The houses along Fr. Selga Street are radiant during December nights, disturbed only by the noise of the passing vehicles and the children’s improvised percussion instruments during their caroling. Window decorations are a measurement of everyone’s excitement as December ensues, and families stay inside their homes, comfortably resting, counting days until Christmas. The only thing that seems lifeless is the quiet cemetery.
But in front of the calm tombstones, just across the road, is a dim-lighted evacuation camp where, seemingly oblivious from the joyful people outside, a mother is probably sleeping in a makeshift hut, on the cold bamboo flooring, wrapping her arms around her thin child – the way Mary might have held Jesus the night he was born in a stable… far, far away from home.
For nine months now, Lumads from different parts of Mindanao are taking refuge in UCCP Haran after their communities are occupied by some members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) who, as they claim, militarized them.
While the rest of us will comfortably spend our Christmas with our families in our houses, the 700 of them will unfortunately have to spend the rest of their December away from their ancestral domains where they once harmoniously lived, away from the comfort of their once tranquil homes.
How will they spend this part of the year, which is very special for most of us, when they cannot even set foot on the place where they belong?
A member of the Mandaya tribe, Jong Monzon from Davao Oriental described their community in the mountains before with a wide smile and dreamy face, as though the once peaceful community was just before his eyes.
Even though Lumads like him do not normally celebrate the holidays, he expressed that every day, everything felt just like Christmas there.
“Kami, bisan pa ug walay pasko, ing-ana na kami sa komunidad [didto]: maghinatagay kung unsay naa dira sa sulod sa pamilya, walay pagpanag-iya. Kung unsay naa sa amoa, mao puy ihatag namo sa amoang lakpit na mga balay o silingan biskan ug dili pasko,” he said.
“Makakuha mi ug amoang sud-an panahon nga mangayam, kung ang karne dako nga karne amoa nang pagabahin-bahinun sa among komunidad.”
However, he claimed that when the military forces arrived, everything changed.
“Lahi na ang dagway: kagubot, kasamok. Naguba ang amoang pagpuyo. Ing-ana among nabati hangtod karon,” Jong said.
Now that they are spending their days in makeshift huts, Jong said that their life became even more different.
“Nine months na diri sa evacuation center, lahi ra gyud among komunidad. Didto, lugway nga makadagan-dagan ang mga bata, makahigop ug sariwa pa nga hangin, makaligo sa mga sapa nga hastang bugnawa. Lahi ra kaayo diri sa syudad nga adunay kasaba, abog.”
Behind the walls of UCCP Haran are makeshift huts where Lumad families, including children and women, are crammed, without anything to protect them but tarpaulins that serve as their roof. They have to get accustomed to the noise of the passing vehicles that replaced the serene chirping of the birds or the comforting sound of the rivers in their places.
Despite their situation, however, the evacuation camp seems a lot safer than their now-militarized communities. He said their requests are simple: to pull-out members of the military, to disarm paramilitary groups, and prevent mining industries from entering their community.
“Buot man namong magpapauli tungod kay pasko na, dili pa kana mahitabo kay wala pay pagtubag ang atong kagamhanan. Gustuhon man namo muuli pero sa kaning binuhatan sa atoang panggamhanan sakit kaayo para kanamong mga lumad nga para sa ilahang panan-aw, murag dili mi tao.”
But Jong sees hope amidst what has been happening to them, especially after knowing that just recently, military groups from a municipality in San Fernando, Bukidnon were already pulled-out, allowing the “bakwits” from the said place to go back to their homes.
He hopes the same thing will happen to the other 700 Lumads in Haran: to go back home without the threat of being harassed.
But the Lumads are never forgotten by volunteers, activists, and various groups who sympathize with their current situation. As December fades, advocates held gift-giving activities for the Lumads that do not only help them temporarily forget the pain they experienced in their community but also made them realized that they will never be alone in their struggle for self-determination.
“Taas kaayo nga pagpasalamat namo tungod kay nabawasan ang trauma sa among mga kaigsuonan. Nabawasan ang kaning kahadlok. Kami nga mga lumad nagpasalamat dyud kay naa pa diay mga taong madunggan amoang mga gustong ipadayag, naa pa diay mo nga andam maminaw sa amoa,” Jong expressed.
“Kami, ang regalo sa amoa, naa siyay parte pero ang dakong parte, ang among ikalipay, kay makita ang mga tao mismo, nga masayran nila kung unsa gyud among kahimtang. Unta ing-ana nalang adlaw-adlaw, kanang naay maghinatagay, ing-ana unta atong kinabuhi natong mga Pilipino.”
More than gifts and celebrations, Jong said that the greatest present they could receive is the chance to go back to their ancestral domain, to experience the joy of staying with their families safely, to live in a community where they feel unthreatened.
“Lahi ra gyud ang makita ang among yutang kabilin, mahikap man lang, makita ang mga pipila ka silingan,” Jong said with sincere eyes. “Wala nay kabutangan among kamingaw.”