Sunday, December 28, 2008


The name of my hometown, Lianga, has been in the news quite a lot in the past few weeks and usually in connection with news reports of violent clashes between government military forces and communist insurgents belonging to the New People's Army. My friends from other places are all asking the same question. "What the hell is exactly going on there?"

Of special significance are two recent news stories, one concerning the Dec. 2 ambush by NPA guerrillas of a truck carrying Army personnel in Sitio Bantolinao in Barangay Ganayon just five kilometers outside of Lianga which resulted in the death of five soldiers and the wounding of two others. Another news item came out about a week later about a fierce encounter between government forces and communist rebels in the hinterlands of Barangay Diatagon in the north of the town where both sides claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on the other. This is despite the absence of confirmed reports on the actual casualty count.

And yet even before that, intermittent reports hinting at the intensification of military operations in many areas of Surigao del Sur and the Lianga area have filtered through the national news media together with an apparent increase in the number of news accounts of attacks and ambuscades executed by NPA forces against government military and police units in the field particularly in the neighboring provinces of Compostela Valley, Agusan del Sur and Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur. What the hell is going on, indeed?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Greetings

All week long I have been getting Christmas greetings from readers of this blog based outside the country and sent through this blog's comments section and via e-mail. Well, in truth, the greetings are not just for me but also for their family, relatives and friends in Lianga they have left behind and who they so dearly miss during this Yuletide season.

I know, because I belong to a family with some of its members now living abroad, how difficult it is to properly and meaningfully celebrate Christmas when your own home echoes with the memories of loved ones forced by circumstance and the vagaries of fate to live and work so far away from the family hearth. For us, as for many millions of other Filipino families, Christmas, nowadays, is never complete, the festivities never emotionally or sentimentally gratifying as it once was because of those whose accustomed places at the Noche Buena table must remain sadly and poignantly vacant.

If it is hard for us here who have been left behind, it must be harder still for those who have to celebrate this Christmas in cold, distant and faraway lands bereft of the emotional comfort and support of their families and friends. Theirs is the harsh and unforgiving loneliness, the crushing homesickness and desperate longing for the soothing familiarity of the familiar sights, sounds and smells of their own land, borne with extraordinary fortitude and perseverance by the victims of the Filipino diaspora that is the sad reality of our times.

In many ways, this blog was written for them and their kind.

So, in behalf of the people of Lianga, I wish all of her children scattered all over this country and elsewhere all over the world, a very Merry Christmas and the blessings of a more bountiful, prosperous New Year to come. I wish all of you good health, financial success and the fulfillment of all of those dreams for which you all have sacrificed so much for by going so far away.

I would also like to wish the best of this merry season to the many kindred souls who continue to blog and make noise about Lianga and its part of the world on the blogosphere and the Internet. You know who you are and you have done a wonderful job so far. Keep up the good work.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dawn Mass

December 16 started out as a calm, clear morning yet the minute I got out of bed, still bleary eyed from sleep and opened the bedroom door, a merciless blast of frigid air gleefully caught and slammed me on my naked chest leaving me slight popeyed and breathless, instantly reminding me that I was not in Lianga but somewhere else. Early mornings in Lianga can be chilly but not this bitingly cold.

I was just outside of Metro Manila, on the outskirts of Antipolo City and that early morning was the start of the traditional Simbang Gabi. Originally known as the Misa de Gallo or Rooster's Mass, the series of nine day dawn masses culminating in the Christmas midnight mass on Christmas Eve is an important part of Filipino Yuletide tradition.

I have never been much of a Simbang Gabi devotee and even in Lianga I would still be huddled in bed and deep in the comforting arms of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, totally oblivious to the church bells calling the faithful to church and the insistent noises of the rest of the household hastily preparing and rushing about to answer their call. But this particular morning, the host of the house I was staying in had asked me to join him and his family go to church and it would have been churlish and ungracious of me to refuse his request.

The Antipolo Cathedral is, by day, already an imposing structure befitting one of the most important pilgrimage centers in the country for the Catholic faithful. As a national shrine housing the image of the Lady of Peace and Good Voyage or the Nuestra SeƱora de la Paz y Buen Viaje also known as the Virgin of Antipolo, it inspires awe and intense veneration especially among devotees of the Virgin Mary.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Getting Here

How does one get there? Where is it exactly? I have been recently getting a few e-mails and blog comments asking these two questions about Lianga. Perhaps it is time to make the effort to answer them.

