I was looking at the stars; I was trying to write a poem:
Sa likod ng kubo ni Mulawin
Ang mga bituin
Ay hagdang patungo sa langit
Behind Mulawin’s hut
The shining stars
are stairways to heaven.
It was a few days before the full moon and we had just taken our supper. We were seated on one end of Mulawin’s cart, beside the hut. Mulawin was puffing a cigarette.
“It’s a wonderful evening,” he said, the glow of his Champion nearing the butt.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Here, the sky is blue even at night.”
The shadow of the banana tree played at our feet. Our heads were bent toward the sky.
“Can you photograph the stars?” he asked suddenly. “Ummm…” I said, searching for an answer. “Not this time. I need a special lens and film to take their picture.”
“However,” I reassured him, “I can take a video of the moon right now.”
“That’s nice,” he smiled. “I want to see it.”
I took the video camera from my bag.
I had spent the whole morning and afternoon filming Mulawin. I filmed him in the hills gathering cogon grass; I filmed him bathing his two kids in the stream; I filmed him cutting small trees. I’ve been filming him for over a year now. I first met him one Christmas in Manila; he and his family and other members of the Aeta tribe were begging on the streets.
I turned the camera on, zoomed in and focused on the moon above us. I asked him to look through the viewfinder.
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “the moon has become bigger. I didn’t know it could look this big in your camera. This camera is good; it is like color TV.”
I pushed the red button and recorded the image. Later, I played it back for Mulawin and his two children. They were amused.
Not far from where we were seated, to the west, is a tree called anonang. This tree, whose fruits when squeezed produce a sticky paste, is illuminated by hundreds of fireflies. It’s like a huge Bavarian Christmas tree with tiny lights all over it. Looking at this tree, again, I try to write a poem. I recite it to Mulawin.
Sa dami ng mga nagniningning
Na nakapalibot kay Mulawin,
Hindi ko na alam kung alin
Ang aliptap at alin ang bituin.
With the abundance of objects shining
And hovering around Mulawin,
Which is star, which is firefly?
The distinction skips the eye.
“In Manila,” I said, “the sky is dirty. You can never see the sky as bright as this.”
“But your life there is better than ours. You have electricity, cars, big houses,” he argued.
“That doesn’t mean that our life is better than yours,” I countered.
“This is an extraordinary night,” I repeated, praising again the moon, the stars and the fireflies. “There is really no need for electricity here.”
“That’s what you say,” he said, a bit cross, “because you lowlanders have the benefit of electricity. But with hill tribes like us, the government doesn’t care.”
“Did you ever notice the sky in Manila?” I asked, teasing him. ”Did you ever see the moon there?”
“But you have no need for a moon in the city,” he said. “You have lights 24 hours a day.”
Mulawin is obsessed with electricity. One of the things he bought with the money he earned from begging was a 6-volt battery. He uses this battery to operate his electric fishing gear and to produce light at suppertime.
“Take a rest now,” he said. “You have to wake up early.” The only jeep going to town leaves at four in the morning.
It was cold and the mosquitoes were stubborn and unforgiving. I covered myself from head to foot: socks and hiking shoes, denim jeans, winter jacket, towel around my neck, and an Ifugao-made balaclava. Some mosquitoes still managed to evade these obstacles and tasted my blood.
The rays of the moon penetrated my balaclava. There was no enclosure around me except for the roof fashioned from banana leaves. Mulawin was snoring. I was tired and wanted to fall asleep at once, but I couldn’t.
After a while, I hear a faint barking of dogs. It disappears and recurs. But every time it comes back, it becomes louder and closer. Somebody, I say to myself, must be walking in the night, basking in the glory of the full moon. I try to sleep again but the barking becomes louder and louder; nearer and nearer. By now, I have no doubt the dogs are barking at some people in motion. Who could they be? And where are they going? Maybe they are drunks on their way home?
The barking didn’t stop. Instead, it grew louder and louder until the puppies beneath my feet came out and started to bark. I could hear voices, and grasses brushing passersby.
The puppies continued to bark until the steps and voices stopped near my feet. There was a brief moment of silence; I sensed a number of people around me.
“Tao po,” came the voice of a young man. “Magandang gabi po.”
