(column by Tyrone Velez, published in SunStar Davao on December 19, 2015)
I REMEMBER last June hearing a chat between high school girls walking past the Manobo lumads rallying at the Department of Education office, demanding for the re-opening of their lumad schools.
“My mom saw them on TV, she said it is right that they have to go back to school. Luoy kayo sila.”
The lumads of Mindanao in the past eight months have occupied our conversations, news, social media, hashtags and our consciousness.
We could have ignored their plight as one of the many incidents of lumads displaced by soldiers, or communities caught in a counter-insurgency war, be it in Talaingod, Kapalong, Bukidnon or Surigao.
But instead, we chose to care: from the moments such as how they defied a fiery congresswoman and beatings from police last July and how bakwit students hold their classes in evacuation centers and longing to go back to their communities. How these students and their teachers dread every time soldiers and paramilitary full-armed and camping in their schools. How one morning in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, the paramilitary dragged out students in the open to see their two datus shot dead and their school administrator killed with his throat slit open.
These tragedies opened our eyes, and became a rallying cry against this government that has allowed dirty wars to kill people. If ever we would remember this Aquino administration few years from now, it will be about these killings and how we united to protect our fellow lumads.
This unity has brought statements and actions, from the religious who voiced their cries, to the academe who volunteered in their schools, to artists who sang their songs, to directors who made documentaries and an award-winning indie movie to let people see their joys, fears and longings.
And their support poured on in the month-long protest caravan called Manilakbayan ng Mindanao last November that brought 700 lumads to Leyte, Naga, Bicol and finally Manila to meet Cardinal Tagle, members of the academe and artists and many more who joined in their calls to ‘Stop Lumad Killings’ and ‘Save Our Schools.’
Their plight also caught international attention, as a United Nations special envoy on displaced persons visited the lumads in Haran, chastised the military for twisting his statements. Fil-Ams visited their communities in Talaingod, Sarangani and Surigao. Church people also spoke of the lumads in international human rights conferences, and in Belgium, a rights group awarded their Human Rights Award to the lumads for their steadfast struggle.
Even as support pours in, the attacks and displacements continue such as in White Culaman, Kitaotao, Bukidnon or in Mangayon, Compostela. But at the same time, some lumad communities have returned home in time for Christmas, as soldiers have already pulled out.
But their return is always marked with uncertainty. “We bear no illusions that the military have changed. We know that they will return and commit atrocities again and we will evacuate once more,” said Datu Jimboy Mandaguit of Bukidnon.
Their struggles continue. But somehow, it made people looked, listened and give a damn.
We used to see Lumads as remnants of our Mindanao island’s colorful past of mountain mystic, chants and lore; who become regular visitors during the Kadayawan festival or Christmas season, parading their ethnic wear and dance and asking for Christmas gifts in a strange modern city.
But now we see them as people who can draw us to care, to ask, to defy, to unite. They come from the peripheries to the center, to make us see how far we walked, yet we haven’t made any progress. For they are there, almost forgotten, but not quite. For they remind us of a past, that continues to be in the present. We still have to define who we are, before we can move forward.
And that is why they are the real newsmaker and the people of the year.