By Tricia Buendia

Dauntless — Probably how most people would describe the strongman of the Philippines who charmed his way into winning the presidency. He gave off the rockstar vibe that previous administrations failed to showcase. Ours is a shallow pageantry of great charmers, who turn out to be lousy leaders.

Promises were delivered by our president as thousands mourn the loss of loved ones. Cases and dissent were thrown left and right, for almost every day. But in this country, those who are critical are branded as traitors. There are those who are confined in cramped up prison cells and those who – still – manage to dodge the rain of bullets and pool of blood.

Amidst the country drowning in fear and impunity, there are still people who are eager to remove the shroud of this administration.

I joined former chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, Ms. Etta Rosales and activist priest, Fr. Robert Reyes on a three-day caravan as speakers for the Peace Conversation on Civil Liberties under Martial Law in Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon, Mindanao.

It was my second time in Mindanao, a first for a business trip. My first trip to Mindanao was all fun and games. It showed its beauty – parks, natural resources, and museums. Now, it showed the gruesome face of conflict and impunity. I visited evacuation centers, gymnasiums, and public auditoriums where most of the internally displaced persons from Marawi now live. I witnessed how people tried to survive from day to day. These are the people who receive much of the stereotype being perpetuated against Muslims.

When I first stepped inside an evacuation center, I thought that I would hear the wailing of the children. I expected them to cry, be annoyed, and be restless because of the environment. But no, children were happily glued to the television while watching foreign shows. It doesn’t matter if they understood it or not, what matters was that they enjoyed it and were – seemingly — content. It was good because children were happy. But at the same time, it was a depressing sight. These children are now without homes. As they watch their foreign cartoons, bullets and bombs rain down on their city.

Miss Etta and Father Robert were greeted with applause and handshakes. I didn’t know if they knew who they were, but maybe it doesn’t even matter. You still feel their genuine smiles as they welcome the two guests who made an effort to visit them, to encourage and assure them that somebody still stands behind them.

Miss Etta, who is old enough to become a grandmother, took out her phone to take snaps of the children. She looked like an adorable, loving, techy lola, who brings you candies and can never hurt a fly. This, however, is just another face of her. We know her as the strong, determined human rights activist. She was the then Chairperson of the CHR, a committee that now receives much criticism. The years might have taken a toll on her body and age already, but she is still the fighter underneath.

I realized this: when you stand in a platform, you can see all kinds of people. You see what they do, you hear what they say, and you realize that not everybody is going to be what you expect them to be. When the speakers started to talk, some people were very eager to listen and there were those who couldn’t give a care in the world.

I understand why that is. Government officials visit them almost weekly. They give brief talks on how they care about the IDPs, they assess the area, and then they take the ceremonious photos. Yes, people care. Yes, people remember them. Why would they bother to listen to anybody else if nothing has ever changed?

After visiting the evacuation centers, they went to a formal forum with the local government units and civil society organizations. They also spoke in a radio program, S’bang Ka Marawi – Iligan. The forum and the radio guesting was quite successful. I realized, too, that the sentiments of those who are in Mindanao are the same as those who are in Manila. They want the conflict to end and for their lives to return to normal. They want peace and sustainability. We all want the same thing, but we all get something different, and oftentimes, nothing at all.

Our second day started early, we headed to Cagayan de Oro for their guesting in S’bang Ka Marawi – CDO. Miss Etta and Father Robert were eager to speak to people and assure them that peace can be attained. It didn’t matter whether they already had breakfast or not, what mattered was the people and how they can help. For two people who are already in their senior year, their vibrant aura and their energy is unmatchable. I realized then that if Miss Etta and Father Robert can still do it, then we can all do it.

Church workers, advocates, and people who were just interested attended the second leg of the forum. I saw how attendees listened and internalized the messages for human rights, human dignity, and civil liberties. One thing that I realized is that communication is, and will always be, the key to understanding. I had the privilege to ask my questions directly to the speakers and had a fruitful discussion on various views. These conversations are without hostility, without the “troll” attitude, unlike the ones we are used to in the corners of social media.

The long haul of forums, interviews, and road trips continued. The last few days went like a breeze and became the daily routine. We went to a monastery (which was not included in the itinerary) but as the saying goes, when life presents you a monastery, you go. This was the only time I found tranquility. The greenery that paints the place and the amazing architecture of the church quietly whispers, “relax now, you are safe.”

The last leg of the forum was a familiar one because millennials dominated the audience. The difference in the audience meant that we needed a different approach, but it doesn’t mean that we should sugarcoat the real image of the country. The young ones are the hope of this country and it’s necessary to equip them with the sword and the armor to wage a fight against tyranny and impunity. This time, Miss Etta used her secret trick – to bare the blood and gore of the administration. In her presentation, she used images of those who perished in the unlawful Drug War and a clear-cut focus on the face of its mastermind: Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

I was the one who clicked slide after slide after slide with my back facing the audience. I may not have seen their faces, or how they behaved, or how they acknowledged the information, but I could hear their gasps and disappointment. For me, it was enough to hear that things might be changing and that something is brewing inside our young minds.

Even if I just assisted these advocates, I realized that our job comes with a price. We all have families and friends to protect. We all want to be safe from the horrifying eyes of the angry mob united through their belief in the President and his bloody ways. We saw this during the last day of the forum. Someone attended and defended the President. He spouted words that made it seem as if killing was right and just, and that it is the only way to go.

The scene might have left us all dumbfounded and angry for a moment, but Miss Etta and Father Robert made sure that the listeners were left with something more substantive and something that further proves the culture of hate that this administration has fostered.

Aside from our main objective for this caravan, I saw and experienced a different side to these staunch human rights advocates. We got to share breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a side of happy talks that made me learn more of their personal lives apart from how they are presented in the media.

Like the “thank you’s” they received from every people in different sector, Miss Etta and Father Robert also thanked us for our service, saying that we have inspired them to do better because they see young people who are motivated to move for what is right. That simple gesture gave me the pleasure and the necessary inspiration to pursue more of what I’m doing today and to prove myself to those who scrutinize the so called “young people.” They might think that we are ignorant about the real history of Martial Law, but they are wrong. We know and we can do better. We can, we are able, and we are wise enough to know what is right and wrong.

In all honesty, it’s difficult to see the pot of gold at the end of rainbow, especially because the storm is still brewing and still going strong. This isn’t an award-winning film where the protagonist always easily wins at the end. This show called, “real life” has an unpredictable plot line where it changes course by a split second. It’s as if George R.R. Martin and M. Night Shyamalan decided to collaborate and wrote a very confusing and complicated story. I have a spoiler alert: we might even die at the end.

The story might still be unfolding and storm still brewing, but we’re ready. Like Miss Etta and Father Robert, we can give hope to those who need it the most. When all this is over, I do wish that it becomes beautiful, one where a rainbow appears and where our nation rises from the ashes. After all, we deserve it.

Reaching out and building peace in challenging times

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