Tales of Dinalungan

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Source:  PROJECT PEOPLE POWER

By:  Susan F. Quimpo

Sr. Ludy’s photo album held a curious cache of pictures. Its first few pages showed the usual smiling faces, against a backdrop of the open sea and a fisherman’s banca (dinghy); smiling faces with a backdrop of a large truck with freshly cut logs; smiling faces at what looked like a youth club gathering. Then pictures with sober faces, and several more of a young man in a coffin with a red flag draped on it.

Over the last three years, I had intermittently visited Sr. Lourdes Calleja, or Sr. Ludy as she is fondly called, at the Sisters of Mount Carmel School and Convent in Quezon City. Today I visit her, specifically to bring Max de Mesa from the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) to hear her and her colleagues, Sr. Diane Maquinto and Rogelio Gutierrez tell their tale.

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Sr. Ludy Calleja with human rights advocate Max de Mesa (PAHRA)

Their story begins on June 12, 1980 when Srs. Ludy, Diane and two other sisters from the same congregation arrived in remote Dinalungan, a small town and its cluster of seven barangays in Aurora province, northeast of Manila. Bishop Julio Labayen, OCD brought them there with specific instructions. In the absence of a priest, the sisters were tasked with the area’s pastoral ministries. Upon the Bishop’s request and with government authorization, the Sisters presided at marriages and funerals, baptized children, conducted retreats, established religious education programs, formed choirs, intervened in marital disputes, and upon the behest of locals — blessed rice fields, fishing nets, and even weapons carriers!

But idyllic Dinalungan was not the rural paradise it once was.

In September 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines had declared martial law, a state of emergency that was to span 14 years.   Even in the sleepy town of Dinalungan, Marcos’ military soon had a presence. As was the norm during the martial law era, where there was military presence, there came the New People’s Army (NPA), communist-led revolutionaries, as well. The NPAs invited the locals to “teach-ins” in the mountains at night, urging the latter to join the revolution. For more than a decade, the residents of Dinalungan listened but did not join the ragtag army, choosing instead to continue with the rhythms of fishing, tilling the land and taking their cattle out to graze. They would leave their homes at dawn, and with enough food for a few days, ascend hills and mountains where they cleared land for their crops, and stayed a few nights until the work was done.

But by the mid-1970s, there were stories of military men beheading the NPA they accosted in the hinterlands. Army checkpoints proliferated and a 10 o’clock curfew prohibited civilians from leaving their homes at night. The men in uniform said the farmers had to procure a daily permit, a slip of paper that allowed them to leave the confines of their barangay. Only at 7:00 am could they leave, bringing only enough food for a day, and only enough to feed oneself. Then at 4:00 pm they had to be back at the army checkpoint, showing their permits to re-enter their homes.

This practice of cordoning off residents into “hamlets” or safe zones was a military tactic American armies had perfected during the early 1900s during the Philippine-American war. In effect, the practice prevented the locals from interacting with guerrilla groups, cutting off supply lines and strategic information on enemy movements. “Hamletting” was likewise used in “counter-insurgency” efforts in the Philippines and in other Southeast Asian countries considered to be under the “threat” of Communism up until the 1990s.

“The people complained. Before martial law, they could work their fields during the cool hours of dawn and the late afternoon. Then suddenly, they were allowed to farm only during the hours of 7am to 4pm. For many, they had to walk nine kilometers to reach their fields — how could they accomplish anything during such a limited amount of time? If you brought food more than one person can consume, the soldiers would say you were feeding the NPA.” Sr. Ludy recalled. “And if you lose your permit, you are immediately suspected of being an NPA.”

Aware of the fact that heightened militarization was affecting the simple life in rural areas, Bishop Labayen, a staunch human rights advocate, reiterated to the sisters: “As followers of Christ, we must opt for the poor in terms of human dignity and human rights whom Christ opted and died for.”

