My Personal Pilgrimage
When friends heard that I was joining the Great Jubilee Pilgrimage against Hunger in Mindanao, they were astounded. Why now when there was a war going on there?
But I had my very personal reasons, selfish, as they may have been. I wanted to go away to search for myself, to go back to my roots with the Manobos of Bukidnon. I wanted to immerse myself in other people's problems and causes, to forget my own.
So when the NGO group behind the 40-day nationwide march for land, peace, freedom, and justice called to invite me for the Mindanao leg, I readily agreed. In fact, I jumped at the chance.
The weeklong march started in Davao through Tagum, San Francisco, Butuan City, Cagayan de Oro, Bukidnon, and back to Cagayan, through byways and small villages where farmers whose lands had been wrested away from them by the rich and in some cases the government itself were fighting a battle for survival.
Various sectors were represented in the pilgrimage-women, youth, farmers, fishermen, construction workers, overseas contract workers, Gomburza, and the group of Fr. Robert Reyes, front liner of the march.
We walked for 10 to 15 kilometers each time, something I wasn't prepared for. I thought I would only be singing for the cultural nights, so I walked with them in my high-heeled shoes. My God! Nasira ang sapatos ko. Good thing, most of the time nakasakay ako sa mobile stage.
My audience were the farmers and I sang for them my composition "Kapayapaan sa Mundo," and two Joey Ayala compositions: "Awit ng Mortal" and "Bathala."
At the Manobo settlement in Quentras, Bukidnon, I sang "Ka-Tribo" which I had composed for my tribe in Bunawan. I thought it would be fitting to sing it there. I wasn't wrong: the elders cried. I'm glad I touched their hearts even if only with my song.
The pilgrimage was all about the Five R's - Return the Land, Rest the Earth, Recall the Debts, Reclaim the Feminist Principle, Release the Slaves. I felt it all sounded so political, but then again I guess all issues regarding the masses are really political.
Friends ask, were we afraid? I guess we were since we were in what was known as the war zone. We couldn't see the enemy but every time we left a place, we heard that a bombing occurred. I guess we were just lucky. When I got a chance to go ahead of the group and visit my hometown (Bunawan, Agusan del Sur), I observed some military trucks full of military men. But even as a kid, I already saw those things, so it was nothing new to me.
On the third of the pilgrimage, after that overnight visit with my parents, I felt refreshed. This was when I truly began to understand what we were marching for, and gradually realized that I was with people who were bringing message to the nation. I knew that they were doing it wholeheartedly and unselfishly. And I began to forget about myself.
Everywhere we went, I heard similar stories. In the urban poor area in Sta. Cruz, Cagayan, the people are called squatters in their own land. They told stories of how policemen were harassing them and asked the pilgrims to bring their problems to Manila.
In Barrio Sumilao, Mapalad, Bukidnon, we walked to the municipal prison. There were nine farmers there from Mapalad who were imprisoned for expressing their rights over their land. They were charged with grave coercion for allegedly leading a two-hour barricade along the Sayre Highway on Sept. 20, 1999, but were picked up only eight days before our visit.
Two of the marchers with us were from Mapalad. When we arrived, they voluntarily surrendered themselves but the police refused to arrest them. It was raining and they asked that their companions be released. It was a dramatic moment.
They asked me to sing and I did, seated on the jeep with the mobile sound system. I sang almost 10 songs, which I hope helped to calm the people and the police.
Finally, all those charged were bailed out for P7,000 and the people were clapping and shouting. But the head of the group spoke out. It was just the beginning of their struggle, he said, the war over the land, their land.
I personally saw the vast land in question. With barbed wire surround it, there was nothing there except tall grass and weeds. Sayang, It could have helped the livelihood of the farmers. Sayang.
During the pilgrimage, I got to talk to some people who were with us, and others I met along the way. Nandit Salise, an NGO worker from Agusan del Sur, said that waging an all-out war in Mindanao was not right. The government, he said, should go deeper and study the causes of the conflict in terms of the political, cultural and economic interests of the people.
Cabugsa Euprono from Butuan City saw that poverty, and the fight brought about the problems over ownership of the land. Lucita Bulatin of Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte had not lost hope in the government that eventually some help would come.
Edwin Biban, a Manobo from Quentras, Bukidnon, said that they were not very concerned with the current war in Mindanao, "kasi may giyera din kami sa sarili naming lupa. Sana mabigyan pansin din ang giyera naming mga katutubo, na mabawi naming ang lupang para SA amin!"
It was obvious that the real issue confronting the people in Mindanao is not the Muslim conflict, nor the bandits or terrorists. It is the old time conflict over land.
I left the group in Cagayan. They would go on with their mission to the Visayas to bring the true message of the Jubilee year. When I boarded the plane for Manila, my heart and hopes went with those who would continue the difficult task ahead of them. As for myself, I am now backing to my own life, ready and able to start my own pilgrimage.
printed in Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 20, 2002