ll be humbly victorious. In time, I’ll become a wise and mature young adult. I will be a good and strong parent and, eventually, be one of the respected oldies. I will grow as old as I can be.

A genuine smile forms on my lips. Again, I look at the people in the plaza. I am happy for them and for myself too. I am alone physically, but I am not without friends. I’ve found new ones even though from afar. How I wish I could do the same things without hindrances. But just like what they say, “Great things come to those who wait.” I pick my things, and I’m good to go. I have gathered enough treasures for this day. Some reminisced memories, life’s lessons, and self-motivational thoughts. Treasures for myself, treasures for a lifetime.