New year, new life for young ex-NPA rebels

BAGUIO CITY — It was also December, when “Ka Iyong” joined the New People’s Army (NPA) five years ago. Christmas in the years that followed was never the same again, until he came back home at the end of November this year, with the help of soldiers, whom he thought were the bad guys.

Iyong and “Ka Cindy” are young former members of the NPA. They are now looking forward to a new life this coming year, as they are reunited with their parents and families after several years of living in fear in the mountains of Ifugao with their fellow communist rebels.

“Ka Iyong,” who joined the NPA at the age of 19, and “Ka Cindy,” when she was 17, are both spending Christmas with their respective families.

This, after they were rescued by the 54th Infantry Battalion from an NPA camp in Asipulo, Ifugao last Nov. 21.

The two were found by the operating troops at the vicinity of the camp, after seizing several high-powered firearms and explosives from the site.

“Ka Cindy was a subject of a rescue operation of the military after her relatives sought the AFP’s (Armed Forces of the Philippines) help to bring to them their young daughter, who was recruited by the NPA to the mountains,” 54th IB spokesperson Capt. Jefferson Somera told the Philippine News Agency (PNA).

The two young former comrades were teary-eyed as they saw their families for the first time after continuously hiding and fearing for their lives in the name of a struggle they did not even understand.

With the help of the AFP, the provincial social welfare and development office of Ifugao, and the Ifugao Peasant Movement, Iyong was reunited with his mother on Nov. 30, and Cindy, with her family, on Dec. 2.

Iyong was reunited with his parents after five years of not being with them, pleading for forgiveness for being away without any line of communication for five long years.

“Ako po ay lubos na nagpapasalamat at taos pusong nagagalak sa mga kasundaluhan ng makita ko na buhay ang aking anak at inaruga ng mga sundalo (I am very thankful to the military and happy to see my son alive, for they took care of my son),” Iyong’s mother “Analyn” (not her real name) said in tears.

Iyong narrated that after months of being in the mountains, he contacted his mother to say that he was fine, but did not tell them that he joined the NPA, until after a long time.

“Takot siya, saka nag aalala, pero nung nakita na niya ako, gumaan na ang loob niya, hindi na siya kinakabahan at nag aalala (She was scared and worried, but when she saw me, she felt better and was no longer worried),” Iyong told the PNA.

Cindy’s reunion with her parents was no different from that of Iyong.

Her parents were speechless when they learned of the rescue operation and that she was safe in the custody of government forces.

But unlike Iyong, who stayed with the rebels for years, Cindy was recruited only six months ago.

When they learned she did, her parents approached the military to help them bring Cindy home.

Somera said when the 54IB found Iyong and Cindy, they immediately brought them to the military headquarters for safety.

Iyong was a squad leader of the Squad Uno, Nona Del Rosario Command. Cindy, meanwhile, was a member of the group of rebels tasked to give medical attention to her NPA comrades.

Cindy received first aid training from the Red Cross as a high school student, making her skill useful to the organization.

Both Iyong and Cindy are spending Christmas and looking forward to a brighter New Year.

Both are happy, not only for the gifts that they have started to receive from friends and family since their return. They are also happy because of the brighter future promised by the government’s Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP), a support program for rebels who surrender, lay down arms, and return to the fold of the law.

Foremost of the support is livelihood assistance, including skills training and education, on top of some remuneration for surrendering their firearms.

“I encourage the remaining NPA members, who are still running and hiding in the mountains to return to the folds of the law and reunite with your family and avail of the E-CLIP program of the government, which will help you live a peaceful and progressive life,” Somera said, trying to address those whose friends and family members have joined the rebel movement.


Journey with the NPA

Iyong, now 24, spent five years of his life in fear–fear of being killed in an encounter with the military and wasting his young adult life without direction.

He was in first-year college in one of the universities in Metro Manila, taking up a course in management, when he was persuaded to join the leftist organization.

“Kapag break time, may mga lumalapit sa amin na taga eskwelahan, nagkukwento, at nagyayaya na sumali kami sa organisasyon. Isinama rin kami sa mga rally (They come during break time, tell stories, and invite us to join the organization and join rallies),” Iyong related.

With the prodding of his classmates, he joined an underground organization and attended rallies.

“Naging member ako ng student organization noong first-year college. Nag member ako kasi udyok ng classmates (With the prodding of my classmates, I joined the student organization when I was in first year college),” he said. “Pinaloob kami sa mga underground organizations like ‘kabataang makabayan’ tapos doon binibigyan kami ng pag-aaral sa paghawak ng armas dahil yun daw yung solusyon (We joined the kabataang makabayan student organization, where we were given lessons on how to hold guns, which according to them was the solution),” he related further.

Joining the rallies gave him fears. “Medyo natatakot din ako noong mga panahon na yun sa mga rally pero dahil sa udyok, adventure ng kabataan, dahil bata at gusto kong explore kaya nahila ako (I was kind of scared when I joined the rallies, since these felt like adventure because I was young, I was encouraged to explore, and I joined),” he said.

