Monday, May 23, 2011

Davao - the place where I "grew" up, the city I knew

A day time view on one part of Davao City.

A few days back, I spent some time researching my old neighborhood in Davao.

Davao is considered to be one of the safest cities in Asia, and one of the largest cities in the Philippines by population and land area.  With new malls, IT parks and BPO buildings popping up all over the city, it's a success story that many cities in the Philippines would like to replicate.

But for you to fully appreciate Davao's rise, you have to look back thirty years ago in President Marcos' time, where communists had control of many of the city's barangays, including my neighborhood.

The communist insurgency
I was born in Davao and lived in its poorest parts.  While my family moved to Cebu later on, what happened in my birth city and the battles between communist militants and government armed forces will stay with me forever.

It was a classic case study of how you can't depend on your government as the first line of defense against monsters that want to take away your freedom.  The communists robbed our communities with "revolutionary taxes" and some military troops that were assigned to protect us were also crooked, which in turn drove more communist sympathizers.

In the end, what saved the city, what saved the neighborhoods were local community groups rising together to make a stand.  Whether it was through sticks or fire arms, a band of brothers formed across the neighborhoods in the masses and struck back.

I was too young to remember everything, but what I did remember was gruesome and I didn't understand what was in my memory until later on.  Toddlers don't usually realize what war is and how to react to the certain elements of war.  But children imitate parents and the instincts are almost passed on without words.  When I heard automatic gunfire, it automatically meant I should duck.  It meant I should kiss the floor and stay down until I no longer heard the sounds.

Dead bodies in canals, people being shot in the head -- this was normal -- and etched in my memories.  You don't know what in the world is going on at that age, but you do know what you are seeing is sad.  Deep inside, you know what was happening was wrong, especially after seeing not only adults but teenagers laying lifeless in mass graves.

Life or something like it
I always admired my parents though in this early struggle in their married life.  They understood it well and knew what was going on.  I always remembered mom to be practical and rightly cautious.   For instance, in the evening, she always placed glass soda bottles on windows and doors as a basic alarm system.  I was equally impressed with my dad, who provided for the family with what he could do with his hands, from teaching to preaching to building a small shack for our family.

I remember one time I feared he would fall off a tree, as he was climbing what seemed like hundreds of feet just to get us coconuts.  Ahh the good old days of poverty, when what came from the ground was a blessing and things like coconuts were like candy.

Despite all of my childhood craziness in Davao, my first couple years of life was relatively fun and I felt loved.  I never really sought anything more and was contented. I had playmates, I had a toy truck that my dad built from wooden parts, my grandmother always enjoyed me brushing her hair, and everyone enjoyed watching American wrestling. Hulk Hogan and André the Giant were local favorites.  (Hulk: You should know how disappointed I was when I finally got to America and learned this was all fake.)

While I only spent a couple years in my birth city, it taught me life long lessons about how to appreciate your family, the necessity of community, and how to find peace in the middle of chaos.  When I face difficult challenges in life, I look at it through this prism.

Like my personal story, when I read about Davao's recent successes in the past few years, I also appreciate it in the right context.

It's a city built on real "people power" where determined citizens got sick of their oppressors and fought to fight back an evil insurgency.

Enjoy the article below.


By Jeffrey M. Tupas
Last updated 01:29am (Mla time) 11/12/2006

Published on page A8 of the November 12, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

DAVAO CITY—Under a scorching sun, sweat-drenched hawkers with hoarse voices tried to outshout each other to catch buyers’ attention in the public market of Agdao district.

Meters away, other vendors were selling vegetables and fruits at prices lower than at the regular market stalls.

Under the flyover, not too far from a girly bar, two traffic aides were directing traffic on a street that would soon be choked with motorists.

It was another normal day in Agdao—so unlike those days two decades ago when the district was stained with blood, earning for itself the label “Nicaragdao”— after strife-torn Nicaragua.

Back then, the Sparrow killer unit of the New People’s Army had come home to roost in Agdao, along with regional leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

It was the same district where, later, vigilantes of the counterinsurgency group Alsa Masa were let loose to go after the NPA hit squads that had assassinated police and soldiers.

That was the time Mindanao was a testing ground for new strategies against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Instead of guerrillas encircling the cities from the countryside, the leftist rebels wanted to bring the war to the cities.

“When you say that Davao became the laboratory of the NPA and counterinsurgency groups, you are actually talking about Agdao,” says Antonio Ajero, publisher of Sun.Star Davao.
The veteran journalist says there were almost daily killings of security people and suspected government agents and spies in the district—largely blamed on the NPA’s urban liquidation squad.

‘Butchered like chickens’

“You got used to the killings,” says a cigarette vendor who calls herself Mila. “People were butchered like chickens.”

Mila says a part of Agdao was once called Barrio Patay, or Village of Death. It was there the violence was at its worst.
Back then, no stranger got out of the area alive, Mila says.

Ireneo Cañedo, 49, says he fled the area for fear he would suffer the same fate one of his friends did.

“He was killed after he battered his wife. But what I was afraid of becoming a victim of intrigues and getting killed because of it,” Cañedo said.

Ajero recalls media accounts that put the number of Sparrow victims at more than a hundred, on top of the unrecorded cases.

Village chair Wilfredo Aquino and his armed civil defense units turned the situation in Agdao around. He was later joined by former Sparrow members who had questioned their leaders’ order to kill their own relatives, says Ajero.

Alsa Masa formed

The Sparrow desertions happened in the mid-’80s when Oplan Ahos, an internal CPP campaign to rid its ranks of infiltrators, was launched.

“They got really worried that they will be liquidated themselves. So they sought the help of their number-one nemesis, who later formed Alsa Masa,” says Ajero.

On April 8, 1986, less than two months after the Edsa People Power revolt, Alsa Masa was formed in the house of Aquino’s father.

There were about a dozen of them in the original group, with support from politicians who were putting flesh to the new government’s campaign against the insurgency.

At that time, there were at least 50 paramilitary groups across the country. Alma Masa, along with the Tadtad gang, became the most notorious in Mindanao.

Fighting the NPA

Human rights records show that under the Aquino administration, at least 1,064 people were killed by vigilante groups like Alsa Masa and Tadtad, along with at least 135 massacre cases.

Wilfredo Aquino eventually paid with his own life.

“Wilfredo wanted to stop the activities of the NPA and there were constant threats,” his wife Linda said. “Two days before he was killed, there were several warnings already. The constant threats made things easy for me to accept his fate … it jaded me.”

In the early morning of April 22, almost two weeks after Alsa Masa was formed, Aquino was killed in an ambush, along with two companions.

Linda recalls how bad things were back then.

No one ventured out at night

In the evenings, she says no one went out around Agdao. No taxi driver dared take a passenger to Agdao, whether day or night.

Linda, who now chairs Barangay Wilfredo Aquino named after her husband, says the family lived in constant fear.

For a year, she says, her family accepted no visitors and barely talked to other people.

In 1988, after Agdao was divided into 11 barangays, the anti-insurgency campaign appeared to have paid off and the district showed signs of becoming a relatively progressive area.

Signs of the times

“There were no big establishments in Agdao before because businessmen were afraid to pour in their money in a chaotic environment. But now, things are totally different that one can consider Agdao one of the city’s industrial districts,” says Ajero.

There are now factories and warehouses in the area, a popular food chain, four big 24-hour convenience stores, banks and pawnshops.

But shadows of the past remain, legacies of an intractable poverty as evidenced by the continuing presence of squatter colonies.

Tension still hangs over some places. Barrio Patay’s reputation remains.

“No, you can’t go there alone,” Mila warns.

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