I pulled my balaclava up and rose. Still seated, I looked at the ‘voice.’ He was wearing a cap and was in fatigue uniform. I could see the muzzle of his rifle on his back. He came closer and took his cap off.
“I’m comrade John,” he said, “We are members of the New People’s Army.”
“I’m Rey,” I said.
I knew they were coming, but I didn’t know they were coming to us. Earlier in the morning, the news spread that the “rustling of leaves” will be heard once again tonight. After long years of absence, the “taong-labas” or “outside-people” are returning to this village.
This morning, Mulawin and his wife engaged in a serious conversation with an old woman from a neighboring village. They were speaking in local Zambal dialect but I could get the drift of their conversation. The three of them had crumpled faces; at times they cursed the air.
“Tonight,” Mulawin said, “the ‘barefoot men’ might come to our village.”
I didn’t believe they were coming. I thought that the ongoing peace talks between the Communist rebels and the Philippine government were on the verge of completion and that both parties were about to sign an agreement. I thought the guerillas were preparing for that eventuality. I believed that there was no need for them to go to villages like this, since their presence creates more fear than sympathy.
Comrade John and I shook hands. Other rebels emerged from nowhere, surrounding the hut. Mulawin woke up and came out. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Comrade John introduced himself. Mulawin, looking hesitant, extended his right hand; his grip weak, touching only the tips of the rebel’s fingers.
Some other rebels also introduce themselves. There are about ten of them and to my surprise, half are like Mulawin — with dark, crinkly hair — members of the same tribe. They are Aetas but they talk in Tagalog and the Pampanga dialect.
“So,” I say to myself, “some Aetas too have joined the revolution.”
By now, Mulawin’s wife and two kids are awake. The glorious moon has leaned towards the west. Comrade John apologizes to Mulawin’s wife for the disturbance. He is polite. Now, when visitors come you don’t just let them gaze at the moon or stars. We entertained our guests. We boiled water and served them coffee. Once, twice, three times. The rebels gathered around the fire and laid their sleeping bags on the ground, their weapons beside them. Their lone female member couldn’t find a space so I offered her my bed.
“Thank you,” she said, “I’m Comrade Mary.”
She has long hair, a round face and a dark complexion. She moves with grace and is quite feminine. She wears fatigues but doesn’t carry a rifle. She has a handgun that she wraps with cloth and places beside her pillow.
Comrade John beckons me to sit beside him.
“Comrade Rey,” he began, “it must be clear to you that you are now under the jurisdiction of the people’s revolutionary government, spearheaded by its advance forces, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.”
How could I disagree?
“From now on,” he went on, “we expect you to obey all revolutionary laws of this guerilla zone. You are now under our custody and you cannot leave this zone while the revolutionary forces are still here. This is for our security and likewise, yours. You are not being detained.”
Comrade John is a mild-mannered person. I didn’t feel threatened or scared at all. In fact, I welcomed this encounter. It had been over a decade since I last spoke to them. I thought this could be an opportunity for a good conversation.
“We heard,” Comrade John said, “that you are from Philvolcs (the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology). We gathered that you climbed Mount Pinatubo.” All eyes were on me and I could sense Mulawin was beginning to get worried. His wife and kids had gone back to sleep.
“We have a comrade with us,” Comrade John continued, patting the shoulder of a boyish rebel behind him, “whose idols include the scientist Kelvin Rodolfo.”
“Hi,” the young rebel raised his hand as he acknowledged me. “I’m Comrade Mark.”
He is nineteen. He said he used to be a scholar at a science school in Manila. He left the bourgeois school, he said, to serve the masses.
“It was my dream,” he said, “to be a scientist. In a way, I am a frustrated scientist. But I have transcended this selfish, personal ambition by becoming a revolutionary.”
The whole village knew me simply as “Fiboks” — the man with antuku (goggles). Before the advent of electric fishing gear, the Aetas fished in the traditional way. By the aid of antuku, rubberized spectacles, they caught fish in the river using a simple iron spear and sometimes only their bare hands. My video camera is described as a fishing glass. Using their antuku, they catch fish. By my camera, I catch images.
Comrade John started to ask me about maps: topographic maps, military maps, mining maps and other information related to the terrain of the province. I couldn’t sustain his illusion. I decided to be honest with him.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m not from Philvolcs. I’m a journalist.”
I showed my press ID. Everybody looked at it as if seeing a photograph of Ho Chih Minh.