The central convent of the Sisters of Mount Carmel sent reinforcements to fulfill Bishop Labayen’s call. Srs. Monica Teves, Helen Ojario, Pablita Claro, Agnes Vagay, and Carlita Panaligan joined Srs. Ludy and Diana at their convent and formation house in Dinalungan. Their vast parish included the surrounding towns and barrios of Abuleg, Tahip, Simbahan, Dibaraybay, Nipoo, Ditawini and Mapalad.

A social ministry was an integral part of the sisters work in Dinalungan. The sisters intervened to protect farmers during a protest rally against a landowner who attempted to take their land; they trained community leaders and health workers; they helped with the establishment of credit cooperatives and learned how to till the land and harvest the fields like the famers they served.

“I asked my brother in Manila to gather as many old rubber tires he could manage. These I brought back with me to Dinalungan. The farmers were so happy. The used the tires for their carabao carts to make it easier to bring the produce to market,” reminisced Sr. Ludy.

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Sr. Lourdes “Ludy” Calleja

Sr. Diana, recalls: “We would go from one village to another, climbing and walking along mountain trails and rivers, and riding sometimes on logging trucks to reach other remote areas.”

“The farmers wanted to teach us how to plant crops. They would say, ‘ You should not be afraid to put your bare feet on the ground, because you will find no broken glass, nothing will cut you. We take care of the soil.’, ” says Sr. Ludy. “But the minute we return to Dinalungan, rumors ran rife that the sisters went up to the mountains to meet with the NPA.”

“We were branded as subversives,” added Sr. Diana.

“If you tried to find out how the rumors started, you will discover that these were started by the police and military themselves,” says Sr. Ludy. Under pressing situations, rumors fuel paranoia, and it was not long before the sisters themselves were in danger.

Recalls Sr. Diana, “There was a woman in town who told her military husband that the sisters were going from one house to the next. Immediately the military assumed we were organizing the village-folk, encouraging them to support the NPA. But we were just calling for a meeting with our youth pastoral leaders.

“I was informed I was being invited for questioning. Eventually, a military colonel and his men came to speak to me at our convent, asking me about the sisters’ activities with the locals. I grew nervous and I wanted to distract him. Knowing that he was not from Aurora province, I asked the colonel where he was originally from. He said his hometown was Manaoag, Pangasinan. At that opportune moment I said, ‘ Isn’t the Virgin of Manaoag miraculous?’.” Sr. Diana was referring to the patron saint of Manaoag. To her relief, her statement distracted the colonel who then started to tell her stories of the miracles attributed to the saint. She served him merienda (snacks) as they continued to chat about his hometown. It wasn’t long before she ushered the now amicable colonel to the door. A few hours later, Joseph, the convent’s caretaker, found a pistol had been “planted” in his quarters. The sisters surmised that perhaps a raid on the convent was originally planned, and the pistol was to be used as “proof” that the nuns were linked to the communists. Surely it was Sr. Diana’s quick thinking that had saved the day.

More and more rumors circulated in the town and barangays of Dinalungan. If the local towns folk and villagers initially shunned the invitation to join the NPA, the increased military presence there became the very impetus to join the rebel army. The young men of Dinalungan began disappearing. If they had not joined the NPA, it was likely that they were in shallow graves after being extra-judicially executed by the military.

“The youth leaders of our parish, the children of the farmers, they all joined the NPA. Naubos sila (They were all gone). So many disappeared. We heard that the military had to dig mass graves behind the municipal hall to just get rid of the bodies,” said Sr. Ludy.

“I remember Roberto Rivares, he was our houseboy at our Formation house. We grew medical herbs and tended to the sick. Roberto joined our health workers program, interned with our municipal doctor and learned to sew sutures. So when the wounded came, it was Roberto who would help. I told the military, we help whoever comes to us in need; we do not ask if he is NPA or military; we just administer to the sick. Roberto was one of our scholars, he went to night school and would come home late. One evening on his way home, he was killed by the brothers of the incumbent mayor, one of whom was a soldier. A fact-finding team came and investigated the case. Their findings clearly identified Roberto’s murderers.   But the brothers left town, no arrests were made, and the police and military maintained that Roberto was suspected to be an NPA.

