Tristan was twelve years old when they invaded. His family lived in the barangay near the coastline where the rebels landed. They burned down his family’s home, one of the many. The four of them fled on foot: Tristan, his father, mother, and older sister Alegria. None brought anything with them except the clothes on their skins. Alegria was falling behind. Tristan’s mother pulled his hand tightly as she called out to his father, who ran ahead, shouting at him to slow down. His father said something Triste could not remember, because halfway through his sentence his father suddenly stopped speaking.
His mother screamed just as she fell on the asphalt, dragging Tristan down with her. He fell open-mouthed, and a piece of his front tooth broke when his face hit the ground. His mother became voiceless.
He could not remember his mother’s exact final moments. Alegria grabbed him before the image could sink in, carried him on her shoulder as he continued to cry, and ran as fast as she could, never looking back. Tristan didn’t want to, but he looked back.
How long had they been running? He had lost the will to cry. He seemed like a corpse on her sister’s shoulder. Alegria struggled to carry him; he was not a small child anymore, and he was almost as heavy as she was now. But she pushed on, like there was some invisible force screaming at her that she must carry him, else he dies. When she could no longer bear her brother’s weight, she stumbled in an abandoned street and scraped both her knees, as her hands embraced Tristan so he wouldn’t fall with her. Then there were people in the distance, running toward them. Alegria’s legs couldn’t muster the strength. They were coming closer. And they were carrying guns.
Police officers found and took them. They guarded them until people with a stretcher arrived, which Tristan and Alegria had to share. They were carried to one of the smaller evacuation centers, a barangay hall, since many of the hospitals were caught in the warzone, and the few outside it were filled with wounded. In that barangay hall, they were taken care of by people with masks for several weeks until the battles were finished, and the rebels either dead or imprisoned.
Now their relatives from Davao, Uncle Reyes and Aunt Laura, came to Zamboanga after the siege, and visited different evacuation centers to find Tristan and his family. They found where Tristan and Alegria were, and when they saw Tristan, the boy sat on the dusty ground, and had puffy eyes. It was already a month since his parents died. Uncle Reyes asked him if he had eaten, and the whereabout of his parents. Tristan’s face wrinkled, refused to look up, and used his fingers to trace erratically on the dust off the ground. They realized what had happened and took pity on him. Then Aunt Laura said to Alegria, “Do you want to come and live with us?” And Alegria, standing firm and acting composed, said to Aunt Laura, “Okay. Let’s go home.” So, Aunt Laura and Uncle Reyes went and took them out of the evacuation center. And Aunt Laura said to Tristan and Alegria, “Come with us to Davao. Did you know it’s the safest city in the world? You’ll be well there.”
They lived in Barangay Mintal. Their uncle’s house was along the national highway, between a hardware store and a three-story office building. Uncle Reyes and Aunt Laura owned a bridal shop a few meters left of their house. Just a bit further was the local elementary school, where Alegria was recently hired to teach English classes for Grade Four to Grade Six students. The first days in this place were difficult. No one understood their language, Chavacano, and Tristan was forced to learn Tagalog and Cebuano at the same time. But in time, he learned enough Cebuano to be trusted to buy at the convenience store alone.
A teacher in Tristan’s public school downtown announced in their class that the school would be conducting an immersion in a place called Haran, where displaced indigenous communities in the region sought refuge. The teacher asked the class if anyone wished to join. He said it was an opportunity to learn more about why these people fled their homelands, and how the conflicts in Mindanao began and persist to this day.
Tristan remembered the burning of his home, the bullets that pierced through skin like paper, the evacuation center, and the elderly woman and her people who slept on the sidewalk. And he raised his hand.
They came to Haran, students and faculty. The entrance was a painted metal gate which led to a church building. Further was the entrance to the refugee area: a demolished section of a concrete wall as the gateway, a large tarpaulin as the gate. They were greeted by the Datu and two volunteer teachers, who guided them through each area of the community.
