The distinct sorrow and indignation that comes with losing a loved one and teacher to state violence is a feeling that too many Filipinos have experienced. The Philippines ranked first in Asia and third worldwide for the most number of slain environment and land rights advocates in a 2020 report by Global Witness. Along with constant and outright red-tagging, this chilling statistic proves how much the Anti-Terrorism Act set us back in terms of human rights.
The news of the New Bataan 5 killing reached many of us on the anniversary of the EDSA Revolution. With its gruesome press release, the 10th Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines showed the barbaric irreverence towards human lives and dignity that persists in military forces around the world. Decades after Marcosian atrocities, the Filipino social movement still faces persecution. But collective grief is not defeat and neither does it signal the beginning of forgetting.
Choosing a life with the Lumad
Save Our Schools Network (SOS) stated that the alleged attack took place when the group—composed of Lumad volunteer teachers Chad Booc and Gelejurain Ngujo II, community health worker Elgyn Balonga, and accompanying drivers Roberto Aragon and Tirso Añar—was on its way to Davao City from a visit to the community of two Salugpongan Schools, community schools established by the Talaingod Manobo tribe.
“Both Teacher Chad and Teacher Jurain sacrificed a life of comfort to help Lumad children reach their dreams,” Professor and SOS co-teacher Mon Sy told Preen. “Instead of working for multinationals or going abroad, they chose to go to communities to teach those who cannot be reached by government services.”
Booc, a computer science graduate, volunteered to be a teacher at the ALCADEV Lumad school in Surigao del Sur in 2016. In 2020, he joined Lumad students and datus in their Cebu sanctuary. He was part of the Bakwit School 7 who were raided, arrested, and jailed without a warrant at the Lumad Bakwit (a colloquial term for evacuee) School in Cebu in February 2021. Later, they were acquitted from “trumped-up” charges but were continually targeted by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). Despite facing threats, he was still known to friends as someone who was trustworthy, witty, and kind.
Isang taon na mula nung iligal kaming inaresto ng mga berdugong kapulisan sa Bakwit School Cebu.
Isang taon ng pagpapadayon sa kabila ng pagbabanta at panggigipit.
(Ang drawing na ito ay ginawa ko nung birthday ko sa kulungan.)
Writer and professor Lakan Umali told Preen, “Chad was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I ever met. He was the best of us.”
Ngujo came from a family of farmers and was known for being patient and soft-spoken. He took up education at Liceo de Davao and taught at the Community Technical College of Southeastern Mindanao after graduating. In 2018, he became a volunteer teacher for the Bakwit School in Manila and then in Cebu the following years. He was also a target of threats and intimidation from state forces for his work as a Lumad school teacher.
Balonga served as a community health worker and facilitated medical internships at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran, a Davao City Lumad sanctuary, from 2013 to 2018. She was also active in numerous medical missions in remote areas such as Talaingod and Kapalong, Davao del Norte. She is remembered for her dedicated service to the Lumad, farmers, and workers.
State forces peddle narratives of “brainwashing” or lost potential that strip slain activists of their agency in death. In the fiction that they create, they want to discredit those serving marginalized communities. But the truth is this: Booc, Ngujo, and Balonga were valued and celebrated mentors in Lumad communities because they found pride in their meaningful work.
Solidarity in collective grief
Activist and MediaJustice founder Malkia Devich-Cyril writes, “While loss is deeply uncomfortable, we can learn to adapt to the natural phenomenon of loss. But when structural inequalities produce major and secondary losses, leading to widespread collective grief, death is out of balance with life. Individual and collective, repeated and generational, traumatic loss stacked on top of existing natural loss.”
The instinctual human reaction to loss is avoidance. Years ago, when I learned about the death of an activist friend and housemate, my mind refused to accept it. By the time I was ready to mourn him and make peace with my private guilt, I had already missed attending his closed-casket wake. Because I missed my chance for a proper goodbye, I felt like I didn’t deserve to talk about how grateful I was for his unwavering kindness, determined enthusiasm, and humor. I wrongly thought that completely burying the hurt and fear that seized me was part of my responsibility.
Facing the messiness of grief together, even if it can be uncomfortable, gives way to healing, or at least serves as a reminder that no one should carry the burden of trauma on their own.
“Though we mourn, we continue to live out the same passion and the same dedication to marginalized sectors he once lived his life with. Chad, we will find the justice you deserve,” said Chad’s sister, Nikki, when he was laid to rest.
It has been more than a month since the New Bataan 5 killing. In commemoration, the Lumad community and other human rights advocates continue to call for an immediate and impartial investigation. They are also challenging candidates to support the call for justice for all the victims of state-sponsored violence and to abolish NTF-ELCAC.
“The attack against the New Bataan 5 must be a wake-up call to everyone that the current political situation disallows Filipinos from helping other Filipinos. This isn’t unlike the red-tagging of community pantries or the illegal detention of outreach program organizers in the last two years. This is against Filipino values of solidarity and bayanihan,” said Sy. “We must be like Chad and Jurain who sought justice for Lumad children barred from education. It’s our turn to seek justice for them and for the many more community volunteers who are endangered under this regime.”
As Booc writes in his Twitter bio, “Makatarungan ang maghimagsik!” It is also only fair that we get the chance to cry before getting back to work.