War-torn Sorsogon village finds peace
CASTILLA, Sorsogon—In the interior village of Pandan, largely cut off by bad road from the town proper of Castilla in Sorsogon, its residents of barely 2,000 live the lives of ordinary farmers.
The village has a public elementary school and high school with three teachers. Soon, it will have a new high school building.
More importantly, community spirit is strong.
This was not the case three years ago.
Pandan was largely a no man’s land, a haven for communist guerrillas, had no school because there was no teacher brave enough to educate the children, and residents constantly lived in fear as they were caught every day in the middle of an intense war between government troops and rebels.
The dramatic change, according to a military officer, came because the Armed Forces worked hard to “win the hearts and the minds of the masses,” at least in Pandan, a New People’s Army (NPA) stronghold until the military sustained its community organizing.
“We believe in community organizing to be an effective tool to lead back community folk to the government, in the same way the NPA rebels took away their faith from established authorities,” said Lieutenant Colonel Neneviegh Alcovindas, head of civil military operations of the 9th Infantry Division.
The deployment of “noncombat” soldiers, along with support from various government agencies, has generated trust and cooperation of the villagers, he said.
Pandan was once controlled by the NPA’s Front Committee Jaylo Command known to operate in the towns of Donsol, Pilar and Castilla in Sorsogon, according to Col. Felix J. Castro Jr., commander of the 903rd Infantry Brigade which covers Sorsogon and Masbate.
Pandan, 22 kilometers from the town center, has 405 households and a population of 1,975, the majority of whom subsist on coconut, rice and root crop farming.
The NPA took advantage of the isolation of the interior village due to the very poor road network, Castro said. Habal-habal (modified motorcycle for hire) was then the only means of getting in and out of the village, he added.
“This was their (NPA rebels’) hiding place,” Castro said.
In 2005 and 2006, the military decided to use noncombat personnel in community organizing, largely the same means that rebels were employing to win support.
The residents in the three sitios of Tipon-Tipon, Looc and Kutad were mobilized to defend themselves, Castro said.
Edenicia Celano, 43, a farmer and mother of five, said a third of the village folk in Pandan were supporters of the NPA from 2000 to 2005.
She said her father, Ernesto Marania, who died of diabetes in 2006, suffered physical abuse from soldiers vigorously tracking down her uncle, an NPA fighter.
However, Celano said she later learned to refuse the rebels when they asked to use their house for meetings as their lives would be imperiled if soldiers caught up with them.
“I was always in fear that we might be caught in a crossfire any time,” she said.
She remembered that the village officials requested to set up a detachment in 2005 when the military also started organizing the people into joining the Barangay Defense System (BDS) in the three sitios.
All male and female adults, from 18 to 65 years old, were BDS members and given identification cards, she said.
Every family must provide one member to guard four posts in the village center and in each of the three sitios to monitor people coming in and out.
The guards came in three shifts—morning, afternoon and night, Celano said.
Now a member of the barangay council, she said the monitoring setup eventually prevented the rebels from entering Pandan.
Castro said the NPA presence once discouraged teachers from coming to the village so that only elementary education was possible via one school building and two other schoolhouses made of light materials.
After ridding the village of rebels in 2008, the Army helped put up a public high school near Pandan Elementary School.
Lucia Villa became the first teacher assigned to handle one class of first year high school students. After three years, the number of students grew to 243 from first year to third year.
Now, three teachers are in high school, excluding Villa who acts as supervisor.
Villa said the public high school also caters to the neighboring barangays of Tomalaytay, Cogon and Saclayan, and even the coastal barangays in adjacent Magallanes town across the Sorsogon Bay.
She said it had been a great relief for children studying in high school who once walked for hours to reach Cumadcad High School, the nearest high school from Pandan.
With the peaceful environment in Pandan, the military was able to encourage Asociacion Valenciana de Asistencia Sanitaria Y Social (AVASSV), a Spanish nongovernment organization, to conduct a medical mission in the village last summer, Castro said.
“At present, the ABS-CBN Foundation, Rep. (Sonny) Escudero, the Department of Education, the local government of Castilla and the Army have mounted efforts to construct a two-classroom building for high school classes, which will be inaugurated on Sept. 20,” he said.
Castro said the military would continue its presence in the community through “noncombat” missions until livelihood groups were organized and defense groups consolidated.
This will allow them to expand to other villages once controlled by the rebels, he said.
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