Slain SAF: Beware when Cordillerans don't weep

When I was young, we had city-wide brownouts and brownouts that hit only particular villages. When only our village was hit by brownouts, gossips flew – a high official is visiting his lover, the rebel son of so-and-so was picked up by the military.

One time, a brownout hit us and my mother said the body of our neighbor’s son had arrived. He was a PMA graduate and he was killed in Jolo. I heard later that he was beheaded. Because his sister was my sister's best friend, I had to tag along to the cemetery. I remembered it was sunny and some people fired guns.

Then there was my cousin, whose black-and-white studio photo was in my mother’s collection. He was a beaming 3-year-old boy in a cowboy suit holding a toy pistol. Filmore S. also died that way, with his gun blazing. I think, in 1974, he died also in Jolo – that faraway place in Mindanao where Baguio boys die in combat.

“Charlie (his nickname) is brave. He did this to save us,” his band of brothers said. I also remember from my mother's stories that his spirit entered that of a relative during his wake, and he recounted his death, blow by blow. His wife is from Basilan and, from what I know, his family never returned to Mindanao. 

I recalled these stories when I covered the return of the slain SAF troopers who were from Cordillera. I have covered traditional Cordillera funerals. There is not much wailing and weeping among the Cordillerans. According to the late historian William Henry Scott, it was this "Igorot stoicism" which made the Spaniards afraid of going further up the Cordilleras in the late 1800s. In that particular battle in the outskirts of Benguet, about 200 Igorot warriors were killed by the Spanish army with their guns. But the Spaniards did not invade further because the remaining Igorot warriors did not flinch or go berserk in the tragedy that unfolded.  

That Igorot stoicism has survived through the centuries. Cordillerans would rather let the ritual animals do the crying for them. Pigs are pierced with stakes called owik, and the pig’s squealing is expected to reach the heavens.

Of the 14 Cordillerans SAF warriors who died in Masasapano, Maguindanao, only 7 were brought to Camp Dangwa on January 31. Almost all their caskets were sealed. There was not much weeping there. On that Saturday noon, the local media wouldn't want to go near the widows or the orphans. They were even afraid to look at the bodies.

It was only when the DILG secretary came with his Manila media that hell broke loose. The media mobbed Mar Roxas and one of the widows at the Resurrection Church in Baguio. The widow, in frustration, told Roxas, “Total war! Total war!” while the secretary was holding on to the stoic son. On the cap of the son was written, The Happiest Day of My Life.

Let me tell you about another picture. In Poblacion, Banaue, the coffin of PO3 Robert Allaga was draped in the Philippine flag and carried with the aid of a bamboo sling called allasiw or batawil by only two people. This triggered one person to react: “That light? Is his body really there?”

The photo bore a similarity to one taken by American anthropologist Roy Barton almost a hundred years ago for his book Ifugao Law. It was of a body also carried in a sling, packed with his shield but without a head.

Headhunting was prevalent in Ifugao, Kalinga, Apayao, Bontoc, and even Benguet less than a century ago. That is why the Ifugao law is very specific on how to handle such cases. Even Baguio's Panagbenga has headhunting roots – the street dancing of the city's flower festival was patterned after the bendian, which was originally a dance after a headhunting trek.

At Camp Dangwa, 3 of the 7 coffins showed only the cops' uniforms. The caskets of the rest were sealed. 

How ironic that the Igorots, long known as the headhunters, would be the ones being beheaded. I saw a post in my Facebook timeline of 3 heads of the SAF troopers laid out presumably in a classroom in Mamasapano. I scrolled past it, but the image had been imprinted in my mind. (READ: Region in mourning: 1 in 3 slain SAF sons of Cordillera)

I viewed the video of Allaga in his hometown in Poitan, Banaue, while recalling Barton’s essay. In those times, 1910, all the villages of Banaue would express their sympathies through rituals – vengeance would be broadcast all throughout the town.

The body would be left in a deathchair and left to fester. Occasionally, a native priest would call on the spirit of the dead and tell him to wake up and avenge his death. Then there was the manhimmung or the himmong, a war dance, where warriors from different sides of the village would beat their shields and call for vengeance.

As late as 2000, here is what’s written in “Ethnomedical documentation of and community health education for selected Philippine ethnolinguistic groups: The Ifugao people of Poitan, Banaue, Ifugao”: 

“If the dead person was murdered, he will be fixed in a sitting position and tied on the house post with his two hands tied side by side on wood sticks. The clothes he was wearing when he was murdered will not be removed. Only a 3-day vigil is given to a person who was murdered or a person who died of an accident, for the reason that the relatives could not bear to see the fate that the person has suffered. 

“While carrying the murdered person with the use of atag or rafter to lubuan or cemetery, a war dance called himong is performed. The dead will be buried in a sitting position, from shoulder down, exposing the head. A Y-shaped twig is used to hold the chin to keep the head in place. The cemetery for people who were murdered and for those who died of accidents is separate from that of people who died of natural causes.”

Allaga was buried in a separate tomb near their ancestral house. So when the warriors who danced the himmong converged at his coffin and the baki and the Catholic priest had invoked their kindred spirits, one of the warriors placed the red warrior sash on the coffin, took out the police uniform of Allaga and saw this plywood board sealing the bottom part of the coffin. You would see his consternation on how to proceed with this ritual and the warrior spirit got into him and he was about to take out the plywood. Someone, a police escort, I supposed, talked him out of it. And the warriors withdrew and let the pallbearers place the coffin into the tomb.

But as Barton said, this is just the beginning. There would be a week-long vengeance ceremony. And then a year later, the washing of the bones or the binong-ar would be performed. This would entail another 3 to 5 days of feasting. How will PO3 Allaga go on to his afterlife?

For the other SAF troopers, vengeance ceremonies were also performed. This happened with PO1 Russel Bilog in Baguio City. His parentage is from Sagada. In Baguio, a native priest performed the pamutbutan ritual, offering a chicken while asking Russel to take vengeance and that he be the last to be killed in battle. I believe the other 13 Cordillera SAF troopers had their own vengeance rituals.

Even as the government is asking the MILF for the arms of the slain SAF, it should be asking the rebels what they did with the bodies and where they left the heads. The Igorots are known as the Gurkahs of the Philippines, after the Nepalese warriors who are the elite corps of the British Royal Army. But the Gurkahs also stopped their headhunting ways, except when a Gurkah beheaded an Afghan Al-Qaeda leader for DNA testing but he, too, returned the head.

In the Mamasapano debacle, all that the Cordillera SAF troopers got was the thumb of Marwan as a sample for DNA testing. But that, too, we believe, will be returned.

Meanwhile, peace is being called upon in Mamasapano. The Igorots are back to being stoic, but the spirits of the 14 had been called to avenge their deaths and this will take more than backdoor talks to be resolved. – Rappler.com 

Frank Cimatu is a veteran journalist born, raised, and based in Baguio City. He is part of the Philippine Daily Inquirer's Northern Luzon bureau.