As ‘Ompong’ rages, Mindanao lumad in UST take shelter from another ‘storm’
Typhoon “Ompong” (internationally known as “Mangkhut”) forced the suspension of classes at the University of Santo Tomas on Friday last week, but it failed to stop activities at the Central Seminary gym, where student-volunteers still came to hear the stories of a group of victims taking shelter from another kind of “storm.”
“It was unsafe in our place. The people, including our teachers, were getting shot at, schools were being bombed, children were being separated from parents,” said Raquil Mandacawan, 16, recounting the recent experience of his tribe in Davao Del Norte.
Accused by military
Catherine Dalon, a Grade 10 student from North Cotabato, said her mother and grandfather—as well as her teachers—were being accused by the military of being communist rebels or terrorists. ‘’But have they killed anyone? Have the soldiers even seen them carrying a gun?”
The two teenagers were among the 62 members of the indigenous communities (lumad) from Mindanao who spent several days in UST as part of the Bakwit School program, an initiative seeking to raise awareness on the effects of armed conflicts and rural unrest on the poor and marginalized, especially on the youth.
As a Bakwit partner, UST played host to 45 students, five teachers and 12 parents from several lumad schools, mainly those run by the Salugpungan Ta’tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center in Davao del Norte, Tribal Filipino Program in Surigao del Sur, the Mindanao Interfaith Services Inc. (Mistfi), Fr. Fausto Tentorio Memorial School, Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development Inc. in Surigao and Agusan del Sur, and the Center for Lumand Advocacy and Services.
The delegation’s selection and travel were facilitated by the Save our Schools Network (SOSN), which blamed the increasing “militarization” of lumad communities on President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to place the whole of Mindanao under martial law in response to the May 2017 terrorist assault on Marawi City.
‘One with you’
The UST program ran from Sept. 10 to 17, during which the lumad students, teachers and parents attended literacy classes and skills training through interactive sessions with Thomasians. The delegates were also given lodgings inside the campus.
“We are opening UST for you, so that in some ways we can be one with you in your struggle. We are behind you in attaining your dream of quality education,” Fr. Pablo Tiong, vice rector for religious affairs, said in his welcome remarks.
Rius Valle, SOS-Mindanao spokesperson, said Bakwit School seeks to convey to those in Metro Manila and other parts of the country ‘’the real situation of the lumad in Mindanao under martial law.”
The term “bakwit”—short for evacuation—sums up the state of alarm hounding the students and their families, starting with the closure of their schools due to “military harassment,” Valle said.
1 laptop for 109 users
Part of the program was giving the students a tour of UST’s computer and biology laboratories, its museum and other facilities. For Dalon, a Mistfi student from North Cotabato, it was her first time to see so many computer terminals in one room.
Back in her school, there was only one laptop — donated by a teacher from Metro Manila — for the use of 109 students.
“Most of us have not seen a desktop computer before,” Dalon said.
For Mandacawan, it was a chance to share what happened to his 19-year-old cousin, Obello Bay-Ao, who was shot dead in 2017.
“Obello’s father asked him to go out in the field to find something to eat. He was shot twice on his way back. We know it’s the paramilitary (unit) who killed him because he was able to identify the shooter before dying in the hospital six hours later,” Mandacawan recalled.
Here to tell people
“People should know there are lumad being affected by martial law in Mindanao; we have stopped going to school because of it,” he said.
But worse than the disruption of their classes is the continuing threat that hangs over their families’ lives. “I am not sure if my mother is safe now or if she has something to eat,” Dalon told the Inquirer.
“But if I just stay there, nothing will happen. Nobody believes us there. The harassment continues. We’re here to tell the people what we are experiencing, the effects of the President’s every pronouncement. We are not even sure if we can go back,” she said.
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