Rebels of Arakan Valley
Arakan Valley, North Cotabato. There is dust on his red rubber slippers, and a native scarf wrapped around his head. His vestments are white, as white as his people can make it, so white they almost glow in the morning sunlight as he hurries to the church with the blue glass windows. His people are waiting, he says.
Peter had always wanted to be a priest. He was a young boy during World War II, and he saw what the bombing and fighting did to his people where he lived in a small town near Venice. He taught modern history at the seminary, was ordained in 1963, and chose the Philippines as his mission area because it was so much like Italy: a peninsula, reigned over for centuries by the kings of France and Spain, until its people struggled for liberation. He was 34.
He learned Tagalog in America, practiced it in Laguna. He arrived, tall and thin and pale from the classroom, to see his new home in Sta. Ana, Laguna in crisis. The priests fell ill. The town was flooded. The church compound became an evacuation site. He began organizing doctors and nurses and community leaders. It was his first understanding of the state of the nation.
He was transferred to Tondo, Manila, where he and other clergy began organizing the squatters. There was harassment, threats, until the La Tondeña strike in 1976, when more than 400 laborers were arrested, shoved into buses to be jailed. Fr. Peter Geremia hauled himself into a bus with another nun and hung on until they arrived in Fort Bonifacio. He said he intended to go to jail if his parishioners were going to be jailed. The soldiers threw him out, put him into a car, and sent him home. He fought for the release of the arrested, the once seminarian-scholar pushing back his glasses as he rampaged across Tondo. Many of his fellow priests found themselves deported to Italy. They tried to deport Peter, but he had been warned beforehand. When the Metrocom arrived, the man of God was long gone, and so was his motorcycle.
The Church interceded. He was sent instead to Zamboanga, far away in the South where rebel priests could howl away for justice and there would be little trouble for Ferdinand Marcos.
The priests of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions were assigned to the tribal communities of Columbio and Arakan. The people did not ask for Mass or blessings, they asked for help, helping themselves. Father Peter worked side by side with another Italian priest named Tulio Favali. They helped the tribals reclaim the lands they lost. It was then that the harassment began. There were threats, controversy and murders. And in 1985, one of their own was gunned down.
There is a photo of Peter from 1985. He has one knee on the ground, the other props one arm. He wears a red baseball cap backwards, or maybe it is a bandanna, the photo is not very clear. Peter is thin, and tall, maybe in his late 30s or early 40s, and there is a look on his face that is not so much sad as grave. He has the face of a professor, or of a priest, and of course this is what he is. He is looking at a body lying on the ground. The body belongs to Favali, or what is left of Father Favali. His head is shattered. There is blood everywhere and on the rubber slippers Peter wears.
There were many witnesses. They said the body was scattered on the highway. They said the killer ate Favali’s brains. Peter was the target, but Favali was dead. Months later, a paramilitary group led by Commander Norberto Manero sent a letter saying they killed the priest “because they wanted to kill the rebel priest.”
A young priest named Fausto Tentorio arrived in Arakan to take over from Favali. The people called him Father Pops. He was Father Peter’s partner in the tribal movement, a man that the older priest calls “a very different character from myself.” Peter had become a public face after the death of Favali, in his campaign for justice. Father Pops was reluctant about interviews and kept a low profile. He sat in the sun in his torn sleeveless shirts, and demanded from his thousands of scholars their attention in school. He lost and gained weight in accordance to the calendar of town fiestas, and wore his Pacquiao shirt as comfortably as his vestments. He was closest to his lumad, the tribals who in 2009 had hidden the priest in a bamboo bodega while armed men tracked him from house to house. The men were called the Alamara Bagani, alleged paramilitary troops, men whom the lumad children called bad soldiers. One lumad pretended to be ill to discourage the Bagani from entering. They were afraid for their Pops. The Bagani said they would take his ears.
When he was shot two weeks ago, at six in the morning outside his blue church in Arakan Valley, shot 10 times with fragmentation bullets as schoolchildren sang the national anthem, it was the lumad who lost the most. It was, as Peter said, as if Fausto Tentorio were the representative of their dreams. When he was killed, 10,000 came to his burial.
There were threats, say witnesses. They have pointed at the Alamara Bagani. They have pointed to the military. But the military say they are innocent, that they have the best of relations with the tribes and the religious, the same religious that they included in their order of battle in 2006 when Fr. Peter Geremia was declared an NPA organizer responsible for the elimination and liquidation of citizens. When officers of the AFP’s Brigade 601 were asked to present evidence, they backed down, and said they had to reassess their reports.
The AFP says there is a distinct possibility communists are behind the killings. Recently, the communist New People’s Army announced they would wrest justice for their beloved Father Fausto, the man, they declared, was a communist, an internationalist, an Italian who became a Filipino who spent his life in the service of the oppressed.
Father Peter is convinced the killer was only an instrument. He says it took power and means to kill Tentorio. But he is not afraid, this priest who guards the blue church. He is old, says Peter, he is no threat. But he is afraid for all those who are involved, for all those who will testify, for all those quoted in newspapers, because they can be killed, so easily, as easily as Fausto was killed.
Sometimes he says Fausto when he means Favali, or Favali when he means Fausto. He is tall and thin and stooped, a scholar in a red scarf and blurring eyes. Fausto is dead. Favali is dead. But the bells will keep ringing in a blue church surrounded by mahogany trees in a valley called Arakan, because Peter will stand fast, and so will many people who walked many miles for a man they called Pops.
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This story was made possible by Move.ph. Video documentary can be found online at www.facebook/move.ph Email writer at [email protected]
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