Ordinarily, when I want to know where a specific place is in this country or anywhere else in the world, I would grab the nearest world atlas or, better still, go online and try to look the place up through such online services as Wikipedia or Google Earth. But for more specific information. nothing beats the details provided by someone who has been to that particular location or is already staying there.

For starters, Lianga is a 4th class municipality in the province of Surigao del Sur. It is located on the eastern or Pacific coast of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and, according to the latest demographic data, has a population of some 26,000 people. Surigao del Sur together with the surrounding provinces of Surigao del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Agusan del Norte and Dinagat Island comprise Region XIII or the Caraga administrative region which is one of 17 such regions all over the country.

Travelling to Lianga from anywhere in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world starts with a trip either by land, sea or air to two cities in Mindanao which are nearest to it. One is Butuan City which is the capital of Agusan del Sur province and the regional center for the Caraga region. It has a domestic airport with regular passenger plane links to Cebu City in the Visayas and to Manila, the national capital in Luzon. It also has a seaport in Nasipit which services inter-island passenger and cargo ships from all over the country.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reality Check

My niece, three nephews and I had a healthy and spirited discussion a week or so ago about.... well .... Santa Claus. Not that anyone among us had anything against that red suited, white-bearded, rolly-poly, globetrotting and sleigh-riding icon of the Yuletide season afflicted with the insatiable obsession with gift giving. It is just that, we could not agree among ourselves, God help us, whether he really exists or not.

To my niece and one nephew, both just about ready to enter into their teens, Santa remains an unquestionably real albeit unseen presence in their young lives every Christmas. They regularly write every November to the guy at the North Pole to tell him exactly what they want to receive as a present on Christmas Eve and, so far, they have not been really disappointed. Either both of them have been really well behaved the past few years or Santa has been extra generous with them for one reason or another.

The two older boys, both already growing wispy tufts of downy hair on their upper lips and thus already thinking of themselves as wiser in the ways of the world, have vehemently declared, to the tearful consternation of their younger companions, that Santa Claus is a myth. The gifts come from their own parents, they say, giggling all the while at the folly of all the deluded children who were still too young and foolishly naive to believe in the illusion and the lie.

As they all squabbled and bickered among themselves, I tried to remember when I exactly started not to believe in Santa and the Santa Claus myth myself. After a few minutes of pondering, I realized that, for the life of me, I never actually believed in the man and the myth even as a child.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Poor Us

One comment from a reader to one of the posts of the photoblog version of A Lianga Diary simply could not be ignored but had to merit a response from me. The reader, who did not wished to be identified, wrote, "Are all these pictures from the Philippines? It looks like a poor country. I'm just saying none intending to insult the country, all right?"

That reader can be reassured on at least two points. First, all of the pictures published in this blog and its photoblog version are all from Lianga except in a few instances when it is clearly indicated in a specific blog post that the pictures contained therein are from somewhere else. Second, I, for one, am not in any way insulted by people, especially foreigners, who venture the opinion that there seems to be widespread poverty in this country.

In fact, in this blog in particular, I have discussed countless of times how the lack of economic opportunities in the Philippine countryside has shaped and continues to shape life not only in Lianga but in the many small and impoverished communities that surround it. And that reality is not true only to the Lianga area but to the majority of small, rural towns like it all over the country.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bulletproof Vests Anyone?

In the wake of the news making the banner headlines of many national newspapers recently concerning the killing by suspected communist New People's Army guerrillas of five Army soldiers and the wounding of two others in an ambush attack in the Lianga area, a lot of people from other places in the country and elsewhere in the world who have been planning to visit their families and friends in that town and the many other communities around it for the Christmas holidays are already having second thoughts about making the trip. Of primary concern to them, of course, is their personal safety and that of their companions if they do choose to go ahead with their travel plans.

The standing joke now among the would-be Lianga vacationers is to make sure you have always extra space in your luggage for the bulletproof vest and Kevlar helmet. And, of course, to check that all life insurance policies are current and all last wills and testaments have been signed, notarized and filed properly.