“But we were told,” Comrade John said, “that you were from Philvolcs.”
“No,” I said. “They mistook my camera and tripod for a volcano scientist’s equipment.”
“So, what are you filming?” he asked.
I told him that I had filmed Mulawin the day before, cutting bamboo. He asked me if I had filmed any particular path, road or place. I assured him immediately that I had only filmed Mulawin doing his daily chores.
Comrade John’s men (and Comrade Mary) are already dozing now, their feet stretched toward the fire. Mulawin is still awake; after all, he is the host. He’s restless and I sense he’s nervous. What if the military suddenly arrives and attacks them here? How could they distinguish combatants from civilians even under a full moon like this?
I am sleepy but I do not want to fall asleep. I am nervous. Comrade John is still in high spirits. This young rebel continues to pester me with questions. He asks about my work, my education, my family, my salary as a journalist, the places I have visited in the Philippines and abroad.
“I have lived with the Aetas,” I said, “I ate their food, joined them in their farm work and traveled with them to Mount Pinatubo.”
He took notice of the phrase “live with them” (in Tagalog:“makisalamuha sa masa.”)
“How did you get this idea?” he asked, surprised, “of living with the masses. How did you learn that?”
“There’s nothing special in that,” I said. “I just thought it’s the best way to make a documentary — you live the life of your subject.”
The chickens roosting on the banana trees start to crow. Other roosters from neighboring trees join one after the other. The fire by our feet has become coals, its glow now fading. Comrade Mark, the frustrated scientist, is already snoring.
By this time, my rapport with Comrade John was excellent. We had been talking like real friends. So I asked if I could interview him on camera. This digital camera had cost my office ¥250,000 (approximately US$2,000).
He agreed instantly, but said I should not show his face. I framed him showing only his feet and his Armalite rifle.
I asked him about the peace talks. If they succeed, will the guerillas come into the open? What will they do with their arms? He said that the peace talks have their own purposes but have no bearing at all on the work they are doing in the countryside.
“We have learned our lessons,” he said. “Educating the masses, working with them, helping them in their daily activities is the only way to win the revolution. We came here to once again win the hearts and minds of the villagers. We are willing to humble ourselves to gain their trust. We are willing to kiss the earth just to gain their confidence. We have to begin again.”
When the sun rises, the village is unusually quiet. No screaming children, no quarrelling husbands and wives. Where have all the villagers gone? I’m getting anxious about my safety, and the safety of my equipment and ten hours of footage. I am most concerned about my Pinatubo films. I cannot afford physically or financially to spend another week journeying to the peak of the volcano. During the day, the guerrillas make their rounds in the village. I take this chance to hide my footage and exposed films separately in my three bags.
I spent the whole day helping Mulawin and his wife prepare and serve food and Nescafé to the guerillas. I gathered banana blossoms, shredded them before Mulawin’s wife cooked them. The rest of my time, I sat under the banana tree making three pairs of bamboo chopsticks. In the evening, the visitors tried to gather the whole villagers for a ‘teach in’ but the people were nowhere to be found. Only Mulawin and his relatives were left to listen to them. I was not allowed to join them.
Mulawin and his wife are not happy with what is happening. They have become hosts to unwelcome guests. They have work to do. Mulawin has to go to the neighboring hills to get his products for the next market day. He also has to gather more wood and bamboo for the new house he’s about to build. His wife has to wash their clothes in the river; she has to wash her kids, too. But what worries her most is that the half-sack of rice they bought last week is quickly coming to its end. She has not had a happy face all day.
I took the opportunity to talk to some of the guerrillas: the youngest members, Comrade Mary and Comrade Mark. I did not have confidence to talk to the Aeta rebels. They were reticent and looked mysterious to me. Comrade Mary is 18 and has been a guerrilla for two years now. She is known in the group as ‘the doctor.’ That afternoon, I had watched her dress a villager’s wound. Others also came to ask her for tablets. And Mulawin told me she treated a child bitten by a dog. I asked her how she became a guerilla.
“I joined the revolution because I want to serve the people. I could have been a nurse working in a hospital if I wanted it, but I took a different path,” she said.
“Apart from serving the people, what other reasons do you have?”
“I’m from this province. I like working with my own people,” she said.
