Fate of child warriors: IP groups march forward for the ‘truth’

By Jan Carlo Anolin

At age five, he was supposed to be starting to learn how to write, or how to read.

But this was not to be for Datu Awing Apuga of the Ata-Manobo tribe in Talaingod, Davao del Norte, as he was already being trained on how to handle a gun, and shoot at targets at such a tender age while getting supposedly basic education at the Salugpungan Ta’tanu Igkanugon Learning Center, Inc., or Salugpungan.

Datu Awing Apuga during a courtesy call with the Manila Bulletin on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Albert Garcia / MANILA BULLETIN)
Datu Awing Apuga during a courtesy call with the Manila Bulletin on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Albert Garcia / MANILA BULLETIN)

And in a recent interview with The Manila Bulletin, it was still fresh in the mind of Apuga, now in his 20s, that, as a grade schooler, they were already being taught the tenets of imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism – far more radical from normal elementary school subjects like English, math or Filipino.

Apuga said the concept of the Salugpungan school was actually the brainchild of his father Datu Gibang Apuga, who founded the first learning center in 1992.

“The school had noble objectives, but these were corrupted by the rebels who held control of our community,” he recalled.

Datu Gibang was the chieftain of their tribe in Talaingod, and believed that their youth needed education for them to thrive.

Awing recalled how leaders of the New People’s Army (NPA) “convinced” his father in creating the Salugpungan. The NPA claimed that they were the “true government”, and that they will help not only fight for their advocacies, but also in educating the tribe’s youth.

And it took leaders and members of the tribe some time before they realized that something was amiss. Even Datu Awing himself, could not help but wonder how they were deceived by the NPA for almost 30 years.

“Ang community namin, ginagawa na nila na guerrilla base. Doon na [sila] nagtira, doon na sila nagkakampo at ‘yung mga kabataan naming noon, kaming mga bata doon, hindi kami makatanggi kung ano ang ginagawa nila para sa amin, kung ano ang itinuturo nila sa amin,” Awing said.

(They were starting to use our community as their guerrilla base. It was there that they chose to live, they encamped there, and the young ones, us, we could not refuse as to what they wanted to do with us, or what they wanted to teach us.)

“Kasi akala namin na totoo – ‘yung sila ‘yung tunay na gobyerno na nagtulong sa amin,” Awing added.

(It was because we thought it was all true – that they were the real government)

Training of ‘child warriors’

In the Salugpungan school, Awing recalled there were more than 64 children, aged six to 17, who were trained to become “child warriors”.

He was eager to learn how to read and write clearly. But they were thought other things, instead, such as leftist ideologies, and wielding, assembling, and disassembling of firearms. During recess, Awing said they had to crawl first on ground, as if they were soldiers, before they were allowed to eat their meals. On examination day, it meant they had to undergo target shooting.

For 10 years, Awing “studied” and stayed at the NPA camp. Another 10 years of stay made him memorize each and every teaching.

And it was the age of 15, when he was tapped by the NPA commander to reach out to the youth of other sitios, that he came upon the realization that all the teachings at Salugpungan were not going to serve the children any good.

“Unti-unti ko na nalaman [at] naintindihan na ito ay parang hindi mabuti sa kabataan,” said Awing, who said he was even named squad leader at the time he was also tasked to teach.

But that was also the time that he realized that he needed to keep that sentiment to himself, lest he draws the ire of the NPA leaders.

Awing also recalled that there was an instance when they were poised to launch an ambush on government troops when some of his comrades got cold feet and refused to fire their guns.

Their commander insisted: “Kailangan mong gawin ito. Ito ang tanging paraan na mabago natin ang bayan natin. Ang tanging kaligtasan ay kailangan maghawak ng baril (You have to do this. This is the only way we can change our country. The only way to salvation to carry a firearm).”

“Parang simula kang mag-aral parang sinumpa ka (It was like when you started to learn, it was also the time you were cursed),” Awing said, who was the squad leader of that ambush team.

Awing recounted how encounters flew thick and fast, almost every day, as many of them lost their lives without really knowing what they were fighting for.

He said around 50 of his family members, from cousins to nephews and nieces, died in encounters. Some of them, however, remain with the NPA to this day.

Aside from the deadly encounters, Awing said, what prompted them to return to the fold of the law were the false promises made by the Communist rebels. Those empty pledges included the construction of roads, and more houses, as well as in the development of their communities’ agriculture welfare, and food security.

