Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The waiting dark

The waiting dark
By Patricia Evangelista
Last updated 07:12am (Mla time) 08/27/2006
Published on page A11 of the August 27, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IN Barangay Sta. Clara, Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija, Josie Javier sat in front of her television at half-past eight on a Sunday night. Her husband Armando lay asleep on a bench by the window. That night, the comfortable quiet exploded with the relentless shots of an M-16 fired by a gunman a foot away from the window. Josie escaped with a gash on her arm. Armando, a peasant leader of Anak Pawis, still slept on his bench in a pool of his own blood.

In Barangay Lennec, Guimba, Nueva Ecija, the blindfolded body of Pricilla Esteban was found under a bridge, shot, badly bruised, bound at wrist and ankle and left with a crushed skull. The 55-year-old woman was the widowed mother of seven children. She was an active leader of the local Bayan Muna chapter.

In Barangay Parista, a tiny village in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, midwife Teresita Abellera was washing dishes when three armed men forced their way into her home and accused her of being an NPA member. She was bound from behind, with a rifle butt rammed at her cheek and stomach. They strangled her year-old granddaughter, beat up her husband and thrashed her 25-year-old son Rodel, who the armed men claimed was also NPA. They thrashed him until he begged, and then they thrashed him until he was unconscious. Mother and son were loaded into a waiting vehicle.

I do not know any of this when I wake up in the dark in the back seat of an Inquirer pickup, leg cramping from being curled up for hours. My photographer Jim sits shotgun, and Al, the driver, is hunched against the wheel. All I know is that we were told to go after a story in Nueva Ecija, where a militant leader had gotten shot. My contact confirms it: July Vasquez, KMP member, killed the night before in Culong, Guimba.

Guimba is beyond the border of Tarlac, right inside Nueva Ecija, the province the military calls NPA country. It is the place where a farmer had been electrocuted for not having a cedula. According to the 2000 census, Guimba has a population of 87,295 people in 19,207 households. At 7:56 on a Thursday night, its streets are deserted.

Every few minutes, Jim gets down from the pickup to knock on doors and ask for directions. He calls out from front stoops, or leans over rickety wooden fences. We see the blue glow of television screens and heads peering around curtains, but doors remain shut. Jim manages to cobble together directions from the few people he catches on the street. Al drives on. A set of headlights punches through the blackness ahead—an open jeep, driving slowly toward us, packed with soldiers carrying Armalite rifles.

We are quiet inside the pickup.

Just past a sari-sari store, a man walks out of a gate. Go straight, he tells us. Turn right after the waiting shed. He doesn’t tell us that turning right means turning into a skinny dirt path that cuts in the middle of cogon higher than our pickup. The path through the fields is muddy, pocked with holes filled with water from the last rain. I look over my shoulder, once, twice, but there is nothing but grass and dark and dread.

Jim and Al are calm, but it is the forced cold calmness of experience. Turn here, one of them says. All right, says the other. There is no way to turn back, and no way to know if we’re taking the right turns. I cannot see beyond a foot out the window. The road gets softer, and we move slower. I try to pray, but I can’t remember the words. Al grits his teeth and wrestles the car out of the muck.

We find the Vasquez home in the middle of sprawling fields, brightly lit while all the other homes are dark. Outside, a little more than a dozen people stand on the packed earth or sit on wooden benches. Inside, under the garish glare of funeral lamps that are missing a few bulbs, is July Vasquez in a white coffin.

There are old wooden beams supporting the tin ceiling, and more benches on the cement floor. A toddler sleeps in a corner. July’s widow gets to her feet: Dolores Vasquez, 46 years old, left with five children, the youngest 11. According to her, July had gone to a friend’s nearby wake the night before. At 7:30 p.m., a man wearing shorts and carrying an Armalite and a .45 cal. pistol had come barreling in. “Dapa kayong lahat!” Shots were fired, a dozen in all. Eleven of the bullets were found inside July Vasquez’s bloodied body. July’s killer was not hooded, but nobody will describe him. It was the same night the military set up a detachment near the Vasquez home.

Dolores says she knows nothing. Asked whether her husband was a human rights advocate, she says she did not notice. Asked about why her husband was killed, she says she has no idea. Asked about her suspicions, she says she has none.

The people at the wake are all family. No one else in Culong is willing to risk paying respects. The houses all around the Vasquez residence had been abandoned that same day. July’s sister puts a hand on my arm.

“Bubuweltahan kami kung magsalita kami.”

Dolores’ calm suddenly breaks, and she interrupts, her voice shrill. “Wala tayong alam!” She appeals to me. “Wala kaming alam.”

The murdered man was a barangay officer. His wife says that he was a responsible man, generous to a fault. Did he help farmers, I ask. The sister jumps in and asks what I mean by “help.” If I meant he helped the NPA, no, never, July was a good man. He made sure they had a road. She points proudly at the lights—it was July who pushed for electricity to reach their area in 2004. Their parents, she says, had died without ever tasting the comfort of road or light.

A small unframed snapshot of July is propped over the coffin—the picture of a smiling man with sunburned skin. On the wall is a certificate of attendance in a local seminar-workshop: “Neighborhood Partnership for Anti-Insurgency/Criminality/Terrorism, 2003.”

We walk back to the pickup and drive off, past three uniformed soldiers who stand by the highway, rifles by their sides. It is 9:30 on a Thursday night.

July Vasquez was to turn 50 on Sept. 7, 2006. Now he is just a name, another line in a list that gets longer by the day.

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