Comrade Mark, sitting beside her, was very eager to speak.
“I joined the movement because I want to change our society. I want to end the exploitation of the ruling elite against the Filipino masses.”
“Apart from serving the masses and exploitation by the ruling elite, is there any other reason that motivated you to become a guerilla?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” they asked almost simultaneously.
Not far away, Comrade Joshua, one of the Aeta rebels, was toying with Mulawin’s pickaxe; digging the ground, picking the grass. He had been listening to our conversation.
“Could you repeat your question?” he asked, dropping the pickaxe and coming closer. “Why did we join the revolution?” His voice was high and he seemed to be offended by my question.
“We have no other reason,” he said, his voice threatening. “We joined the revolution because of exploitation: exploitation by the imperialists, by the capitalists, by big landlords, by bureaucrats, capitalists, and by the ruling class. Exploitation is the only reason, there’s no other.”
Comrade Joshua often talks to Mulawin. He tries to speak in Zambal but it is obvious he is not fluent in their native language.
Comrade John, I feel, is a lot friendlier. He comes to talk to me every now and then. He said he likes Japanese culture.
“Do you like bonsai?” he asked. “I can make you one.”
“That’s very nice of you,” I said. “But I’m sorry, I don’t like bonsai.”
“Why?” he asked, bewildered. “Why don’t you like bonsai?”
“Bonsai,” I said, forced to give my opinion, “is a demonstration of man’s desire to conquer nature.”
“How could that be?” he asked.
“When you make a bonsai,” I said, “the plant painfully obeys your command. She follows your order because you have twisted her arms and legs. She follows your ego.”
He argued: “But the objective is to create beauty, to create a living replica of a living tree.”
“Maybe you don’t need to,” I said boldly. “Because the moment you deliberately stunt the growth of a tree, you violate the very essence of that being. How could there be beauty in that?”
“Okay,” he said moving away from our discussion. “Let’s talk more about this when you come and visit our guerilla front. There you can make a good documentary about the longest-running Maoist-Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement in the world.”
“But remember, when you go to Japan, please get me a set of acupuncture needles and a military compass,” he reminded me.
I said, “I’ll try.”
A new group of guerillas, I hear, is arriving tonight. This group has conducted a meeting in one of the big villages near the town. And when one of their couriers arrives early in the evening, he reports that close to 300 people attended. The meeting was presided over by Comrade Jude, their highest leader.
Just after supper, Comrade Jude’s group arrives. There are about ten of them. Two are young women. They are all in combat uniforms and are fully armed. Mulawin and his wife have to serve them food and coffee. But they brought with them some rice. While we were eating, Comrade Jude notices me.
“Let’s eat,” he offers. He is eating with his hands.
Other members, too, notice me. The two girls have short hair, muscles, and a certain roughness of attitude. They start to ask me questions right away. The same questions as yesterday. I give the same answers.
“May I see your camera?” Comrade Jude requested, when he had finished eating. I took the camera from my bag and handed it to him. I turned it on, and he looked through its viewfinder. He returned it without any comment, and asked me about its cost, about my monthly salary, and about my work.
“The camera isn’t mine,” I said. “It was loaned to me by my office.” Then I gave him an approximation of my salary, and described my documentary: “It is about the Aetas as an indigenous people and their struggle to survive after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.”
“What ‘struggle to survive’?” His voice was high and sarcastic. “They have been struggling to survive even before the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. You have no story! I have given you a chance, but you failed. As a result, under our revolutionary government, you are banned from filming in our guerrilla zone. If you try to enter our zone, we will arrest you. You will be tried by a people’s court.”
“The story here,” he said, pointing his forefinger to the ground “is about land-grabbing and open-pit mining. You should make films about these issues.”
“But these very subjects will be tackled in passing in my story,” I said, after regaining my composure.
“No, I’ve already given you the chance to explain yourself but you failed.” He was vehement in his dogmatism. “I know,” he went on, “you are making a documentary because you want to earn big money. I know they pay you thousands of dollars to make films like that. This film is not for the Aetas. It is for yourself. You want to become rich and make a name for yourself. You are making a film about the Aetas because you want to expose and ridicule their primitiveness.”
“What rubbish!” I thought. “Why don’t you make your own film about your favorite issues?”
“We have to take your camera!” he exploded.
