It started out as a dull rumble in the distance much like the sound of large trucks zipping by on the nearby highway. Then it resolved itself into the whop-whop-whopping, rhythmic thumping made iconic in countless war movies on television and the movie screen.
The Vietnam War vintage Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter's distinctive rotor sounds may, in another setting, merely be a reason for idle bystanders to rush out of their homes in order to check what the heck in going on. In Lianga, however, the echoing thunder of this vintage aircraft is as familiar as it is foreboding. It is often a warning that war is afoot.
So five days ago, when I caught the sounds and made the sighting of at least two Hueys flying north at a low altitude over the north of the town, I immediately feared for the worst. The news, when it arrived, came in trickles.
A group of New People's Army guerrillas had raided a detachment of armed militiamen and security personnel in Barangay Pakwan near Lanuza town more than a hundred kilometers north of Lianga. The detachment is affiliated with the Surigao Development Corporation (SUDECOR) which is engaged in large-scale logging operations in the northern part of the province of Suurigao del Sur. In the aftermath of the attack, the rebels burned heavy machinery belonging to the firm and even took as temporary hostages some company employees and security personnel.
When soldiers from the 23rd and 58th Infantry Battalions of the Philippine Army sought to reinforce the besieged detachment, NPA forces exploded a landmine that hit the vehicles of the responding army convoy killing eight troopers and five others including one policeman. Government sources said that eleven rebels were killed in the ensuing pursuit operations while some ten soldiers and one policemen were wounded.The ambush and killing of the government soldiers in what is a typical NPA tactic of waylaying army troops on route to reinforce fellow soldiers under attack is something many residents in Lianga have been witness to many times in the past. Many of them, are in fact, wondering how the armed forces could have fallen for so overused a guerrilla stratagem. In the 1970's and 80's, NPA guerrillas habitually attacked isolated military outposts and then waited for reinforcements which they then ambushed and slaughtered mercilessly.
Extortion and the failure of SUDECOR to pay "revolutionary taxes" to the NPA has been cited by the military as the reason for the attack on the company outpost and the burning of its heavy equipment. In fact, their records show that SUDECOR has been the victim of similar NPA raids in the recent past which has also resulted in the burning and destruction of the logging firm's property.
The NPA and the revolutionary left has, however, justified the attacks as part of its avowed mission to punish companies and firms like SUDECOR which "abuse the environment" through rampant logging and which, according to them, are also responsible for the formation of its own armed militiamen and paramilitary groups which it allegedly uses to harass and oppress communities of indigenous peoples and non-governmental organizations opposed to large-scale logging operations in the mountain areas of the province. The left has accused the government of encouraging and even assisting in the organization of these essentially private armies as part of its counterinsurgency program.
The on-going, violent clashes between leftist rebels and private companies like SUDECOR with investments in timber logging brings to the fore the concern of many in Lianga residents that the entry of new investments not only in logging but also in large-scale mining activities in their area would lead to an escalation of similar violent conflicts but this time happening within their own backyards.
The Department of Trade and Industry's regional office in Butuan City has recently pointed out to more than sixty companies engaged in mining and mineral exploration activities in the Caraga region. With most of the areas being targeted for exploration and mining ventures also areas where NPA forces also operate, the potential for armed conflict in the struggle for control of such territories is not only possible but inevitable.
In the Lianga area, the continuing attempts by government forces to clear communist rebel forces long entrenched in the nearby Andap valley has led to sporadic clashes between the government and the revolutionary left. This has led to the forced evacuations of residents of affected mountain villages. The resulting air of uncertainty in the local peace and order situation has moreover not done the local economy any good.
Much of the area within and surrounding the valley complex is said to be mineral rich and has been targeted for commercial exploitation. But the valley is also a stronghold of at least two NPA guerrilla fronts and portions of the same have been claimed by many of the local indigenous peoples as part of their ancestral domains. These conflicting claims of interest over the territory can result into a volatile brew which can erupt anytime into a violent conflagration as soon as mining and logging interests formally make their bid to secure access to the disputed areas.
Several days have passed and the Hueys have not been seen or heard here in Lianga. But when trouble again erupts then they will surely be here again. Because of the dogleg route they have to use while flying from their bases in Cagayan de Oro and Butuan to the conflict areas, they often have to pass by the northern part of the town as they skirt by the forested flanks of the massive Diwata mountain range that stretches along the boundary of the Agusan and Surigao provinces.
Perhaps their mission to airlift casualties from the battle zones is, for the moment, over. There may be no more pressing need yet for the air support that they can provide for the troops on the ground hunting down the leftist rebels responsible for the recent attacks on SUDECOR and on government forces.
But, if things are not going to change in this part of the country (and nothing short of a miracle will cause such a change), they will be needed again and again in the near future. And the sound of their wings even from afar will again be portents of the stormy and violent future that are in store for the local folks here.