Mind on Mindanao – The story behind a fact sheet

“If considering to travel to Mindanao, one should exercise extreme caution.”

Those are words from a foreign country’s “Philippines Travel Warning” but even just from Metro-Manila, Mindanao – the southernmost island group of the Philippines – is often seen just as a problem-filled and undeveloped area only causing headache for the rest of the country. And to be honest, that idea can easily be backed up with certain facts. Mindanao is the poorest of the three island groups of the Philippines, and for the rest of the world, if it is known, it’s that because of kidnappings, murders, massacres, terrorists and war.

So it’s understandable that before leaving for a work trip there, I was constantly warned about its many dangers, advised to stay alert and to “exercise extreme caution”. However, when I returned from my journey to the Capital Region two weeks later, I felt like I should be the one warning others. Warning them about the prejudice that can grow within us through the stories told to us – and the stories left untold. For what I saw in Mindanao was something else than what the news told to me everyday in Metro-Manila, let alone the things I remembered hearing about it back home in the west.

What we see now is nothing but a reflection of the past

Mindanao is one of the world’s oldest crisis areas. The Spaniards tried to conquer it for more than 300 years before the American guns finally succeeded in which the Spanish didn’t. After the war, the United States united Mindanao to the rest of the island group they were now ruling next to the South China Sea – the Philippines. Later Mindanao was also internally colonialized by the government sitting in Manila, and the conflicts continue till today.

These are facts that could all be listed in the fact sheet of Mindanao. Within the human rights organizations in the Philippines, “fact sheets” refer to the pieces of papers from where one can read about who got harassed, tortured, or killed, where and when, as well as the possible reasons why. In other words, these sheets summarize the brutal facts of the tragedies that have happened – and are going on – in the country.

Yes, the facts mentioned above could comprise the “fact sheet” of an island group, and of a whole country. However, when I came back to the north – first to the north of the Philippines, and then to the north of our globe – I felt like that kind of story wouldn’t tell anything about what I saw in the south. I felt I saw something much more.

A fact sheet

My first meeting in Mindanao was in a small town right in the center of the island, where I met the family of Teresito Labastilla. Here’s a summarized fact sheet of an incident that took place four months ago:

Teresito Mula Labastilla, 46 years old

At Dionisio Micayabas Street, North Poblacion, Maramag, Bukidnon on the morning of 12th of February 2015, Teresito Mula Labastilla, also known as Fr. Sito, dropped his son at school. While Labastilla was about to leave the school premise unknown assailants on a motorcycle peppered him with bullets. His son, who just got down from the vehicle a minute before, heard a series of gun shots and his father calling him. On arrival to the hospital, Teresito was found dead.

“Sito” was a former priest, human rights defender of indigenous people and farmers, and a well-known environmental activist in the whole province of Bukidnon. He served as a priest for 14 years until 2000, when he decided to go out of the priesthood and have his own family. In 2010, he ran for mayor in Lantapan, Bukidnon and his main advocacy was for the issues of land and water to be resolved for the farmers and indigenous people in his area.

He didn’t win the election, but that didn’t stop him to work for his advocacy by advising and helping the indigenous people and farmers in fighting for what was theirs legally, and morally.

This moment is all we ever get – luckily, a lifetime of wondering won’t be enough to discover all the beauty in it

A woman looks at me, smiles, gives a warm two-handed handshake and invites me in to her carinderia (a Filipino style eatery). Now as the sole breadwinner of the family she is busy taking care of two small businesses – the carinderia and a sari-sari store (a tiny convenience store) next to it. She runs the stores, but she can’t run – because of an illness she needs to have braces on her feet which makes even walking sometimes a challenge for her.

As we sit down opposite to each other, her 10-year-old twin daughters and her 12-year-old son are all laughing and fooling around in the background – enjoying their summer break from school. Once in a while, one of the kids serves customers dropping by, letting their mom concentrate on our conversation. She shares me her story and the story of her family, she tells me about the misfortunes and about the blessings, she laughs and she cries – she hides nothing from me. Despite everything, right at that moment I feel like I’m in a happy place, among a happy family.

She tells me how the father of the her children committed his life to help the less unfortunate ones and fought for what he felt was right. “Doing the right thing” meant fighting against the corrupt officials and the influential families of the area – it meant fighting against the system. “Fighting” in Sito’s case meant nothing else than helping the people in need. What Sito lived for, became what he died for.