Grabe ang harrassment (Harrassment was severe). Because when the military would question people and ask when they started to be involved in community activities, everyone would answer, ‘When Sr. Ludy arrived’.”

In their eyes, the Sisters of Mt. Carmel were just fulfilling the pastoral and social ministry assigned to them. What they failed to realize was that their humble example was the very source of empowerment for the poor they served. Because there was no priest available in these remote areas, the sisters led the Liturgy of the Word. The women in the community witnessed the nuns facilitate pastoral meetings discussing the scripture readings and connecting these with issues concerning the community such as the advocacy for ceasefires and peace talks. During such meetings, the women realized they too had a voice, and that their opinions mattered. The women said, ‘Pwede rin pala kaming mag-share (We are allowed to share our thoughts).’

“That was a big thing for me. I realized that when you become committed to the Church of the Poor, doon ka namumulat (you are awakened, you develop a new consciousness).”   I watched Sr. Ludy articulate these words with much thought, as though the experiences at Dinalungan continued to provide her with fresh insights some 26 years hence. In the midst of the constant interaction between good and evil, her awakening commenced.

“…when we sisters first lived in Dinalungan, I had seen growth taking place in the people. The quiet farmer became articulate. The shy mother became a catechist or a community health worker. The youth could lead a bible service.

The farmers had organized their own credit co-operative which freed them from usurer and moved them toward better collaboration and cooperation. The women organized a community-based health program to teach and practice preventive medicine, reflexiology, first aid, herbal gardening, and herbal medicine preparation.”

By 1985, the NPA in the area were emboldened. Rogelio Gutierrez, who was then the head of the parish council, remembered that the NPA came in two truckloads, the type used for hauling gravel, plus one jeep. “Guerra na talaga nuon (It was really a war)!” After skirmishes with the military, the NPA withdrew, leaving the civilians to face recrimination.

In late January 1986, Rogelio noticed that four men, sitting on a carabao cart were in front of his home. By around 7:00 pm, he stood by his window to close them for the night. The men drew armalite rifles from the cart, and two started firing at him. A bullet grazed him, another went through his wife’s arm. Rogelio tried to exit through his back door but the two other men were there, firing guns as well. He pushed his family into a foxhole, one he had readied inside his house. The following day, the family left Dinalungan, seeking shelter at the nearest diocese. “I don’t think it could have been the NPA because they had withdrawn from the area by then. It must have been the military or members of the paramilitary groups they hire,” says Rogelio.

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Rogelio Gutierrez still works for the Sisters of Mt. Carmel School where he was given refuge in 1986.

In February 1986, a popular uprising, now known as People Power, forced Marcos and his family into immediate exile thus ending his dictatorship. A euphoric nation turned to its new president Corazon Aquino to deal with Marcos’ legacy of ingrained corruption and favored appointments in the bureaucracy, and a powerful, undisciplined military. The first two years of the Aquino administration was challenged by at least 12 coups, proof that large factions in the military refused Aquino’s mandate.

Political turmoil in the capital quickly rippled down to remote towns like Dinalungan. Without clear orders and restraints from Manila, the local military and police called the shots. The number of paramilitary groups were on the rise

The paramilitary groups were goons for hire. They were given guns and the task to sow terror among civilians believed to be rebel supporters. They were called Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF) but locally they were called Itiman (Black) or Pulahan (Red) describing the color of the headbands they wore during military operations. One group was called Tadtad (Chop-chop) because they would behead or disfigure their victims.

