BAGUIO CITY, Philippines — On August 11, Beatrice Belen, vice chairperson of Innabuyog, the Cordillera alliance of indigenous women’s organizations, was in Baguio joining activities of her group, when she received a phone call from her family.
The message was unnerving — troops of the 501st infantry Brigade, who had been encamped in her Kalinga village since October last year, were summoning her and other members of the Uma tribe.
Slumped in a corner of the women’s center here after receiving the call, Belen, who has been leading the fight to protect her tribe’s ancestral domain, said in their culture, the ili or village is always safe haven. This was so even during the height of Kalinga’s tribal wars, she said.
It is therefore infuriating, she said, when soldiers from outside threaten them within their own territory.
Belen said the soldiers, some 20 of them, all in full combat gear, first came to her village of Western Uma in Lubuagan town on October 7 last year, heading straight for her house and shocking her children and grandchildren.
One of the soldiers, she said, began questioning her about the New People’s Army guerrillas she supposedly sheltered. Although angered, she served them coffee but then told them to leave immediately.
Instead, the soldiers set up camp in Ag-agama.
Belen led campaigns to demand their pullout, citing complaints from women who had received catcalls or indecent proposals, or even been groped, and children traumatized at having weapons pointed in their direction from troops occupying a house beside their school.
The military presence, she said, prevented them from holding organizational and community activities, especially to discuss their opposition to Chevron’s application to build a geothermal plant, which the soldiers tagged as an NPA-backed effort. In 2012, she had led a community barricade to stop Chevron personnel from installing temperature testing equipment and made the rounds of media, academe, sectors and communities speaking about her tribe’s opposition to the project.
Belen also said she became the target of vilification by the soldiers, who would spread rumors about her in an effort to isolate her from the community.
The troops would also offer incentives for the men of the village to join the paramilitary Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit.
The August 11 phone call about the military summons made Belen unsure about returning to a village where, contrary to culture and tradition, she was no longer safe as a leader and member of the tribe.
But she said her duties to her family and people gave her no choice lest the fear the soldiers have sown in her community make them no longer able to unit and call for a military pullout.
“Kunak man no bayanihan ti inyumay dagita, dadaelen da met gayam ti urnos mi nga umili,” (I thought they are here to promote cooperation but they have crushed our unity and solidarity as a community),” Belen said.
She said the assumption to office of President Rodrigo Duterte led them to believe change would come, that they would finally be rid of the soldiers and their abusive behavior — the drunken binges, the harassment of women, the indiscriminate firing of their weapons — although she added she remains hopeful things will be better soon.
Innabuyog chairperson Virginia Dammay said they understand the difficulties Belen faces as an ancestral land defender who is unsafe in her own land and vowed their full support.
“We will not allow such atrocities to continue. We demand the immediate pullout of the AFP troop in Western Uma and for them to answer for their numerous human rights violations,” Dammay said.