“Nang binaril kami ng tatlong lalaki na naka-motor, tinulak ako ni mama palayo para hindi ako tamaan ng bala,” eight-year old Nene (not her real name) narrated how she survived the gun attack on May 26 at Brgy Salvacion, Trento, Agusan del Sur. (When the three men in motorcycles shot at us, mama pushed me away so I won’t get hit.)
Nene was nonetheless hit on her left shoulder while her mother, Beverly Geronimo, 27, died on the spot from seven gunshot wounds.
Just a few hours earlier, Nene and Beverly were at Trento town center, buying school supplies for the incoming school year that starts next week. Nene is an incoming grade three student of the Lumad school Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc. (MISFI).
Like most schoolchildren, Nene was excited about the new school year. Her school, as other Lumad schools throughout Mindanao, may have been continuously branded by the military and President Rodrigo Duterte himself as rebel schools, but it was her second home where she learns academics and Lumad culture.
Last May 26, Nene, Beverly and another relative, Lucy, were at Trento’s public market for the school supplies. Along with other items they bought, these were loaded on a “skylab”, a motorcycle fitted with wings to take on more passengers and cargo.
“We already noticed suspicious looking men on board motorcycles at the public market,” Lucy recalled. On their way home, three other riders chased them on the highway and began firing. A happy moment for the child instantly became a nightmare.
Beverly was hit at the back and Nene on the left shoulder. Lucy jumped off from the motorcycle and hid in a nearby canal. She saw the gunmen drive closer to Beverly and pumped more bullets at her.
‘Tokhangin namin kayo’
Beverly was a farmer who joined the Tabing Guangan Farmers Association (TAGUAFA) in Trento to protect their community from mining projects. She was a vocal critic of large scale mining companies OZ Metals and Agusan Petroleum.
By becoming an anti-mining activist, Beverly became a target of military harassment in the past nine years, including by the Philippine Army’s 75th, 25th, 67th and 66th infantry battalions that have been rotationally deployed around their community.
Merely two months ago, Beverly and other members of TAGUAFA were labeled by soldiers as “New People’s Army (NPA) surrenderees” in their community, a charge she vehemently denied.
Soldiers nonetheless warned Beverly that should she continue support the NPA they will come back for her. “Tokhangin namin kayo,” one military officer of the Philippine Army’s 25th Infantry Battalion warned her.
Nene recalled soldiers would go to their house to ask where her mother is. “Kapag hinahanap ng mga sundalo si mama, sinasabi ko nalang sa kanila na may pinuntahan siya,” Nene said. (When the soldiers come and asked for my mama, I said she was away.)
But Beverly was not all about her anti-mining and land rights activism. In behalf of Nene, she agreed to be elected as president of the MISFI Academy Parent Teachers and Community Association (PTCA) to become active in Nene’s school, another advocacy that earned the military’s ire.
In the past four years, Lumad school children and parents have been targets of the military’s intensified counter-insurgency campaign, especially those located in communities that resist mining operations. As members of Dibabawon tribe, Beverly enrolled Nene at MISFI that not only offer free tuition but a curriculum that respects Lumad culture.
But the military could not tolerate the insolence of alternative schools that encourages Lumad students to read and write, as well as to love and defend their ancestral lands. The Save Our Schools (SOS) network said that 56 Lumad schools throughout Mindanao have been forcibly closed, 18 schools destroyed and divested of equipment, and more than 2,000 students failed to finish previous schools year due to closure and threats by the military.
“From Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan to the current Duterte’s Oplan Kapayapaan, there is no let-up in the State’s malicious labelling and targeting of Lumad schools, teachers, students and parents as NPA fronts,” SOS said.
“Children are not even spared. If they themselves are not killed, they have become orphans denied their right to be cared for by their parents,” Salinlahi Alliance for Children secretary general Eule Rico Bonganay added.
SOS spokesperson Rius Valle said Beverly’s murder, as well as the murder of many anti-mining Lumad, is on the hands of the government. He said Duterte’s Martial Law has allowed soldiers to become law all over Mindanao.
“In Mindanao, countless lives have perished in a brutal manner in the hands of military elements,” said Valle. “For the sake of the Lumad children, this bloody campaign has to stop,” Valle said.
Missing her mother
Nene would not be able to attend MISFI’s first school day on Monday. Looking at her mother’s coffin, she said, “Hindi ako makakapasok sa June 4 dahil antayin ko pa si Mama,” Nene said. (I won’t go to school this June 4. I will first wait for mama’s burial.)
At her tender age, Nene is now forced to bury her mother and become one to her younger siblings, ages six and two. Already, she misses her mother. “Mabait si mama at maalaga. Magaling syang magluto ng sinugba,” recalled. (Mama was kind and she took care of us. She prepared grilled food well.)
Suddenly, Nene would have to grow up fast. In her young mind, though, it is clear who martyred her mother. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)