Davao City–Somewhere in Bankerohan, in a compound still shady with trees, three-week-old Vermon Autan sleeps soundly on a mat in the bottom bunk of the dormitory-type room that he shares with his parents and four other siblings.
The place is not his home.
But crying only when he wants milk from his mother, Vermon looks at peace. He shows no sign of being scarred from the journey that his parents and the rest of his Ata-Manobo tribesmen took from their home in sitio Bermuda on May 12.
How he came upon this place was a long story.
It started in the afternoon of May 2, before Vermon was born, when his father, Allan Autan, 33, was on his way home to their village in Purok 4-B, Barangay Mangayon, in the municipality of Compostela. Allan was with his brother Jennis, 19.
They had spent several hours cutting down four trees. They planned to sell the lumber to furniture makers to tide their family over while waiting for the profit from the rice that was yet to ripen.
Allan especially needed emergency money because his wife was about to give birth to Vermon, their fifth child.
A few meters from their village, the brothers were startled when they looked up and saw two uniformed government soldiers with their long firearms trained at them. Allan recognized the guns — a machine gun and an M-16 rifle. In his teens, his family lived in Talaingod, Davao del Norte and he was the favorite errand boy of the government soldiers stationed in their village.
BABY VERMON. Baby Vermon Autan, his mother Jenalyn and his four siblings have since been transferred from Bankerohan gym after the three week old baby got sick. (davaotoday.com photo by Barry Ohaylan)
Allan immediately raised his hands. “Good afternoon,” he greeted the soldiers in the vernacular. The soldiers responded by grabbing him and his brother and forcing him on the ground. Then, the soldiers took his machete from his side and forcefully removed his backpack, where he had carefully placed vegetables he had picked up along the way and was planning to cook for dinner.
The soldiers shouted at them, asking where they lived. They said that they were from Purok 4-B, which was just a few meters away. The soldiers refused to believe them and accused them of being supporters or members of the New Peoples Army.
But the brothers denied the accusation. Allan reasoned that they couldn’t be NPA members because they were carrying a chain saw.
Then, the soldiers asked the name of their purok or village hall. Since the hall was barely finished, the village had yet to give it a formal name. When Allan tried to explain this, the soldiers wouldn’t accept his explanation. Instead, they took it as further proof that he wasn’t really from the village and, therefore, was indeed an NPA member.
In the midst of the shouting, Allan barely noticed that the soldiers had made his younger brother go on ahead. He was preoccupied by the two soldiers, a third one joining them in a few minutes. Not content with shouting, the soldiers started to strangle him. Three times, they also put Allan’s head inside a plastic bag.
Allan thought he was going to die each time his head was in the bag. He felt like he was drowning, his oxygen supply cut off. But he was still alive.
Each time the soldier removed the bag from his nose and mouth, his ears would ring with shouted questions and accusations. The soldiers wanted him to admit that he was a member of the NPA.
Allan denied the accusation. So, one of the soldiers took Allan’s machete and tried to strike him. Allan says he doesn’t know where he got the strength to catch the machete by clapping his hand and catching the sharp blade between his palms. The soldiers took his speed and agility as another proof that he was a trained member of the NPA.
Allan explained that he was merely protecting himself but the soldiers would not believe him. They forced Allan’s head inside the cooking pot that the brothers had used to store their lunch. His head wouldn’t fit, so, it was very painful.
Then, the soldiers forcibly removed his shirt, using it to bind his hands behind his back and forced him facedown.
Thinking that he was going to die, Allan called on God. One soldier laughed. He said that there was no God and that it was useless to call on Him. Trying to prove his point, another soldier pushed him harder on the ground, this time grinding his face on the mud, cutting off his oxygen. For good measure, one soldier also sat on his back but Allan would not admit to the soldiers’ accusations.
LATE NIGHT FLIGHT. Though still sore from being beaten by elements of the military, Allan Autan had to carry his wife on the night that his terrified tribe fled their village. Jenalyn had given birth earlier that day and Allan’s back was drenched in blood after the six-hour walk.(davaotoday.com photo by Barry Ohaylan)
Then, the soldiers told Allan to get up and accompany him. Allan refused. He was afraid that he might be taken to a more secluded place and gunned down. He was also exhausted.
