“Bangon, Marawi. Kaya natin ‘to.
O, bangon, Marawi. Kaya natin ‘to.”
The soldier sings a woeful song. The sky showed signs of tearing as well. We were in Saguiaran, the second stop in what our group chat has dubbed as “Evacuation Center Concert Tour”. Five artists from Manila, three from Marawi, and a soldier, all performing for the Bakwits, residents of Marawi City who were forced to flee their homes, whose lives were mercilessly put on hold.
It has been 115 days since they fled on foot.
I had a hard time writing this piece. We were there for only two days, Sept. 6 and 7, and yet it felt so much longer. We were smiling the whole time we were performing, and yet our hearts were breaking for what we were seeing. I was a Filipino stepping on Philippine land, and yet the divide I saw and felt made it seem like I was on foreign soil.
It was so different there, and yet when my eyes met theirs and I saw their pain, I knew in our barest elements that we were all the same. Religion, culture, education, everything is an add-on to the basic human need of wanting to live with the ones we love, and to protect that life at all cost.
A reporter asked us, “Weren’t we scared?”, and I replied that compassion for my kababayans’ plight far outweighed whatever fear I may have had.
For I was there as a fellow Filipino, with Muslim and Mindanao roots, and though I have been living in Manila I wanted to let them know that I was grieving with them too, that I was praying for the same peace and unity in our country. I wanted to communicate this in person, that we care, that Filipinos in Luzon care.
That my heart breaks for what breaks theirs.
I have to admit though, that when Chair Aiza sent us the itinerary and FYI’d that our first stop was in the Provincial Capitol of Marawi, I grew cold, momentarily. But I also knew how important it was for our mission to push through, to try our best to lift up their hearts, even for just a bit, through our offerings of songs and entertainment.
To offer ourselves as a diversion from their temporary circumstance.
It was scary, especially going into Marawi City and seeing the abandoned houses, some blackened and destroyed, silent witnesses and strongholds to the battle. It was scary while we were having lunch, when we could hear the sounds of fighting in the distance, which the army captain specified as but a kilometer away.
It was scary, but we trudged on. And if we felt that way, how much more did the Bakwits?
I learned a lot about the Muslim culture in Mindanao on those two days. How they are so used to fighting that most families would have firearms in their homes, to be used when the need arises. How there would be fighting for two-three days between two parties / families, after which the datus would arrive and settle said disputes. How they all thought that the Maute fight would just be another ordinary two-three days of exchanging fire, before realizing that it was much more serious than that.
They told us the story of a mother who walked from Marawi to the nearest town, under the heat of the sun, carrying her baby who died when she reached refuge.
The female singer from Marawi who was also a part of the tour, still has no idea where her parents-in-law are, and yet she sings, she smiles and puts on a brave face. The two other artists who accompany her wonder if they will still have a house to come home to. They are men, but even men shed tears.
It was heartening to see how the soldiers were all loved by the refugees. From the moment we arrived in Cagayan de Oro airport, to the five evacuation centers, Marawi, Saguiaran, Pantao Ragat, Pantar, and Balo-i, back and forth to NEOC (NDRRMC Emergency Operations Center), and to the flight that would bring us back to Manila, they were with us, securing and even being our hawi boys and girls (Aiza Seguerra will always be extremely popular). They sang along with us too, and are gifted singers, mind you! I was happy to see that they too, enjoyed the entertainment we offered, even asking us for selfies. Frenchie was also extremely happy they were with us, for she has a thing for men in uniform, hihi.
We take whatever good that we can out of every living moment.
I cried in the middle of my song in Saguiaran. It was all too real, and too much.. The sorrow and hope I saw in the Bakwits’ eyes, the quiet dignity and bravery of our soldiers. And to the Philippine flag that was raised above, I sang, on behalf of all those willing to lay down their lives to see it flying high upon that gray sky:
“Pag-ibig mo ang aking langit, kahit buhay ko ay handang isugal.”
My heart breaks as I remember. And on that day after I sang, my chest hurt from the collective pain I saw and felt.
And the children, oh the children sing:
“Sana pag-ibig na lang ang isipin ng bawat isa sa mundo.”
Inshallah, which means God-willing. It is my favorite of all the phrases my Jama Mapun father has taught me when he was alive. Inshallah, we will see each other again, he once said.
Inshallah, we all will. And when we do, may all your hearts be healed.