By Martin Sadongdong
CAMP AGUINALDO, Quezon City — In April 2019, a spate of killings in Negros Island gripped the nation. In a span of 10 days, a total of 21 people were killed in Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental. Some of the victims were policemen, a lawyer, school principal, a Department of Education (DepEd) official, city councilor, former mayor, barangay chairman, rebel-returnee, and a one-year-old child.
Most of the killings were blamed on cops and soldiers as witnesses claimed that the gunmen involved in the killing spree wore military and police uniforms.
On October 20, 2018, nine sugarcane farmers who were eating dinner in a makeshift tent on a sugarcane plantation were killed by a group of unidentified gunmen in Sagay, Negros Occidental. It was later dubbed as the Sagay massacre.
Police pointed to the local communist group in Negros Island as the possible suspects, and some continue to remain at-large as authorities believe they were being coddled by sympathizers.
Months after the grim killings, two self-confessed former members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), were introduced to select members of the media at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) headquarters on Wednesday, October 14.
They surrendered to authorities, revealed the NPA’s alleged hand in the killings in Negros Island, and the group’s supposed deceptive promises that forced them to join the communist group.
One is a son abandoned by his parents and eventually fell prey to the NPA before becoming a hitman for the Special Partisan Unit (SPARU) in exchange for a promised livelihood aid that never came.
The other is a mother who just wanted livelihood support to further her seaweed farming business and provide for her two sons, but eventually got tricked into becoming a coddler of NPA rebels.
This is the story of James Durimon and Elena Yap.
Durimon alias “Ka Joros,” 21, had a troubled past. When he was eight-years-old, his entire family abandoned him. Up until the day his father died, he was still searching for answers as to why they left him.
He was adopted by his uncle and exposed to farming to support himself but life was just too hard. Durimon’s uncle was a member of the NPA. He was shown the rebel group’s way of life at a young age.
At the age of 14, Durimon became a “courier” for the NPA, sending letters to certain establishments, companies, and specific people.
He did not know the contents of the letter, but he felt good because he was validated. He found social inclusion.
Add to it the NPA’s promise of livelihood aid for him and his family, if ever they come back. It was too good an offer to pass up, igniting his urge to unite with his family. They never saw each other even as of this writing.
When he reached the age of 18, the now grown Durimon went full time as an NPA member.
He started training “like a military,” slowly worked his way up the ladder, and went on to become a team leader of a SPARU operating under the command of a certain Charity Amacan, the so-called lady leader of the NPA-Northern Negros Front. In his team, Durimon had 11 members, all were trained hitmen.
As a SPARU, their job is to “neutralize” all elements that hinder their advocacy – be it a policeman , a soldier, or a civilian suspected of being a spy. Over the course of three years, Duriman’s group has killed at least six people.
“Kapag may utos ang guerilla front ng Negros, si Charity Amacan, binibigyan nila kami ng mga picture. Dinidispatsa na kasi asset daw sa militar ‘yan. Kung anong desisyon sa taas, bumababa sa amin. Kapag may target na, tinatrabaho namin (If there is an order from the guerrilla front of Negros, from Charity Amacan, they would give us pictures. We dispatch [the targets] because they are suspected assets of military. Whatever orders from the higher ups, it would go down to us. If there’s a target, we would work on it),” Durimon said.
“Sa NPA, ang ipinaglalaban ay ekonomiya para daw sa taumbayan. Tinatawag kang sundalo ng taumbayan kaya kung sinong sagabal sa kilusan niyo, kailangan walisin niyo para makapagpatuloy kayo sa paglakad niyo (In the NPA, what we were fighting for is an economy for the masses. We were called soldiers for the masses so whoever hinders our group, we need to eliminate them so we could advance our causes),” he added.
The lanky young man claimed they would often wear uniforms resembling that of a soldier, policeman, or a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) agent during “hits” as part of their “pakana” or tactics to fool the people that the killings were state-sponsored. This reporter could not immediately and independently verify the claims.
Among Durimon’s victims were elderly farmer-siblings where his unit dressed up as soldiers; his friend who was suspected of being a military spy where they acted in the guise of a “Tokhang” operation, or the controversial anti-drug operation by the police that is blamed for the deaths of 6,000 suspects or more; and a farmer that also got suspected of being a spy and shot while on top of a coconut tree.
Durimon said he would often feel nothing after killing their targets because he thought it was for the advancement of their cause.
But it was after one encounter with the military and the discovery of an anomaly within their organization that forced Durimon to quit the communist group.
On April 17, 2019, Durimon’s group encountered government troops in Calatrava, Negros Occidental where three of his members were killed.
