Where the 68 lay dead
It's a small army town. That's how I remember New Bataan. And that's why on Tuesday afternoon, December 4, when I started receiving reports about a Philippine Army base that was swept away by Pablo's flash floods, I knew something had gone terribly wrong.
By 8 pm Tuesday, authorities said at least 44 people had died in a flash flood in the town, mostly residents near an army base run by the 66th infantry battalion in Barangay Andap. At least one soldier perished with them; 4 troops are still missing. As of posting, the death toll in New Bataan had risen to 68. (The number of casualties continues to rise.)
The faces and conversations and images from a year ago all came back. The long, flat stretch of banana fields. A green, picturesque land surrounded by mountains and blanketed with air that smelled so good. Soldiers and barangay leaders swapping stories and jokes.
I still have the names of some of them: Arnulfo Dequito of Barangay Batinao; Abraham Lumapat of Barangay Andap; Sergio Tunbasa of Barangay Cabinuangan; Marvin Generala of Barangay Fatima; Expedito Comendador of Barangay Bantacan; Augusto Caingat Jr of Barangay Magsaysay. Did they survive Typhoon "Pablo?"
I remember meeting another group of men who weaved cloth out of banana stalks, immensely proud of their work. They told me they were producing 200 kilos of banana fiber a week to be sold to Japanese importers for US$1.89 per kilo. The Japanese companies turned them into expensive clothes. The women, on the other hand, make and sell soap and have organized themselves into cooperatives.
Who among us had heard of New Bataan town before Pablo struck Compostela Valley Tuesday?
I'd never heard of it until my first trip to Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley in May 2011. I got embedded, so to speak, with the Army's 10th infantry division, visiting their remote camps, riding their trucks on long bumpy roads, sleeping in their quarters made of nipa hut (and dislodging one of their female soldiers, who had to find another hut to stay in), joining them in their early morning exercises, and watching them conduct dental and medical missions at the peak of a mountainous town.
For the most part, I listened and watched as they tried to win the hearts and minds of communities that had once turned against them.
And they brought me to New Bataan, a town of 45,000 people that was once a stronghold of communist guerrillas. At the peak of the New People's Army (NPA) insurgency in the 1990s, New Bataan was considered a no-man's land. It was then part of the Davao provinces.
Barangay Andap, where the initial 44 bodies were recovered Tuesday, was once part of the NPA's shadow government. Residents told me the town was named after Bataan, a province in Central Luzon which was also another NPA bailiwick under the Marcos regime. The tale -- which I never got to verify -- is that some rebel organizers in Bataan moved to this town and named it New Bataan.
Mining and mountains
Compostela Valley, which bore the brunt of Pablo, is a relatively new province -- barely 14 years old. Its mountainous terrain has been both a blessing and a curse. The province is a gold mine; mining -- big and small -- is its most reliable income to this day. But years of extraction have weakened the soil, making Compostela Valley one of the areas most vulnerable to landslides and natural disasters.
New Bataan sits between these mined mountains. Unlike their thriving neighbors, most residents of New Bataan are not into small-scale mining. They till the land that's mostly planted to bananas and coconut. The barangays are so remote and uphill, they are the perfect sanctuary for any guerrilla army.
As late as 2006, the NPA was still in control of New Bataan. It didn't help that some Army officers previously assigned to the area were abusive. Col Bert Domines, commander of a brigade that supervised New Bataan (but who's now based in Nueva Ecija), recalled one incident in 2007 when he brought his troops to the town to give residents a pep talk. It seemed a foolish idea. It was a rebel town. No one even dared to venture into the night.
Domines nonetheless organized a public forum where he talked about the "evils" of communism. "While I was speaking, I remember seeing this young boy with a stoic expression. It bothered me," he told me as we visited the town in May 2011.
"After my speech, he came to me and said, don't believe them [referring to the residents who attended the forum]. They're all NPAs." Domines felt uneasy. He ordered his men to pack up and they left the town at 2 pm. They were ambushed shortly after; one of his men died and another was wounded.
By 2011, the situation had vastly changed. The Army had penetrated New Bataan's once-impregnable walls. They brought in projects that gave the banana planters more income. They taught them how to make more money out of banana stalks. They facilitated the entry of machines that turned the stalks into fiber. They organized the women, the habal-habal drivers, the youth. They set up vulcanizing shops for the unemployed. Where the civilian government failed, the Army stepped in and did political work, turning New Bataan into a virtual army town.
"It was a tug of war between the Army and the NPA," barangay leader Caingat said in Filipino in a 2011 interview. "The newly assigned soldiers have been friendly, but even then it was difficult at the start. It took time. Now we are busy with our livelihood projects, thanks to them."
Beyond words, one could sense the army's full control of the town. Soldiers freely roamed the streets. The camp had few security. Civilians went in and out, mingling with troops.
That image stayed with me long after I left New Bataan. Months later, the rebels tried to recover the town from the Philippine Army, ambushing troops and attacking villages. The tug of war was threatening a comeback by the NPAs.
On Tuesday, December 4, soldiers and civilians in an army base drowned in floods. Cynics would probably wonder what those civilians were doing with soldiers at the height of a super typhoon. But the scene completely made sense to me.
It was almost peacetime in New Bataan. Except that there is no escaping death even as the guns fall silent. - Rappler.com