After we said our goodbyes, I no longer felt pity, but a great respect for the whole family of Labastilla that I had had an honor to meet – Sito had been present there too, the woman told me.

When we get used to the darkness, it’s difficult to open our eyes for the light

The fact sheet of Labastilla case could tell us just about another tragedy in a reality where the good guy loses in the end and how there is no happy ending. But it can also tell us a story of how even during the darkest times, there’s beams of light that can bring a smile to our faces if we just keep our eyes open.

With the example set to me by the people like the Labastillas, my eyes were opened to another kind of reality that lied behind all the suffering and oppression – behind those facts that can compose the fact sheet of the family of Labastilla, or the island group of Mindanao. That reality is something too beautiful ever to capture on any paper, not to mention on a “fact sheet”.

“Write poems, not CVs”

What if.

What if we tear the fact sheets of our life in shreds, and start concentrating on our own true story behind  – that story of which reflection we are today. What if we let that story be the one we let others to hear, and let that story be the one that we are willing to hear about them too. The story of a drunkard sitting on a park bench, the story of a businessman with a well-trained handshake, the story of the people from a developed country, and the story of the people from an undeveloped one.

Let us not “exercise caution” at all, and maybe then we are open to the fact about this world that we know even with our eyes shut – we’re all in this together.

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Humanitourism – Travels of a human rights worker

Filipinos are very proud of the exquisite travel destinations their country has to offer, and rightly so. The country is surely one of the richest in the world when it comes to places to see. Except experiencing the beach life on white, black, or pink sand, you can go camping at isolated paradise islands, see 2,000-year-old rice terraces, witness wildlife found nowhere else on the planet, visit the volcano inside a volcano, and so on, and so on.

It’s no wonder the people in here – be it locals, expats or tourists – love to talk about and compare the beauty of the “must-sees” of the country, and as a newbie here I am expected to be extremely interested in this topic – however, I’m usually not. When the others sense this, they get worried. Worried that I’m still unaware of how amazing the Philippines can be, and worried that I would leave the country without having seen its true beauty. Yet, I’m not worried. I’m not worried because in my life I’ve already been lucky enough to see a few of these “must-sees” in this world, and what I’ve learned is that it’s not usually in those places where the true beauty of a country – or a travel – lies in.

What I felt was amazing about Cambodia was not seeing the Angkor Wat, amazing was when I sat on a wooden floor in a circle of men – celebrating the Cambodian New Year as a guest of a local family in their humble home.  What was awesome in China was not seeing the Great Wall or the Tibetan landscape, awesome was to come home from a roundtable business dinner to drink beers on the street with fruit vendors and barbers – my friends from the neighborhood. In India, after getting lost with my motorcycle, I found myself in a tiny village where the village elder showed me how life is been lived and how people relate to each other in a true Indian way – I didn’t go to see Taj Mahal, but judging from the pictures, I think it wouldn’t compare to that.

Travels of a human rights worker

After already having those experiences, what I came to Philippines for was not to see the country the way it’s covered in the travel magazines. I already knew that the beauty of a scenery from a mountain peak or having a whale shark swimming next to you can blow you away for a moment – but I also knew what are the kind of experiences that can blow you away for a lifetime.

What amazing is there to discover then in the Philippines if not the places listed in the Lonely Planet? Well, in the mountains of Rizal, I stayed with indigenous people and learned about their thousand-year-old way of seeing the world as a place where sharing, not owning, is what breeds happiness. In the Bondoc Peninsula, I shared a fresh coconut with its farmer while he gave me a lesson of the rules that apply where the rule of law is a pure fiction, just before witnessing a smile expressing relief and gratitude towards me from someone who suffered from this the most grave way. And so on, and so on.

The places where these happenings took place are not on the list of the top travel destinations in the Philippines, yet it was in those places where I had all that – moments of realizations of something that connects us all, no matter from what kind of a reality we come from. And these are the kind of experiences that can blow you away for a lifetime – and make you who you are today.

As somebody working for human rights in the Philippines, I’m lucky to have an easy exit to burst out from my own bubble of reality all the time. But that exit exists for us all no matter where we are, if we only want to find it. For me, the easiest way there has been through connecting with the people around me, better yet, with someone who seems to live in a different world than me – that is “humanitourism” at its best, and it’s a way of traveling, and living, free for all.