I would laugh if I find that, in any way, funny.

In the many years I had lived in Lianga, I have never felt personally threatened by the insurgency war between the government and the communist New People's Army. In most cases, that war was always fought clandestinely, in the sparsely populated, mountainous and thickly forested areas of the rural countryside. The ordinary folks, except for those with relatives and friends among the combatants, are largely passive bystanders and curious non-participants.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

An Altogether Different Kind Of Fun

If I ever have the nerve to ask any one of my teenaged nephews or niece if they know how to make balls or whistles out of coconut leaflets, they would all probably impatiently thumb on the pause button on their PSP's or Nintendo DS's and then turn to me with that quizzical look in their eyes and the same unspoken question on their lips. "Why should we have to? Why bother?"

Why bother indeed?

When I was about twelve or so and on summer vacation from school in the city, I was playing with friends one hot afternoon in the backyard of the family house here in Lianga when we saw one of my mother's young house helpers sitting underneath one of the coconut trees in the yard with a bunch of coconut leaflets on her lap she had stripped off a whole frond which lay nearby. She was a fresh faced girl of about eighteen who had grown up in my grandfather's small village not far from town.

We watched her, mesmerized by the dexterity of her fingers as she meshed the leaf strips together, twisting one over and underneath one another until in what seemed like just a few seconds she had magically fashioned a small ball, actually a cube with rounded corners, which she then tossed over to us to play with. Entranced, I sat down beside her as she started coiling one long leaf strip like a snake into a cone, stuck small leaf cuttings into the narrow end, tied up the cone with string to prevent it from unraveling and, in a jiffy, presented me with a whistle horn which gave off a vibrating, high pitched squeal when I blew on it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bad Publicity

"It is a sad reality in this world," a Lianga oldtimer told me years ago, "that the only time the name of this town gets in the news is when something bad happens here." That prescient observation was made in 1999 when rebel forces belonging to the communist New People's Army released custody of captured Army soldier, S/Sgt. Alipio Lozada, to government negotiatiors led by Sen. Loren Legarda in the hinterlands of Barangay Diatagon north of the town.

At that time, Lianga residents were tickled pink to hear news anchors on national television struggling to pronounce the name of their town correctly (leeyang-ga and not leeya-nga) while video footage of the prisoner release was shown. It did not matter to the locals then at that time that that piece of news somehow unfairly painted their place as a hotbed of insurgency and, therefore, an unsafe place to live in and much less an ideal tourism destination to visit.

Last Tuesday afternoon, five Army soldiers were killed and two others wounded when a landmine exploded while their truck was passing by Sitio Bantolinao in Barangay Ganayon just five kilometers north of Lianga. The landmine attack was part of an ambush staged, according to military sources, by NPA rebels under the Sentro de Grabidad Platun 7 led by one Ka Ado and Ka Dodoy. The rebels then carted away five firearms, ammunition, a laptop, cellular phones and personal belongings of the soldiers.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Shooting The Messenger

“The church wants the people to be poor so that people constantly supplicate to them. We should not allow them to dictate to us. How will the anti-mining advocates solved unemployment? Everybody will have jobs because of mining.”

These words spoken just a few months ago by Surigao del Sur provincial governor, Vicente T. Pimentel Jr., in defense of mining operations in the northern part of his province which is being faced with strong opposition coming from Catholic religious leaders, local community heads and environmental protection organizations spells out clearly the dilemma being faced by many Surigao del Sur residents whose very communities have become affected by the recent influx of industrial mining activities in their part of Mindanao.

In truth, Pimentel's province is considered one of the country's poorest in terms of industrial development and, in theory, any capital investments pouring in, even those from the mining industry, should be welcomed because of the employment opportunities they bring to the local people, the tax revenues they generate for local governments and the needed stimulus they often bring to the largely tepid local economy.

But, in the Philippine context, large scale mining has always had a devastating impact on the natural environment. Responsible mining practices, mineral excavation methodologies and techniques that are the standard in many industrialized countries and which are designed to minimize damage to the environment are,as a matter of course, set aside and ignored in the haste to produce maximum profits quickly and with the minimum of fuss. Thus the result is the unmitigated rape of the environment and the resulting negative impact on the health and quality of life of affected communities.