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Eruption and exodus, 1991

“Binulsa ko na lang ang aking kalungkutan” (I kept  my sadness in my pocket).”—Paylot, Aeta leader

It has been 25 years since the grand, world-class eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in June 1991. I remember a Franciscan sister, Sr. Emma Mediavillo, rushing to Manila and coming to my house to tell me about the volcanic rumbling felt by the Aeta community in Sitio Yamot in Poonbato, Botolan, Zambales. The volcano experts had yet no idea something big was going to happen. But the Aeta were already feeling the earth move under their feet.

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The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) were living among the Aeta at that time. Sister Emma, a science graduate who knew the movements of the earth, was stationed there.

Some years earlier, the FMMs had invited me to stay with them there, share in their life with the

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Aeta, and see for myself the kind of work they did. The FMMs were just starting their ministry with the Aeta community then. The sisters had to get their water supply from the town proper via a trusty weapons carrier, while the Aeta walked kilometers to wash, bathe and fetch water from a spring.

I still have a photo of a tot named Emily with snot in her nostrils, and a photo of an Aeta mother breastfeeding her child. These were used for my feature story in a national magazine.

When I went back to Yamot a few years later, the little village had been transformed; the homes made of native materials looked very neat and well-maintained, with lots of green around. Even the Franciscans’ small nipa house was bursting with wild orchids. The teenagers in G-strings enjoyed playing basketball when they were not in the fields. There were no schools nearby.

But this life-sharing between the Franciscan nuns and the Aeta at the foot of the volcano was not to remain for long.  After a 600-year slumber, Pinatubo erupted and continued to do so for days and weeks, covering the towns of the provinces around it, changing the landscape, darkening the sky and even other parts of Southeast Asia. It was an eruption like no other.

I remember returning from a vacation in Baguio the day before the major eruption. Had I not come down on time, I would have been unable to get back to Metro Manila until weeks after as the ash fall in Pampanga was heavy. At home, I was able to sweep fine ash from the driveway and put it in a jar. I still have it. Yes, the ashfall reached Metro Manila.

A week after the major eruption, I went with some religious sisters to Pampanga and then on to Zambales to look for the nuns and the Aeta community.  We found them in San Antonio where they had pitched their tents while planning where to go next and settle permanently. This Aeta community, with the help of the FMMs, was among the most prepared to face the wrath of the volcano. But they did not expect the difficulties they would live through.

The Aeta of Yamot were organized and ready to leave their village long before the residents of towns and villages heeded the warnings. Their evacuation was very orderly. Every time the Aeta moved they carried with them meager belongings and took along farm animals. As early as April 1991 when Pinatubo started to grumble, they began preparing for the worst. Still, they did not expect the volcano to lay their dreams to waste so swiftly.

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The Aeta had reached Tomangan when they were caught off-guard by a violent eruption made worse by a raging typhoon. Three people were struck by lightning. At that time the Aeta were already panicky. They poured vinegar on the prostrate victims who, they said, miraculously regained consciousness.

That deadly hour came without warning. The Aeta had no choice but to leave behind the work animals they had taken with them during their evacuation. They untethered the animals so they could run for their lives, in the hope that humans and animals would find one another alive again someday.

The Aeta remember their animals’ faces. “We know our animals,” an Aeta leader told me. “We know how they look. I hope they are alive.” As long as no one has stolen or claimed the animals as their own, the Aeta will find them. There were about 20 carabaos let loose.

Ten years before the 1991 eruption, when the nuns, led by Sr. Carmen Balazo, FMM, came for the first time, many of the Aeta were afraid and diffident. But it didn’t take long for the Aeta to welcome the new arrivals. They were impressed that the nuns lived simply in their midst and did not attempt to convert any of them to Christianity. Instead, the nuns taught them how to read and write and not be fooled by anyone, especially by middlemen. They did not start off with ABC. It was “L” for lota (land) and “D” for damowag  (carabao). They learned how to compute how much they were cheated on their bananas by scheming traders.

When I spent time there, the nuns had been in the area barely a year but already they had wrought changes in the Aeta’s lives. The key was organizing. At the time of Pinatubo’s eruption, the Aeta of 12 sitios in that area had eight cooperatives. Most of the Aeta in the co-ops belonged to the organization called Lakas (for Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales). It was through Lakas that many of the Aeta found a voice. Yamot slowly became a dream village. Until…

The Aeta are now well settled in their new communities in Zambales. Every now and then, I would receive a greeting card from them, with their signatures on it.

Accounts of the volcanic eruption and the Aeta evacuation, plus photographs of those times, are in the coffee-table book “Eruption and Exodus,” parts of which the Aeta wrote themselves, and for which I wrote the foreword.

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TAGS: Aeta, Eruption, Mt. Pinatubo, Volcano, Zambales
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