TANDAG, SURIGAO DEL SUR—For a week, this province’s Social Hall had been a funeral parlor for the victims of the massacre in Sitio Han-Ayan, Barangay Diatogon, Lianga town. Beneath its chandeliers—witnesses to many festive events in the past—laid the three mutilated bodies of Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev) executive director Emerito Samarca, Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang Sa Sumusunod (Mapasu) chairperson Dionel Campos and Datu (Chieftain) Juvello Sinzo. Their joint wake was held here for six days and nights after their brazen murder by paramilitary forces last September 1, incidentally the Global Day of Prayer for All Creation as declared by Pope Francis.
Their embalmers obviously tried to conceal the paramilitary Magahat-Bagani Forces’ brutal handiwork to accord the victims a dignified appearance. Samarca’s barong collar was pulled up to his chin to hide his slit throat. Campos’ bullet wound on his forehead was skillfully concealed by cosmetics but his grimace remained. All three had absorbent material bulging from under their shirts to hold what bodily fluids may still seep from their wounds.
The night of September 7 was the last time that Samarca was to stay at his beloved Surigao del Sur, as his remains was to be brought back to his home province of Agusan del Norte the next day. As the city around them prepared for its annual fiesta, hundreds gave the three victims a funeral tribute. As it drizzled outside the hall tears were being shed inside it.
Church people led the tribute that started with an ecumenical prayer. Tandag’s Roman Catholic choir sang beautifully, immediately misting the eyes of many in the crowd. Bishops, priests and pastors were seated nearer the white coffins and participated in the program as speakers. Roman Catholic priest and Alcadev board member Fortunato Estillore talked about how the tribal schools must continue. Iglesia Filipina Independiente Bishop Mervin Elimanco passionately condemned the massacre. United Church of Christ in the Philippines Bishop Modesto Villasanta talked about how the elementary Trifps (Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur) and the secondary Alcadev schools upheld the Manobo’s dignity through literacy and defense of their ancestral domain.
The nuns, on the other hand, seated themselves behind the grieving families and with the crowd. They wore different-colored and styled wimples, as they belong to different congregations. In Mindanao they also firmly belong to the people, especially the poor. They were either members of the Sisters’ Association of Mindanao (Samin), the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, or both.
They approached grieving families and softly consoled them, even as they themselves were crying. They close their eyes in horror as they listen to witnesses of how Campos, brave lumad organization leader, was shot on his forehead, his brain splattered on land he fiercely defended. They bow their heads in prayer as they listen to Sinzo’s daughter narrate how his chieftain-father had been steadfast against corporate mining despite repeated harassments from both military and paramilitary forces.
Among the nuns Sr Stella Matutina, OSB appeared to have felt the pain the most. Barely two months before the massacre she attended the International Peoples’ Conference on Mining held in Metro Manila as secretary general of Panalipdan-Mindanao, an island-wide environment group, with Samarca. As Karlgen Samarca narrated how tender and loving his father was to his family and the indigenous peoples and how dedicated he was as Alcadev director she peeled herself away from their group and tried to hide behind a concrete column to weep. Samarca must have been very happy for her when it was announced she would be the recipient of the Wiemar Human Rights Award of Germany in December. He must have offered her support when the Philippine Police harassed her with false serious illegal detention charges earlier this year. They had been close friends and comrades for the environment and indigenous peoples’ rights for decades. “A very good man, very kind and soft-spoken,” Sr. Stella said of her friend.
Sr Stella related how the Manobos of Surigao del Sur were harassed last August 9, International Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She also narrated that the three victims were killed by the Magahat-Bagani Forces and how the thousands were forcibly evacuated on the day that Pope Francis called for a day for prayer for planet Earth. “It was a very nice celebration when the whole world prays. But in the Philippines, we are killing an educator for lumads (indigenous peoples of Mindanao), a lumad leader and a datu (chieftain). What are we telling the world when we are killing educators and defenders of creation?” she asked.
The activist nun called on the faithful to study deeper the root causes of poverty in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. “In the (Church-declared) Year of the Poor this is what happening. We believe in a God of equality and justice. We will not have peace if things like this (the massacre) keep on happening. We must respect indigenous peoples’ rights. We have to be Christians,” Sr Stella said.
The tribute ended at half past midnight. As the evacuees stood up to go back to their tents at the nearby evacuation center an elderly nun approached the coffins. She lingered on each, clutching a prayer book. When she turned to leave with the others, her eyes were as wet as the grass blades outside, then already being caressed by the night mist that rolled from the nearby forests. #
(Text and photos by Raymund B. Villanueva)