TFDP at Bondoc Peninsula

Melchor Rosco, the president of the farmer's association is describing the situation in the Bondoc Peninsula. He was in close cooperation with Elisa Tulid – one of the most vocal human rights defenders in the area.
Melchor Rosco – the president of a farmer’s association – describing the situation in the Bondoc Peninsula. He was in close cooperation with Elisa Tulid – one of the most vocal human rights defenders in the area. “She was strong, she was not afraid.” – he said.
Elisa Tulid's widowed husband Dannyboy staying in the background as usual.
As outspoken and strong figure as Elisa was, his widowed husband Dannyboy, however, likes to keep himself in the background.
Melanie Tulid was four years old when she witnessed her mom getting murdered. Today, however, she is acting as happy as any six-year-old child. During our visit to the Tulid family she also wanted to give a new design for my Tagalog-learning book.
Yet, Melanie Tulid seems to take after her mother. She was four years old when she witnessed her mom getting murdered. Today – two and a half a years later – she still remembers precisely how everything happened. She is angry to the murderer and according to her father, she still sometimes demands him to revenge her mother’s death. At the same time, however, she seems to be as care free as any six-year-old child. It’s often the strength of the children that amazes me the most in the Philippines. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring our visit to the Tulid family Melanie also wanted to give a new design for my Tagalog-learning book.
    Carabaos – the national animals of the Philippines – are the bread and breed for the farmers. Here we are stepping aside from the trail again because of them on our way to check up on the youngest victim of Elisa's murder...
Staying away from the blistering sun, and every now and then, from a trotting carabao – the national animal of the Philippines – on our way to check up on the youngest victim of Elisa’s murder…
Roslyn with her son sitting at the porch of their house in the mountains of xx.. Thevictim of the crime – he lost his grandmother even before his birth.
… the son of Roslyn Tulid,  who lost his grandmother even before he was born. Both the son and the mother have suffered some health problems but now they’re stable – enjoying the evening sitting at the porch of their house in the mountains of San Andres in Bondoc Peninsula.
After 30 years of commitment for her beliefs, when Brenda de Guzman speaks about human rights, others listen.
Brenda de Guzman – my work partner – is explaining to the inhabitants of San Andres to what for is she and the young white guy in the area. After 30 years of experience and devotion for her work, when Brenda speaks about human rights, others listen.
    Case files at the prosecutor's office in Gumaca where a single prosecutor handles around 1,000 cases yearly. In the whole of Bondoc Peninsula, for every 500,000 inhabitants there is one single civil judge.
Case files at the prosecutor’s office in Gumaca where a single prosecutor handles around 1,000 cases yearly. In the whole of Bondoc Peninsula, for every 500,000 inhabitants there is one single civil judge handling cases.
My afterwork hangout crew in Gumaca – a bunch of happy kids.
But this afterwork crew of mine wasn’t worrying about the justice system of their hometown – after all it was another beautiful day in the cozy coastal town of Gumaca.
On our way back home from Gumaca, we got some news from San Pablo and we stopped by at Evangelina Silva's place. Evangelina (on the right) is telling the story of how her husband got killed by the police just a week before. Sometimes we can't do anything but listen.
On our way back home from Gumaca, we got some news from San Pablo. We stopped by at Evangelina Silva’s home where she (on the right) told us the story of how her husband got killed by the police just a week before. Sometimes we can’t do anything but listen.
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Oh, I almost forgot! On our trip I also saw this amazing view…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                                                                                        …and this really old and beautiful church – the top two things you should see in the Bondoc Peninsula, they say.

What’s short for murder? – Abbreviations of the Philippine civil society

One of the first challenges I faced working in a Philippine human rights NGO was the working language. By this I don’t mean the often confusing mix of English and Tagalog, but the amount of abbreviations you can sometimes hear in just one sentence.

The first case I got involved with at TFDP I could’ve not understand a thing without knowing what are DENR, DAR and CARP, or in other words, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Agrarian Reform and Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Not to feel like a complete idiot while just having an everyday conversation with someone from the Philippine NGO field, you also should be comfortable with acronyms for Department of Justice (DOJ), Commission on Human Rights (CHR), Department of National Defence (DND),  Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and so on and so on.
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However, the very first strings of letters that got me confused were the ones next to the family names on the folders beside my desk – What are all these EJKs, ARDs and HARs?

Here is an explanation for what an EJK and an ARD/HAR can actually mean in real life.

