Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. This was the advice from the head of my host organization when we first met on location. It was my first week in Mindanao. The Marawi crisis was yet to explode around us, a month away. I laughed on hearing it said to me. I hadn’t thought of the words that way before. To me, they were just lyrics of the OPM song Oras Na. He had said it after one of my briefings with his team and after he kind of assessed me with a look and pronounced “no, you’re not kidnap-able.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or he just didn’t want to frighten me.
I had thought about the risk of kidnapping although only vaguely, like how persons in their twenties do about death- it’s what happen to old folks not to young people. But, the risk, among other assessed ones, was more openly and seriously discussed in a pre-departure orientation-workshop with officers from my agency. After that, as I was travelling to my area, I mulled over the words that were emphasized back in the airconditioned ultra-modern hall: “it is the policy of the agency not to deal out ransom payment”. It’s not my first time to hear the statement but back when I first did I realized they’re polite words for “lose your head and you’re on your own”. Undiluted human response to that would be ” you’ve got to be kidding! why, are we not there on official business?” but thanks to evolution humans learned civilized or politically correct responses, in this case, a placid nod.
Luckily, my host organization and I were able to find me a home away from home that had not one but two gates- outer and inner (solid steel, top to bottom) with ultra-secure lock system too. In all, two gates plus one front door with two locks. My pocket always jangled with the heavy-duty keys. To unlock and relock the one on the outer gate it has taken me an entire half hour every time. In the first weeks after I moved in, I felt eyes, passers-by on the street, boring hotly into my back as if maybe I was an intruder. Sometimes, returning from the field grimy, exhausted, and impatient to get inside I was liable to lose my sanity more quickly. I had actually cursed the lock roundly. I dared curious passers-by to challenge my actions, but of course no one did. They already knew I was that alien who couldn’t open her own gate. At other times, walking home alone after dining out, I’d think what if somebody was after me and I still hadn’t been able to open the gate? I imagined myself scaling the wall like I had spidey webs only to be pulled down and murdered right by my own gate. That’s not even close to kidnapping. This frustration with my front gate gave me little incentive to step out once I was already inside my apartment. A deterrent. People like me who’ve known all their lives relatively free and peaceful environments will resist such a setup that on the one hand locals perceive as safety. Otherwise I found the whole setup funny. I imagined my place resembling a Victorian chastity petticoat of the mechanical kind something like what’s under Queen Victoria’s voluminous skirt in The Pirates Band of Misfits.
Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. The second time I heard it, I was outside my assignment area, in another province. Maranao teachers from Marawi City had sung the entire song at the close of a training session. Tayo na sa liwanag, ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. Fighting in Marawi City had been going on almost a month; two months since I first walked in these parts of Mindanao. I had come to understand the meaning of the lyrics.
I had taken the initiative to monitor goings-on around me. I was merely doing what I must- keeping my head. Early May, I heard the broadcast of the President’s speech to the PNP in Maguindanao. He spoke about his dwindling faith in the peace process and the parties involved in it ie. MNLF, MILF, CPP-NDF. When the President talks like that at a crucial time when he should be rallying behind the process, people should become extra alert. What was he really saying? I was sure it was an oblique way of communicating to the nation that something big was afoot. For those keeping tab on the region, they’d have pinpointed from the continuing conflict there particularly the military offensives in Butig throughout 2016 (February, November), the bombing of Davao City night market in September, the history in those parts of rido or inter-clan vendetta akin to a civil war, and the undeniable presence of opportunists waiting with the patience of Time on the sides could at anytime trigger an all-out violent conflict. My gut told me martial law was inevitable, when and how would depend on I surmised certain events that only the President and his men were privy to.
At the time, my employer-agency in another continent was insistent that in the name of community participation and relationship-building I should spread out my research activities with the communities over the next two months. “You don’t want to be seen as somebody going in on a parachute and taking off in a ‘copter.” The proposed method I sent them, after a scoping study of the areas and with input from my host organization, was to complete the primary discussions with community groups one after the other in a week (after that, secondary individual interviews on a more relaxed schedule following interviewees’ availability). I understood my employer’s concern, but then they weren’t in the area, with me, experiencing things first hand. I typed up a long-ish email to shed light on why the initial schedule was best, a most challenging task considering the “threat” of martial law is based on this researcher’s “expert reading” of local events. In the end, after a flurry of communications going back and forth, they agreed. I informed my host organization this as well as my gut feel of the President’s speech in Maguindanao. They stared at me. I mean, weren’t they supposed to be the one telling me about it? For a moment there I was suddenly like, shit did I misread the situation and so misled my employer?
When precipitating events worsened and martial law did happen, I was the one calling and waking people in the dead of night for what to my hearing were human feet on the prowl but were really just those of an obese cat dancing the night away on nearby tin roofs.
Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. I came to understand why residents in these places will not, if they can help it, allow fear and it’s offsprings panic and paranoia inside their heads. In those places reason is superior to fear. It’s the only way people there have been able to maintain, over time, sanity and live “normally”. I feared that if I stayed long, like them, I’d go down the same path. Then, again, I asked myself if that isn’t what’s criticized as a pretend life. By believing that prejudices and a culture of conflict don’t exist, won’t that perpetuate the same prejudices and conflict? But, then, if that is what enables people to live there happy isn’t that choice of belief their right? A complex and contrary situation.
So how did you manage? I was asked in a debriefing at the close of my assignment. Work, I said promptly. I had deadlines left and right that there simply was no time left to think about anything more or linger on my observations of my environment. Weekends were mainly for catching up on sleep, house cleaning, and laundry. Work them to death apparently is beneficial in certain situations. But if somebody had asked me then, during my first month there, what would prompt me to walk away from the place I’d have said my leather jacket. The terrible heat, more than anything else, was my enemy. I ate ice-cream almost everyday usually early evenings before dinner. Then, once, a guy told me in an indirect way that my favorite food is ice cream. I laughed. And then that made me think, fuck! wait, what? was he…following me? I continued laughing. Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang.