‘Tiempo muerto’ in Negros
Oplan Thunderbolt’s helicopters kept dropping bombs on Negros Occidental’s mountains when Nanay carried me in her womb. With the first Edsa People Power Revolution still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, the early ’90s continued to be a tumultuous time for Negrenses. Social unrest did not stop heaving in Negros, as most residents of rural areas suffered from abject poverty and hunger brought about by “tiempo muerto” (dead season, the six-month gap between planting and harvesting sugarcanes when there is no available work in the cane fields).
Peasants and their families flocked to evacuation centers in urban areas, like Bacolod City, to flee from the chaos of the war waged against the New People’s Army by the government. The military’s indiscriminate bomb attacks, however, hit civilian properties and disrupted civilian lives, regardless if the victims sympathized with the guerrillas or not. In its obstinate pursuit to exterminate the NPA in Negros, the government ended up hurting its own people.
My parents were among those church workers urged by the late Bishop Emeritus Antonio Fortich and other clergy under the Diocese of Bacolod to help the evacuees. Nanay and Tatay witnessed the suffering and struggle of the impoverished in Negros. Even Nanay struggled with two burdens of her own. One was doing her part to assist with the evacuees’ needs. The other was her pregnancy with her fourth child.
The strain of serving the marginalized eventually forced Nanay to bring me out into this world prematurely. A caesarian operation later, a baby boy was born during a time of struggle. My parents named me “Peace,” after the one thing they aspired for the people they were helping. And yet, the thing I was named after would also be extremely difficult to obtain. Growing up, I faced many personal struggles myself, from overcoming mild cerebral palsy to coping with my constant anxiety, as well as the countless other complications that daily life brings.
Despite those challenges, I became resilient yet compassionate. Nanay and Tatay would use the situation of the mamumugon (poor farmers or agricultural laborers) to teach me life lessons, and their struggles became examples of perseverance and courage for me to follow. My deceased Lolo from Tatay’s side was a poor farmer himself, and hard times often came upon my paternal relatives in the rural areas. I empathized with the people who work the land, and admired their effort to put food on the tables of everyone, not just their own families. I would also take part in campaigns to champion and stand up for their rights to earn more humane wages, to own the land they tilled and to be protected from oppression. I, too, wished real peace and justice for the sugar workers, peasants and fisherfolk.
Being a farmer’s grandson and an advocate of farmers myself, I feel uneasy when hearing terrible news about poor farmers, especially from Negros. In October 2018, the massacre in Sagay was already worrisome. The killing of 14 peasants in Negros Oriental in late March this year only worsened the situation, followed by the intimidation and slaying of the advocates for these farmers.
Human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos was handling the case for the victims of the Sagay massacre, while Escalante City incumbent councilor Bernardino “Toto” Patigas, a survivor of the infamous Escalante massacre, also did human rights work in rural areas. The latter was murdered near a school area in his home city just recently, while the former was shot mere weeks after the Sagay massacre.
Eerily enough, they were killed in similar fashion: unidentified assailants wielding firearms and riding motorcycles. As if the deaths of these two weren’t enough to scare their living colleagues, members of progressive groups here in Negros have been receiving death threats through text messages.
The Escalante massacre and Oplan Thunderbolt were traumatic times for Negrenses, but these incidents have been long gone. And yet, for an island that supposedly upholds the agricultural sector, Negros remains a highly unsafe place for the tillers of its land. Our farmers, who grow our food (and help our economy), if not neglected or belittled, are being paid in bombs and bullets. The spate of recent killings reminded me of lines from an old protest song by Pol Galang: “Pawis, luha, dugo ng tao/ ang dumilig sa lupang ito/ sa bayan ng Negros, bayan ng Negros.”
Literally, “tiempo muerto” has come. It has become a time of death and suffering for the Negrense peasants who water the soil with their own blood, sweat and tears.
Peace S. Flores, 27, is a psychology graduate from the University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos. Despite suffering from mild cerebral palsy, he is currently employed by the Department of Education-Division of Negros Occidental, and occasionally does freelance writing.
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