If I were a farmer, he is depriving me of my carabao. If I were a rebel like him, he is depriving me of my M-16. He wants to deprive me of a tool I use to make my living.
Turning to Mulawin, he said: “We must not allow outsiders to enter our place. We must protect our ancestral lands. If we allow others to enter here, sooner or later, big multinational companies will come and destroy our lands. They will bulldoze our mountains and get all the gold. Our ancestral lands would vanish.”
But Mulawin came to my rescue. He told Comrade Jude that we have been good friends and that I’ve been trying to help his family. He told him I have not done anything wrong in his village. Comrade Joshua, the Aeta leader, answered Mulawin.
“The first thing you should remember,” he said, “is the future of our ancestral land. What your friend is doing is purely for his selfish interest. We should first protect the interest of our own race.”
Comrade Joshua, being an Aeta, has more authority to speak on ancestral lands than Comrade Jude, who, like me, is a lowlander. Speaking meekly and politely, Mulawin continued to defend me.
“But comrades, you should not take my friend’s camera. I’m begging you, please don’t take it,” he said. Mulawin and his wife are on the verge of tears.
“We already told you,” Comrade Jude turned to Mulawin, “why we’re taking your friend’s camera.” His voice was firm. But he was conscious not to openly antagonize Mulawin.
Mulawin continued to defend me. “But if you do this, do you think you can gain the trust of the Aeta people to your cause?”
Brave words! I applauded my friend, silently, for his courage.
“You really can’t understand,” Comrade Jude said. He was visibly restraining his anger. “We’ve explained everything and still you can’t understand!”
Realizing his faux pas, Mulawin said: “If that’s your decision, I cannot do anything.” He kept silent.
During this time, Comrade John didn’t say a single word on my behalf. For Comrade Jude is not only the eldest of the rebels, but also the most powerful.
Comrade Jude, Comrade John and Comrade Joshua talked among themselves. I gathered from their gestures that they were talking about me. After a few minutes, they called Mulawin. Comrade Jude and Comrade John told him something. Mulawin suddenly became silent.
It was already midnight but no one seemed to be going to sleep. It was a good sign for me because I knew they were going to leave soon. But on the other hand, I was terribly scared, not so much because of the camera but more due to the prospect of being taken with them as a prisoner. Comrade John approached me. Comrade Jude stayed at a listening distance.
“Comrade Rey,” he spoke gently, “I’m sorry we have to take your camera. You are making a film, not for the Aeta people but for your own personal interest. We cannot see how our comrades here in this village could benefit from your project.”
I pity Comrade John for having been humiliated by his own comrade. Those words are not his; they are Comrade Jude’s. It would have been better if Comrade Jude said it himself to me.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Comrade John, acquiescing to the rebels’ wishes, “I know you don’t want to do this, but you have to. You can give my camera to Comrade Jude.”
I opened my bag and gave it to Comrade John. He handed the camera to Comrade Jude.
Now they were ready to go. The rebels packed up at lightning speed. Once done, they all stood up. Comrade Jude then gave his parting shot to me.
“Make sure you’re not going to report to the military after we’ve left. Because if you do, we will punish you…” he said.
“I’m not a spy,” I said, teary-eyed. “I’m a journalist.”
“You have to prove that first,” he said. “Wherever you go, even in Japan, if you betray us, we have allies all over the world to go after you.”
It was Comrade Joshua’s turn to speak: “Remember, we can kill the enemies of the people… We can kill you.” Comrade John was unusually silent.
“I know that,” I said. “I know you can kill me. No doubt about that. But I assure you, I’m not a spy.”
The armed propaganda units of the New People’s Army quickly assembled into formation. They moved swiftly and silently under the light of the silvery moon. They disappeared into the hills. And there were no more dogs barking.
Rey Ventura was born in 1962 in the foothills of Sierra Madre in Isabela. In 1983, after three years of studying engineering, Ventura was involved heavily in rallies and demonstrations in Mendiola. He transferred his major and completed a Bachelor in Arts, major in political science at the Trinity College of Quezon City in 1986. In 1988, he worked for a year as a day laborer in Yokohama. In 1992, Jonathan Cape published his seminal work: UNDERGROUND IN JAPAN. From 1996 to 2001, he was the Manila correspondent of Asia Press International, a Tokyo-based news agency.