They came from different places. Some were from Compostela, some from Surigao region, and some from South Cotabato, Bukidnon, Marawi, and Lanao del Norte. Tristan learned how the military violently drove the indigenous peoples out from their lands.
He could not believe it at first. The government soldiers, who defended Zamboanga City from the Moro rebels and afterwards hailed as heroes, were taking away the homes of hundreds and thousands of innocent people. From the governments of old, to the governments before them, to the governments of now. The people of Christianity.
When he came home to Uncle Reyes and Aunt Laura, his uncle asked, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” Tristan said, “I’m going to be a volunteer teacher.” They were surprised. But seeing no danger in such vocation, they allowed him. Soon, when Alegria found out, she said to her brother, “Where will you teach?”
“A bakwit school,” Tristan said.
“Why did you volunteer?” she asked.
“I want to help them.”
Tristan was content with the decision he made, but he saw her look, like the faces people made when they sip a bowlful of satti sauce without testing the spiciness. “You shouldn’t be wasting the time you could spend studying,” Alegria said.
“I am studying. I’m going to learn about our people,” Tristan replied. She was perplexed. Our people? The phrase rolled off the tongue.
“I mean ‘actual’ studying, the kind that will actually get you a job?”
“Why should I get a job? So I can be happy and busy and forgetful as you?”
She clenched her fist, her brows tightened. “Are you implying something?”
“Nothing. Sorry,” he said. “It’s just that, I really feel like this is my duty, sis. That it’s God’s calling.” He spoke with a strange conviction that was not in him before.
Alegria sighed and massaged her forehead as she leaned on the wall. “Fine. Then you better be safe, got it? Let me pray for you, and for whatever it is you want to achieve there.”
“Thank you, sis.”
“But come home right away after that, understand?”
Alegria put her hand on his shoulder, closed her eyes, and prayed. It sounded much like the prayers mother used to say to put them to sleep every night. His sister was never this prayerful back home.
He returned to teach at Haran on the morning of every Saturday. Alegria, his relatives, and strangers delivered him out of the hand of the rebels, and even took care of him. Now he would do the same for others. This was how he would choose to live as a sojourner in a foreign land.
A year had passed, and now he felt like he belonged in that evacuation area, with people and children who had also lost homes and loved ones. He taught them English, and occasionally, Arts and Craft. Every day he felt alone in his relatives’ house. Even his sister became like a stranger to him, who didn’t seem to care at all about losing their family. At least here, among these orphaned people, he started feeling less lonely.
Tristan would only find out when he returned home later that day. Alegria told him as soon as he entered the living room. “Court frees ninety-eight MNLF men in Zambo Siege,” she read the headlines on her phone. “Tears streamed down Lourdes Omar’s face when she saw her daughter, Nuraisa, 24, standing behind the fence of the Philippine Air Force base…” she continued to read. The house was destroyed, civilians killed, murderers freed. “…where she spent the last four years and eight months in detention, was among the ninety-eight suspects in the 2013 siege…” Tristan realized he could not recall the faces of those who shot his parents. “Twelve of them are residents of this city, forty are from Basilan province, and the rest…” He never saw them. But they were probably killed, or imprisoned. They were probably among those ninety-eight released today. “…released the prisoners for serving the minimum prison sentence of two years for sedition. Jesus, can you believe that?” He thanked his sister for telling him the news, and said he was going to sleep now.
Tristan changed into comfortable clothes and put on his slippers. Doubt entered his soul. Who was he, a mere child? The Lord will be not be with him. He prayed and thought and stared at anything, that maybe God would call out to him through the things in his bedroom. His mother always said that God would be there for him. But he wasn’t. And she wasn’t as well.
To be continued…
Nate Lim hails from Zamboanga City. He holds a BA in English (Creative Writing) from the University of the Philippines Mindanao. You may read the second part of this story here.