TULID EJK – Extrajudicial Killing of Elisa Tulid

19th of October 2013 Elisa Tulid was on her way home together with her husband Dannyboy and their 4-year-old daughter Melanie in the Mountains of San Andres, when a man holding a gun appeared from behind a coconut tree.  Elisa got shot several times and died instantly while Dannyboy and Melanie miraculously were able to save themselves. Elisa was a leader of a peasant group and the killing was related to Elisa’s long fight for the small farmers’ land rights in the area.

The pretrial of the murder case was held a couple of weeks ago at Gumaca in southern Quezon province where we went to offer our legal assistance by prepping the public prosecutor about the case. In the Philippines the public attorneys and prosecutors are often overloaded with work­ – the prosecutor handling Elisa’s murder case told us he’s taking care of around 1000 cases a year. With providing our legal assistance we try to make sure that our “clients” – victims of human rights violations – are represented duly and  justice gets done.

Dannyboy took off his hat and kept his head down while the prosecutor interviewed him before the first hearing of the murder case of his wife.
Dannyboy took off his hat and kept his head down while the prosecutor interviewed him before the first hearing at the courthouse in Gumaca.

For Dannyboy, even just attending to a hearing at the closest courthouse from his home means a whole day of traveling –  including a three-hour-hike down from the mountain he lives in to the closest bus stop. Like many farmers especially in the remote and isolated areas, he doesn’t know any English – the official language of the courts – or how to read or write. The western bureaucratic jungle simply is not the jungle where Dannyboy was raised to survive in. So it goes without saying that our assistance in the case does not only include legal advice but all the support possible for Dannyboy and his family.

LORETO & MARQUEZ ARD/HAR – Arbitrary Arrest and Detention / Harassment of Marites Marquez and Rosario Loreto

In the morning of September 27th last year in the village of Santa Ines, Marites Marquez and Rosario Loreto together with her 5-year-old son were on their way to the market to buy some goods to sell later on at their home villages in the mountains of Sierra Madre. While waiting for a jeepney to give them a ride, a group of army men approached them and “invited” them for questioning and to validate their identity. Since that day Marites and Rosario have been detained accused of crimes of kidnapping, serious illegal detention and robbery, in relation to an abduction of an army soldier by the rebel group New People’s Army (NPA).

Rosario and Marites are Agtas – indigenous people who live in scattered, isolated mountainous parts in the island of Luzon. One of the ancient traditions still practiced among Agtas is to wear a black ribbon on their neck for a year after their relative has passed away as a sign of mourning and respect. The only “evidence” against the women was that the alleged perpetrators had worn the same kind of black cloth on their neck as them.

Marites Marquez - a single mother of a 12-year-old boy - gets her livelihood from selling goods at her home community which she buys from the closest market one day travel away. One of the excuses why she has now been in detention for more than five months is the black ribbon on her neck.
Marites Marquez – a single mother of a 12-year-old boy – has been arbitrarily imprisoned for more than 5 months now. One of the excuses for the arrest was the black ribbon on her neck.

Due to the lack of evidence and probable cause the prosecutor himself has filed a motion for the court to withdraw information. On the 9th of March the presiding judge is hoped to finally give a resolution to release Marites and Rosario immediately.

To further seek justice for these two mothers and their families we are now preparing to file cases against the people responsible for this severe violation of human rights. This is also part of the work that TFDP along with other NGOs is doing to change the culture of violence and disrespect towards human rights within the grassroots actors of  law enforcement in the Philippines.

The Intro

My name is Joonas Rundgren and as of today, I am a volunteer lawyer at Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a Philippine human rights organization defending political detainees and prisoners.

Besides offering legal help, one of the objectives of my work is to act as a link that improves understanding about the operational environment and facilitates cross-cultural communication between the partner organisations of the volunteer programme. Writing this blog is a part of that task.

This blog is about human rights defending at the grass-roots of the Philippine NGO field.


The volunteer program in a nutshell

Kepa is the umbrella organisation for Finnish civil society organisations (CSOs) who work with development cooperation or are otherwise interested in global affairs. ETVO is a Kepa volunteer programme that channels volunteers to CSOs in the South. These CSOs must already have an existing cooperation relationship with a Finnish CSO that is a member of Kepa.

In my case, the Finnish-Philippine Society (FPS) is cooperating with Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) and my role as an ETVO volunteer is to strengthen the capacities of both CSOs by supporting TFDP at their daily work and by contributing also to FPS’s work. Most of all, the programme is about reciprocal learning between Kepa, FPS, TFDP and Me.