Thursday, August 28, 2008

Déjà Vu

There is nothing more distressing to my mother and those belonging to her generation than the sight on the television screen of scenes of whole families, men, women and children burdened by personal belongings and fleeing their homes because of war and violent conflict. To others, the pictures and video images may just be ordinary news footage and nothing more. For her and many of the folks here in Lianga, they are painful reminders of similar experiences that have happened to them in the past, like memories seared into their collective consciousness.

Lianga is an old town that happens to be located in an area with a contemporary history replete with episodes of war and violent confrontations between armed groups. As such its streets and public places have been, in the past, battlegrounds where opposing forces fought bloody battles for dominance while the town's hapless citizens cowered behind locked, barricaded doors and windows while the sound of gunfire echoed all over. During such times in its history, many local residents also had recourse to take refuge in the countryside with relatives and friends willing to take them in until it was safe to return to their abandoned homes.

During the early 1970's, for example, two well-armed, politically well-connected local warlords fought for control of wharf and stevedore operations in Barangay Diatagon just 9 kilometers north of Lianga during the height of logging operations in the Lianga area. The dispute erupted into a full-blown war for political and economic dominance as armed goons from both groups fought pitched battles in the town streets and open spaces. The war extended to the coastal sea when gunmen partial to both sides shot at each other while on board small motorized boats and small ships.

That time of the warlords and the accompanying general lawlessness finally ended with the declaration of martial law in 1972 by Ferdinand Marcos whose dictatorial rule over the whole country was to last until 1986. But dictatorship or not, Lianga was no safer place to live in. Guerrilla forces belonging to the New People's Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, had established a strong presence in this part of Mindanao and during the 1980's and 1990's, rebel insurgents raided the town center at least on two occasions and successfully overran and ransacked the municipal town hall each time they did so. Several policemen and at least one civilian died in the attacks.

Lianga nowadays, of course, is, by and large, a much more peaceful town. The Communist insurgency has been slowly on the wane although it remains a threat to the local security situation and continues to worry local government officials and security forces who often panic at the slightest news of sightings of massing rebel forces in the general area. Much of the general anxiety and sense of being besieged by unfriendly forces that the local people have become used have been eased somewhat by more friendlier times.

Yet the people of Lianga remain mindful of their often turbulent past. In many ways they have been touched by war and conflict as a community and as a people. They are children of violence, disturbingly intimate with the nature and consequences of war in all its forms.

So when my mother expresses her sorrow loudly and profusely at the sight of video images on television of Muslim and Christian families fleeing the military operations against the Muslim insurgents in Central Mindanao, it is all heartfelt and sincere. Like many here in this town, she knows what it is like to be caught helplessly in the crossfire of battles she and her family have no wish to be part of and have no desire to join in.

She knows what it is like to be flee her home and seek refuge in the homes of others and to pray for survival for herself and her family while hunkered down and seeking refuge from the hail of flying steel from indiscriminate guns. These are memories she does not wish her children and her grandchildren will never have.

Seeing those images on television for not only brings back unpleasant memories, it is like having to relive them once again. It is in many ways more than empathy, it's déjà vu.

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