The indoctrination included teaching them how to hold and fire a gun, he said. “Para daw makita, kailangan sumama sa kanila para makita ang aktwal. Yun naman ang dahilan kung bakit ako napasama doon sa sa NPA (For us to see the actual thing, we needed to go with them, and that was the reason I joined the NPA),” he continued.

In December 2013, he went with the group, where they were brought to the Cordillera, in Ifugao, without informing his family where he was going.

“Sobrang hirap kasi mismong kinakain, hindi siya sobra-sobra na mabubusog ka (It was so hard, even the food was not enough you would never be full),” Iyong said, describing the life he had with the rebels. “Halimbawa, sardines hinahati sa tatlong tao. Sobrang hirap. Palagi kailangan mong ‘magbagkat’ ng bigas mula sa sitio idadaan ng ilog iaakyat ng bundok. Ganun siya kahirap sa pang araw-araw na kalagayan (For example, the canned sardines are divided among three people. It was so difficult. You always have to carry rice from the sitio, passing rivers and going up to mountains, and it is a day-to-day thing).”

Those trips gave him fear, Iyong said.

“Parati nakakaramdam ka ng takot, pag aalala dahil may mga militar sa paligid (You would always feel the fear, worry, because there are military men around),” he said.

Such fear made him want to leave the NPA, he said, and go back to his normal life, his family.

But then his comrades would always convince him to stay and tell him the “berdugo” (executioner), referring to the military, would kill him when he surfaces.

Iyong said fear and sadness became stronger every time there was an encounter with the military. But the convincing power of one-sided information is just too strong for him to resist.

“Iba pa kalagayan pag nagkaroon ka ng karanasan sa labanan. Iba na rin ang takbo ng isip mo, tapos kino-konsensiya ka pa din, ganun ginagawa nila (The situation is different when you get to experience fighting. Your mind is confused, because while your conscience dictates that you go back home, they would keep on convincing you to stay),” he said.

As time passed, what he thought was an adventure to explore gradually became a nightmare.

“Noon akala ko adventure lang ito tapos parang ang lakas-lakas kasi ng pwersa ng NPA, pero noong nagkaroon ng labanan nagkaroon ako ng pag aalala na baka sa susunod na panahon buhay ko na ang kapalit. Parati akong kinakausap, kino-konsensiya at tapos hinihiwalay nila ang usapin ng family kahit yung kagustuhan ko na magtrabaho. Iniiwas nila ang usapang family (In the beginning I thought it was an adventure and that the NPA forces were so strong but after an encounter, I got worried that I might die the next time it happens. They always convince me and they would always avoid talking about family, including my desire to work),” he said.

In 2016, he had his second experience of an encounter with the military. He was shot on the knee and wounded by a shrapnel on the face and head.

“May mga gamot kaso malapit na mag-expire. Kadalasan nag-i-istay ka lang sa gubat, may mga gamot sila pang first aid lang- hot compress, papainumin ng herbal, walang gamot. Nilagyan ng betadine, agua, hindi naman pina x-ray kahit may tama ako sa buto. Meron din sa ulo ko natamaan ng shrapnel tapos patuloy akong kinakausap ano nararamdaman ko pero walang gamot (There were medicines, but these were almost expired. We would just stay in the forest. They only had firs-aid medicines, hot compress, herbal medicines. They put betadine, hydrogen peroxide. They wouldn’t let me undergo X-ray, even if I had a wound on the bones. I also had wound on the head, with a shrapnel. Then they would keep on asking me how I felt, but they never gave me medicines,) he continued.

Iyong said he would often think of his family in his loneliness and fear. He would worry if his family gets sick. He wanted to escape.

Iyong said that while he wanted to escape from the NPA and go home, the NPA would repeatedly tell him that going down would cost him his life, killed by the military, whom they call executioners.

New life

But after his rescue last November, Iyong felt secure with the military and the image drawn by the NPA of them was not true.

“Binibigyan nila ako ng proteksiyon, pinaparamdam nila na family ako na hindi ko man naramdaman sa NPA. Yung bahay, pagkain, sa NPA kapos yun, pero dito hindi. Parang family, may takot sa Diyos, yun naman pinaparamdam nila sa akin, sa NPA hindi naman pinapakita yun eh. (They protect me. They make me feel family, which I did not feel with the NPA. The house, the food–those were not enough with the NPA. Family, fear in God–I never felt those with the NPA),” Iyong said.

Iyong said he now plans to go back to school, work, and have a normal life. If possible, he also wants to join the Army, he said.

He said by joining the Army, he might be able to make it up with the country and for lost opportunities.

He said he wants to join the military, not anymore because he wants fighting, but because he wants to serve the country by protecting it from danger./Liza Agoot (PNA)