From left to right: Bae Chiary Balinan and Datu Nestor Apas during a courtesy call with the Manila Bulletin on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Albert Garcia / MANILA BULLETIN)
From left to right: Bae Chiary Balinan and Datu Nestor Apas during a courtesy call with the Manila Bulletin on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Albert Garcia / MANILA BULLETIN)

Awing was accompanied at The Manila Bulletin office by other indigenous people (IP) group leaders Bae Magdalina Iligan, Bae Chiary Balinan, Datu Nestor Apas, and Datu Joel Dahusay.

The group of IPs alleged that Salugpungan gained international attention when some leftist groups, under the guise of non-government organizations (NGOs), were able to showcase the school in places like San Francisco, California to get funds.

“Pinicturan nila yung mga kabataan namin na nakahubad at sinasabi nila doon sa San Francisco na, ‘Ito tulungan natin ito kasi kaawa-awa naman sila. Pero sa sa totoo lang ang tribo namin ganun lang ang ano tradisyon namin,’” Awing said.

(They took photos of our youth who were barely clothed, then telling those in San Francisco how pitiful they look. But in reality, in our tribe, that’s how we dress traditionally.)

He noted that the funds these NGOs culled were used to buy guns and ammunition, with the NPAs having the ultimate goal of infiltrating their territory, and killing the leaders. In fact, the resulting bloodshed has killed at least a thousand of their people, according to Datu Nestor of the Langilan-Manobo tribe.

It was at this point that no less than Datu Gibang, the founding father of Salugpungan, asked his son Awing to seek government’s help to close the schools which he helped nurture. Datu Gibang told his son that he has had enough of his brainchild being used as fodder to “take more lives and victimize more children.”

In June 2018, Datu Gibang, together with his people, voluntarily gave himself to the government and military, and vowed to closely coordinate for peace and development in an effort to end the insurgency problem in their area.

READ MORE: Tribal chieftain defects from NPA makes covenant with the government, Army

On top of that, many people who studied the legitimate curriculum under the Department of Education (DepEd) convinced them to seek help with the government and told them that they will have a hard time finding jobs in the real world.

Last July 10, the Department of Education (DepEd) issued a closure order to 55 Salugpungan schools in Davao based on a military report that the schools were teaching the students Communist ideologies to fight the government, while using the children in rallies.

READ MORE: 55 lumad schools in Davao closed

Witnesses of terror

Just like Awing, another child warrior was Bae Magdalina of the Mamanwa-Manobo tribe who also underwent training and learned how to wield firearms at the age of 12.

Magdalina decided to surrender to the government after NPAs killed her uncles – all four of them.

One of them was killed in front of her, while pleading and begging for mercy. One of them was slain while collecting honey at their farm just because the rebels suspected him of being a military informer.

Magdalina struggled in coming out in 2016 since death awaited anyone who chose to quit the NPA, as narrated by Bae Chiary.

In October 2018, Magdalina went back to her house in Surigao Del Sur only to find out the Communist rebels were waiting for her. Fortunately, she was rescued by the military.

Scholarship in disguise

Another victim was Bae Chiary of the Ata tribe of Davao City when she was offered a “scholarship” for a prestigious school in Mindanao. She “accepted” the grant knowing that this could be a chance for her to finish school.

To her surprise, there was not any entrance exam of some sort. Instead, they went to a secluded place and attended a “workshop” wherein she learned leftist ideologies, propaganda, and demonstrations.

It was 2016, and she was 25 when she also realized that she must have joined the wrong group. So she left and went abroad to work as a domestic helper.

She returned only to experience more injustice and maltreatment as the NPAs would ask for “taxes” in the form of rations such as one kilo of rice and one can of sardines every week. They were obliged to give because it would stack up if they were not able to provide each week.

Chiary said they have already coordinated with and reported these incidents to the government.

Datu Awing, Bae Magdalina, Bae Chiary, Datu Nestor, and Datu Dahusay were just some of the indigenous people who were terrorized by the NPA.

As leaders of their tribe, they are marching forward and using their voice with resolve, which they kept for many years, in ending their tribes’ problem with insurgency, terrorism, and false promises.

The CPP-NPA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines (with reports from Richa Noriega, Marjaleen Ramos, and PNA)