Finally, one soldier pulled at the hair on his sideburns to force him up. He was still pulling Allan by his sideburns when his wife Jenalyn, still pregnant with Vermon, arrived. She warned the soldier against hurting her husband, who was already tired from felling trees. The soldier who had Allan by the sideburns denied that they were hurting Jenalyn’s husband. Jenalyn said that it was clear that her husband had been roughed up because he was muddy and full of scratches.
One of the soldiers told his companions to let Allan go because the latter’s wife was pregnant and might have the baby prematurely.
The soldier held on to Allan’s sideburns and didn’t reply. Instead, he continued to drag Allan. He brought him to where the rest of the soldiers were. Allan slumped to the ground because he had no more strength on his knees.
He tried to note the names of the soldier who beat him up but among the 20 soldiers who arrived in their sitio that day, no nameplate was visible. Either the nameplates were removed or soldiers covered their chests with bullet bands or sarongs. A badge that the soldiers were wearing, however, identified them with the 28th IB (Infantry Battalion) of the Philippine Army.
When Jenalyn continued to berate the soldiers for hurting her husband, one of the soldiers told her that what happened to him was their own fault. The soldier said he was tired of defending the Lumads against the NPA. He said the Lumads were not very cooperative in providing them with information needed to quash the NPA.
After a few minutes, two of Jenalyn’s neighbors arrived with their small children. They also asked the soldiers to release Allan. After about half an hour, the soldiers relented.
Allan reported what happened to him to the purok chairperson, Oraya Bansayluan the following morning. He asked Bansayluan and Rey Guimbuloy, the president of their local Lumad organization, to accompany him to Mangayon barangay captain Ramon Diaz to report the incident.
At the barangay hall, Diaz contacted Compostela municipal mayor Reynaldo Castillo, who was still in Davao City. After some time, the mayor called Diaz, who told the mayor about what happened to Allan. Castillo told Diaz to have Allan come to his office the next day for lunch.
Guimbuloy was able to contact officers of the southern Mindanao regional Lumad group Pasaka that afternoon. The officers told him to bring the group to the town of Compostela where they would be picked up and brought to Davao City. The group arrived in Davao on May 5. They went to the human-rights group Karapatan where they asked for help in filing cases against the soldiers before the Commission on Human Rights.
They also visited different radio and television stations to let the people know what was happening in their area. But afraid that his wife might give birth, Allan asked to go back home.
The three reached sitio Bermuda on May 10. Bansayluan and Guimbuloy went back to work on their fields the next day but Allan, who was still sore from the scratches and all the bruises, opted to rest one more day.
In the morning of the 12th, just as Allan was preparing to go back to work on his fields, Jenalyn’s labor pains started. Allan called his mother who helped deliver the baby.
Vermon was born at six in the morning.
Allan was happy but was also a bit apprehensive. The birth meant he had to stay away from his fields one more day to tend to the needs of the four other children and to let his wife rest.
But only a few hours after Vermon was born, government soldiers arrived in the village. Allan’s neighbors told him that it was the same group that was there the week before. Those who beat up Allan was also there. All of them still had their nameplates covered or removed.
Allan was scared. His neighbors also told him how the soldiers accosted Bansayluan at the unfinished purok and rebuked him for allowing Allan to complain in public. Allan feared that the soldiers might come for him.
The soldiers left the village after lunch. Before they left, they warned the Lumads that they would go back and burn all their houses if anything were to happen to them in an encounter with the NPA.
At 3 pm, the Lumads heard gunfire. They gathered at the purok, remembering the soldiers’ warning. They agreed that they had to leave immediately.
More soldiers arrived at 4:30 pm to serve as reinforcement to those who had passed by earlier. The uniformed men told the Lumads they would bear the brunt of the soldiers’ anger if any of the soldiers got hurt.
After the soldiers left, some villagers started packing, bringing clothes, cooking pots and what little food they had in stock.