“The following evening, men entered another home in one of the nearby barangays. I remember the woman’s last name was Buencamino,” recalls Sr. Ludy. The men started shooting and the father was the first killed. The mother pushed her 5-year old son behind a cement house post, and so he was spared but still grazed by bullets. The mother begged for clemency but pinaulanan pa rin sila ng bala (but bullets still fell like rain). A female cousin was also in the house. Cradling her baby, she begged for mercy; but they shot her too. The next day the boy and the baby were found alive, the infant still locked in its mother’s cold, stiff arms. The boy said the men wore military uniforms, and he identified one of the men as a member of a paramilitary team.

“Every night you heard gunfire, and you knew it was someone’s home being strafed,” Sr. Ludy added. The sisters had developed deep ties with people of Dinalungan. “Kasama ka na sa kahirapan nila (you share their suffering); but with this oneness comes a deep sense of joy and accomplishment. Often I would tell the barrio-folk, but what can the sisters do, we are powerless against the military? And they would answer, “Your presence alone is enough Sister.”

Indeed, Sr. Ludy’s presence and her willingness to listen was enough for two mothers who walked three hours from Kasiguran, a neighboring town, to see her. Their daughters, both in their late teens and university student activists, were arrested and taken prisoner at the house of the military commanding officer at Kasiguran. “We assumed that the girls were raped since that was SOP (standard operational procedure) when women were arrested. The girls were made to cook and clean; one was contemplating suicide saying she could not endure the indignities anymore. The mothers just wanted to speak to someone sympathetic, but they knew I could only do so much.”

About the same time an arsonist tried to burn down the convent; but providentially, it rained and only the porch was ruined. Still, the sisters held their ground and continued their ministry.

At one point, the sisters were going from one house to the next, inviting their flock to their formation house where a visiting priest was preparing to say Mass. While on their way back, they heard gunfire coming from the area of their convent. From afar, the nuns saw armed men encircle their formation house and riddle it with bullets. In a nick of time, the altar boy jumped from an open window and made it to safety; the visiting priest hugged the floor, crouched behind the cement foundations of the bamboo wall. “The priest’s sutana (cassock) hanging by the window was in taters because of the bullet holes!”

“You can no longer stay here Sister,” said Obet, one of the church workers. “It is no longer safe to stay in Dinalungan. Even our homes are not safe for you.”

Sr. Ludy was in a dilemma. “Our instructions from the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) were to stay with the people and protect their human rights. I wanted to stay; but it became clear to me that the presence of the sisters themselves was also putting the people in harm’s way.”

Sr. Ludy was one of the last two sisters who left Dinalungan in 1988, soon after the strafing of their convent. She left with a heavy heart and with hardly anything but the clothes on her back. The sisters were cautioned not to take the land routes; checkpoints dotted all roads leading out of Dinalungan. Instead, they took a seven-hour boat ride to the provincial capital Baler, making their way to the same diocese Rogelio sought refuge in.

When they reached the diocese , a sister came rushing out to greet them, saying, “The police said you were missing! We were so worried.” Later, Sr. Ludy found out that soon after they left the convent, the men manning military and police checkpoints dotting the roads to and from Dinalungan were instructed to specifically look out for the sisters. The bodies of farmers belonging to the farmers’ cooperative the sisters had organized were found on the side of the road just outside Dinalungan, in a shallow grave just covered with leaves. Among the dead was Kisput, a robust teenager whom Sr. Ludy had mentored as one of the church youth leaders.

The mass grave was clearly a strong threat meant for the sisters. It seemed the rumors about the “missing” sisters were prematurely circulated by the military because had they been apprehended on the road, the sisters would have been abducted and killed. With haste, the sisters and Rogelio made their way to safety amongst the Carmelite community at the Sisters of Mount Carmel’s central convent and school in Quezon City.

