Mindanao on My Mind 

A Letter from Hery Ramambasoa, Regional Liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, based in Fiji

April 2020

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Vincente* is 13. He was forced to leave his family in 2019. He has the build of a ten-year-old boy, but his gaze is piercing, his face expressive, and his laugh—although rare—is the authentic laugh of a child. He is too young to have experienced such trauma, but he is, sadly, not unique. I met several dozen young people at the University of the Philippines in Manila who have had similar experiences. Vincente was among the youngest in the group.

He and his friends are refugees in their own land. When their school was bombed all the pupils fled for their lives, leaving behind parents and homes because armed people chased them, night and day, alongside streams and up and down steep hills. Now they are here. They are protected by the University, but are more than a thousand kilometers away from Dad and Mom, who they can rarely contact due to the limitations of the mobile phone network. One can only imagine the emotional isolation these broken families are undergoing. One girl who was, at first, willing to tell us about the brutal arrest of her father, could not bring herself to do so. Instead, she curled up in a ball on the floor to be comforted by friends. These teenagers have witnessed killings and harassment, and the trauma will leave an indelible mark.

Some 90 Bakwit schools, like Vincente’s school, have been closed in the large southern island of Mindanao. These schools had been teaching a curriculum rooted in the culture and identity of the indigenous people. Applauded and supported by worldwide educational institutions, these schools have recently been “red-tagged.” They are supposedly “instructing children to oppose the government” by members of “rebel movements.” Observers suspect that this situation is closely linked to the fact that mining and development conglomerates covet the traditional territory of the indigenous Lumad people to whom Vincente belongs. These territories are rich in mineral resources such as nickel, cobalt, and gold, but civil society organizations and many churches point out that where intensive mining occurs the human rights of the most vulnerable populations are violated. The land is also poisoned, and environmental degradation is rampant.

During my visit, I heard disturbing testimonies from families of the victims of the “War on Illegal Drugs.” Killings and disappearances are rampant but rarely investigated. Witnesses do not come forward because they fear reprisals from the police or the army. Anita*23, is a student from Manila. She is always dressed in black. Her eyes tear-up and her voice shakes when she recalls the death of her younger brother. He did not return home one evening. His family began to search. Several days later they learned that his dead body had been found, shot, on a pathway. The police claimed that he had been a drug dealer. Anita said her brother had stopped taking drugs and was in the process of rebuilding his life. But no recourse was possible. It was as if  “the whole world is against you,” she remembers thinking.

Anita has learned to share her grief and shore up her memories by joining together with the families of other victims. At first, the families were timid and shy. “The guilt was imposed on our soul,” a mother said, “you cannot look up.” Now, they have become close and share tips and tricks to survive! Many are widows with small children. Others are mothers in their sixties who have become community advocates.

On January 25, 2020, individuals identified as members of a paramilitary group entered a United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) church facility in the city of Davao, allegedly to instruct 400 tribal people being offered temporary shelter there, to go home. These villagers had fled their homes following a military operation. This was not the first time paramilitary forces had attempted to enter the church compound. UCCP leaders confirmed that they would continue to proclaim the UCCP’s “mission to defend and serve the poor.” “It is inherent to the church to aid those who are in need. It is our apostolic mission to care for the poor and the oppressed,” Bishop Tequis from Davao proclaims.

Despite political persecution, the UCCP joins with other ecumenical organizations to assist the victims of human rights abuses and to advocate for a more just society. The UCCP notes that the victims of violence are mainly the urban poor and the impoverished farmers. These are exactly the people that Jesus commands us to care for in Matthew 25.

Hope is hard to find. We must join together and work hand in hand to restore hope to the victims of violence. These victims experience constant threats to their lives, making living a day-to-day battle. They are calling for church groups in other countries to back up their pursuit of justice and accountability.

In Manila, after a simple meal of curry and rice shared with all his schoolmates and my group of visitors, Vincente asked me a difficult question through an interpreter. “Do nasty people in the U.S.A. ever get punished for crimes they commit?” “Not always,” I said. “But there is a system in place that investigates the case, listens to different testimonies and renders a verdict.” He looked at me with his piercing eyes, trying to picture what it is like to live in an unknown land. “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked. “I want to go back to my region,” he said, “and become a teacher in my village.”

Hery Ramambasoa

*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the speakers.


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