They retreated to their mother base also in Calatrava to report to commander Amacan, and assess their losses and the next move to retaliate.
At one instance, he saw a document where it was indicated that commander Amacan spent P150,000 for her own expenses. He did not know about the commander’s huge expenses, it was not properly liquidated, and he did not like it.
This was a big issue for Durimon because aside from being a SPARU team leader, he was also a financial logistics officer (FLO).
As a FLO, he needed to monitor the cash flow of the group to ensure that all three squads in their platoon get equal amount of money for their monthlyexpenses. Transparency is of equal importance to him as his loyalty to their cause, and he expects the others to do the same.
During a meeting of commanders and leaders in which he was a part of, Durimon raised to commander Amacan the issue that had long been boggling his mind: where did the P150,000 go?
“Pagdating sa meeting, doon ko ipinaabot na ‘Bakit may gastos kayo na P150,000 na hindi naman namin alam? (During the meeting, I asked [Amacan] ‘Why is there an expense worth P150,000 that we did not know about?),” Durimon asked.
Commander Amacan refused to directly answer Durimon and instead, she said that the SPARU team leader would have to become a higher-ranked officer to know “conservative” financial matters such as the expenses of a commander.
“Ang pumasok sa isip ko, walang pupuntahan ‘yan kundi sa kanila lang (What I thought was that, the money has nowhere to go but into their pockets),” Durimon said.
By May 14, 2019, nearly a month after the confrontation with commander Amacan, Durimon left the camp – feeling betrayed by his own commander – and surrendered to the nearest CAFGU [Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit] detachment in Calatrava town.
He said the 79th Infantry Battalion (79IB) initially suspected him being a bait since he suddenly showed up and raised his arms in surrender to the CAFGU.
But to prove his sincerity, Durimon led the soldiers in a surprise attack at his former unit’s base the following day. Five rebels were killed while three soldiers were wounded in the encounter at Barangay Minautok, Calatrava on May 15, 2019.
Meanwhile, 48-year-old Yap is a mother of two young men aged 22 and 24. She has a small seaweed farm near their house in Purok Puting Bato, Barangay Washington in Escalante, Negros Occidental.
At times when the business is good, the family has enough to feed themselves. But more often than not, they barely have food on the table.
In hopes of getting a livelihood aid, Yap joined Pamalakaya chapter in Escalante town in 2004. Pamalakaya is a national federation of small fisherfolk organizations in the Philippines.
Her contact person at Pamalakaya was a certain “Eli,” who promised her financial aid to grow her seaweed farm. But conditions were set by Eli before the aid is given.
At first, Eli wanted Yap to accommodate “guests” in her house. Eli would not let Yap know who the guests were, but they would spend the night at her house, sometimes longer than a day.
“Noong tumagal, nagtanong na ako, mga armado na sila, mga NPA (Later on, I started asking who the guests were because they were already armed, maybe NPAs),” Yap said.
Eli would not answer her questions.
Weeks after the Sagay massacre broke out in October 2018, Senior Superintendent Rodolfo Castil, provincial director of the Negros Occidental police, said the cops found one of the suspects and a potential witness in Yap’s house.
On November 16, 2018, Yap confirmed her suspicion that she was already coddling NPAs in her own house.
The guests who spent the night in their house had just left when they encountered a group of soldiers. The air was suddenly filled with deafening gunshots. Yap was rocked to her core.
She was so scared that after the gun battle, she immediately went to the Pamalakaya office in Escalante town to quit the organization.
That same day, she surrendered to the military.
“Sinabi ko na ayaw ko na kasi baka kung anong mangyari sa amin. Natatakot na po ako. Kapag pumupunta sila doon, minsan gabi. Obligado ako na ipagkape ko sila. ‘Yung ine-expect ko na tulong, nabaliktad po (I told them [Pamalakaya] I no longer want to be part of the group because something bad might happen to us. I was really scared. Sometimes the guests would come to our house at night. I was obliged to serve them coffee. The help that I expected from them did not materialize, instead I was the one helping them),” she said.
In addition, the group allegedly tried to recruit her two sons but after the encounter, she didn’t even want them near the Pamalakaya office.
Yap claimed that Pamalakaya is a front organization of the NPA. Her allegation is no longer new since even the police and military have been claiming that some cause-oriented groups are being used by the NPA as its front organizations.
Pamalakaya, however, has repeatedly denied accusations of government troops linking them to the NPA. The group said it was foul for the government to red-tag them.
Durimon and Yap led extremely dangerous lives but their paths crossed after they pledged allegiance to the Philippine government once again — along with some 2,500 others — in a mass surrender of former rebels in Negros Occidental on September 19, 2019.