You be the hero of the neighborhood
Nobody knows that you left for good
You’re in the army now
Oh, oh, you’re in the army now
This is a stanza from a song of the Status Quo band that never fails to give me a nostalgic feeling.
July 11, 1986. The night was very calm and still. Stars were giving off a luminous amount of light forming, as moments passed, discernible constellations shining upon that distant and isolated knoll. The croaking of the frogs in the surrounding vast rice fields seemed to compete joyfully with the serenade of the strolling crickets. The smell of the green paddy fields was so fresh and mint suggesting that Ceres, the goddess of Agriculture, was just peeping around the corner. It was generally a hushed night. And relaxing. Until a distant relative living in the town came home panting and dropped a bombshell on us. My brother Celso, whom we fondly called Manong Ondoy and who had only been a few months a soldier, in his twenties, and well-made for military service, was one of those ambushed by the MILF rebels in Agusan del Sur. He was not dead, but he was missing in action. It was our longest night ever.
The bad news painfully took me that night back in time when he was still with us. Flashed before my young mind were pictures — some bleary, others distinct. I could see one with an outline of a well-built, broad-shouldered man playing the guitar with a mind blowing dexterity. Another one bared a shirtless man lying down on a bamboo floor reading a tattered, dilapidated Bible while listening to an FM-tuned in radio. Around him were his three little sisters sheepishly asking him to tune in the radio to Handumanan sa Usa ka Awit, a much-publicized DYHP radio drama. The most distinct picture of all was that of a man braving the raging flood, carrying his youngest sister on his back, with the rest of his siblings tagging along in an attempt to flee from the swelling river. For a third grader, not much was remembered. But those few memories of Manong Ondoy were so indelible, enough to take me back to the harsh reality of that moment.
Most say that nothing hurts parents more than burying their children before them. I disagree. For me, nothing pains them more than not knowing if their child is still alive or is already dead . It’s the feeling of uncertainty, the fear of hopelessness and of the unknown. It’s the fear for the worst possibility. This I realized after seeing my parents’ anguish through the days. And weeks. And months. And years. It’s the waiting for the unknown that made it more tormenting. I could very well remember how my parents, clutching Manong Ondoy’s only picture to different churches and chapels, tried to set hope on his shirt by wiping Mama Mary’s statue with it. Manong Jun Albino, a radio commentator, pinned his hopes on his radio program by begging the MILF rebels to set our brother free in case they have taken him captive. When this went futile, he resorted to consulting a number of fortune tellers, only to be bombarded with lies. It’s like fighting a losing battle then.
The debacle that befell us prodded our other brother, Manong Ado (1Lt. Naziancino Quinlog), who was also in the Philippine Army that time, to transfer to the Philippine Marine Corps. He was positive that once a Marine, he could have more influence and power advantageous in locating our missing brother. We then became hopeful. Around 1992 or 1993, Manong Ado was assigned in Basilan. He kept us posted of his activities and reassured us of his undwindling enthusiasm to find Manong Ondoy alive. But one time, my parents’ letter for him was sent back home unopened. The reason – my brother was one of the 27 Marines who died from an encounter with the MILF rebels, leaving behind a wife and a two-year old son. In the case of Manong Ado’s untimely demise in the hands of the barbaric MILF rebels seven years after Manong Ondoy’s disappearance, I could say that history, indeed, repeats itself. The incident that transpired crushed our already bleeding hearts even more. My poor mother passed away taking with her the pain of Manong Ado’s unfinished business and of not seeing Manong Ondoy’s body. Twenty-five years had passed already since his disappearance, but until now we didn’t bid our last farewell yet. How can we when we haven’t seen the body? For each of us in the family, there is still a forlorn hope that someday, somehow, someone would tap our shoulders and say, “I’m back”.
The recent Basilan clash that killed 19 soldiers with 12 others reported wounded has reopened old wounds. Is there really hope in the MILF-GRP peace pact that the Aquino administration is still pushing forward? For us whose lives have been ruined by these barbarians, it’s maybe best to scrap the ceasefire talks and wage an all-out war against the MILF to have peace. To all the family members of the slain soldiers, I share your pain. They may not be in the army now, my brothers included, but the reality that they died with their boots on remains indelibly etched in the pages of history. It may not be enough consolation, but it would always remind us that there is life in death.