Events after leaving Dinalungan are a blur. Sr. Ludy remembers she was interviewed by the foreign press, “I think it was the BBC.” Rogelio, who was able to bring his young family to Manila, claims that entire clans, including his, had to leave fearing further retaliation from the military and the paramilitary teams. Everyone associated with any of the projects of the Sr. Ludy and the Carmelite nuns were hunted down. Joseph, the convent caretaker, and Obet the church worker, were eventually killed even as they sought refuge in neighboring provinces. Rogelio was eventually hired by the sisters as a custodian for their central convent and school, a position he holds to this day.

Though safe within the walls of their convent in Fairview, Sr. Ludy was troubled: “I found it difficult to comprehend who God was. In the safety of our central house, I continued to be disturbed. What would happen to the people of Dinalungan? They could carry only a few belongings in their frantic attempt to evacuate. What future was there for them?”

Fearing further harassment, Sr. Ludy was sent by her superiors to their New Orleans chapter in Louisiana where she stayed for several years. Upon her return to the Philippines in the 1990s, she was assigned to Dumaguete and Manila.

Today, Sr. Ludy is 80 years old, Sr. Diane is 70, and Rogelio, 58. Since their hasty retreat from Dinalungan in 1986 and 1988, only Rogelio has been back to visit.

As the children of Mt. Carmel School rush off to waiting school buses, cars and parents, a few stop, backtrack and say, “Goodbye sister,” while they take Sr. Ludy’s right hand and press this on their foreheads in a gesture of reverence. “Bless you,” the nun answers; the kids smile and run off.

Sr. Ludy and Rogelio listen intently as human rights advocate Max de Mesa briefs them on the procedure for filing remuneration claims for martial law victims under Republic Act No. 10368. The implementation of this newly-minted law began last June, giving the victims of the Marcos regime or their heirs six months to file their claims for the death, disappearance, illegal arrest and detention, torture, rape and/or the confiscation of the right to livelihood and property. Due to media control and repression, government documentation of cases under the regime are virtually non-existent and a huge percentage of cases will be deliberated based on affidavits of support filed in favor of the victims.

This is where Sr. Ludy knows she can make a difference. With her reports to her religious superiors, detailed diary entries and photo album of Dinalungan from 1980-88, she knows she can vouch that the horrific stories of hamletting, arson, strafing and murder are true. Rogelio is certain he can request his friends and relatives who have returned to Dinalungan to round up the martial law victims of human rights violations.

Unfortunately, the process isn’t that simple. A paralegal team will need to go to Dinalungan to help claimants complete forms, and witnesses like Sr. Ludy to write affidavits of support for each case. Once notarized, each claimant will have to go to the Commission on Human Rights in Manila to personally file their claims. Even if the paralegals from human rights groups donate their services, it would still cost money to transport the team to Dinalungan and even more money to have the claimants come to far-off Manila.

“It’s sad that the human rights workers do not even have a budget to have the claim forms photocopied, more so to have funds to go to Dinalungan and provide transportation for the farmer and fisherfolk claimants.” says Max.

Nonetheless, Sr. Ludy is hopeful that she can help find and provide closure for a time in her life and that of Dinalungan that is in need of healing.

“I would not exchange (the experience) for anything else in the world. I learned many important lessons from the lives of the people. They taught me simplicity and truth, patience, poverty, care for all creation, how to survive in the face of all odds, how to be happy and to be free,” says Sr. Ludy, summarizing her experiences in Dinalungan.

The deadline for filing remuneration claims is November 12, less than a month away. In the last couple of weeks, human rights groups have been frantically urging friends and supporters to sign a petition addressed to Senate President Franklin Drilon. The petition is for a six-month extension for the filing of claims for the Human Rights Victims (HRV) Compensation Act.

Time is running out. Sr. Ludy and the claimants of her beloved Dinalungan are in need of a miracle.

Written by:

Susan F. Quimpo is the co-editor/author of “Subversive Lives : A family memoir of the Marcos years” (Anvil Press, 2012). The book is about the story of the Quimpos, a family of activists, and their experiences under martial law.

 

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