CHOKED. Allan has filed a case against members of the 28th IB after he was allegedly strangled and his head put inside a plastic bag. (davaotoday.com photo by Barry Ohaylan)
Bansayluan, however, couldn’t decide to leave right away. He was concerned for Jenalyn, who had just given birth that morning and couldn’t possibly make the long journey on his own. Allan, whom Bansayluan knew was still sore from the soldiers’ beating the week before, would have to carry his wife. He decided to leave their fate with Allan.
But Allan knew that the soldiers had already marked him because he had filed charges against them. Although his bruises were still smarting, he decided to leave. He wrapped Jenalyn in a malong and had her wrap her arms around his neck.
Allan’s mother carried the newly born Vermon while Jennis and Allan’s younger sister took care of his other children, aged six, four, three and one.
At around 6 pm, the gunfire stopped. The villagers knew that the soldiers would soon be on their way back. One neighbor who just purchased a sack of rice, divided it among themselves, one can for every child in the family. At around 10 pm at night, they started walking. They kept on walking until they reached sitio Salbasyon at 4 at dawn.
When they arrived, Allan’s back was drenched in blood because Jenalyn was still bleeding.
By motorcycle, Salbasyon was still two hours away from the center of Compostela. Allan still felt a bit uneasy but the Lumads were exhausted and tried to find a place to rest in the church, in the purok and even in just a piece of ground.
Guimbuloy contacted Pasaka, who had asked assistance from the mayor. At 9 that morning, a truck from the mayor’s office arrived, ready to transport them to the center of Compostela. The mayor also volunteered free use of the municipal gym.
However, Allan’s nightmare wasn’t over. Military personnel also started arriving at the gym as soon as the Lumads arrived. They were in full battle gear, brandishing their long firearms and vests full of bullets!
“They are here — the people whom we are running away from,” Allan thought.
Some soldiers tried to talk to their children who immediately ran to their mothers. Allan and other Lumads were terrified because some soldiers taunted them, asking them to go and identify the bodies of their friends, referring to the NPAs that they had killed.
On May 14, a day after they arrived at the Compostela gym, the Lumads trooped to the provincial hall, where the members the provincial board were having their regular session. They also aired their grievances to Compostella Valley governor Arturo “Chongkee” Uy.
After Lumad leaders narrated what happened to them under the hands of the military, the provincial officials promised to provide the Lumads not just with temporary shelter but also with food.
But the Lumads wanted more.
They wanted a stop to the military operations. To ensure this, they wanted a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between them and the soldiers.
Allan said he was a little “buoyed” when local officials set the date for the MOA signing with the military on either Friday the 16th or Monday the 19th.
His feeling was short lived. Minutes after they got back to the Compostela gym from the provincial hall, 50 military men in full battle gear arrived. The soldiers began to set up an LCD projector for the Lumads to watch a film that the soldiers had prepared.
Allan said he did not care what they were going to say or do but he didn’t want soldiers anywhere near his family.
It was downhill from there. On May 15, a day before the Provincial Peace and Order Council was supposed to be convened, Governor Uy arrived and tried to make the Lumads agree to go home to their village with an assurance that they will no longer be harassed by soldiers. On the 16th, the military arrived at the gym again. Allan said he was frightened because it seemed that they were taking over. He realized then that no MOA signing between the Lumads and the military for a stop of the military operations was going to happen.
Some of the Lumads thought of going to Davao City to tell more people about their plight. Allan thought Davao was a safer place to go for him and his family. Lumad leaders presented this idea to everybody in the gym. Five families opted to stay behind, asking the Compostela mayor to take them back home, while Allan and most of the Lumads opted to go to Davao. They’ve been staying inside the Bankerohan gym since May 16.
For a woman who survived the long journey shortly after giving birth, Jenalyn is still bleeding. But the medical personnel attending to her gave the assurance that all her vital signs point to a normal recovery. Around her, the four kids run and laugh freely. Only Vermon is truly unaware of what happened to them the last few weeks. He only knows the warmth of being wrapped in his mother’s arms as he suckles on her breast. (CJ Kuizon/davaotoday.com)