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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: September 24 48 years ago and today

27mindaviews sojourners

1. BOOK:
Tacbil Mosque Palimbang Massacre
A Reader
Published by the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission

Weaving Women’s Words On Wounds Of War
Ateneo Art Gallery, Arrete
Ateneo De Manila
Still Ongoing

Today, September 24 is a day to NEVER FORGET!  Not especially the Moro people! Not the Mindanawons! Not the Filipino People! On the same day in 1974 – 48 years ago – two years after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, an estimated 1,500 residents of Palimbang were massacred in and around the Tacbil Mosque.

Even after the passage of almost half-a-century, only a few Filipinos have heard about this heinous crime committed by this brutal authoritarian regime against its innocent civilians.  Now comes a most important document which should have been published much earlier and copies should reach every corner of Mindanao – the Tacbil Mosque Palimbang Massacre: A Reader, published by the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission/

A reminder to everyone who prays or visits inside the Tacbil Mosque in Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat province. File photo, September 2018, courtesy of NAGUIB SINARIMBO

A handsomely-designed book  of 275 pages it is a most comprehensive documentation of the situation of Palimbang just before, during and the aftermath of the massacre, complete with photographs, maps, illustrations, citations from the archives of both the logging firm that operated in the area, declassified communications from the US Embassy in Manila  as well as military records, newspaper accounts, affidavits, personal testimonies and interviews.

Palimbang’s thousand-fold grief: Endurance — An artwork made in response to the survivors of the 1974 massacre of more than 1,000 Muslim residents of Palimbang, who expressed the hope for a memorial. The 32 granite blocks inscribed with the names of the victims, compiled with the victim community, are hopefully to be installed at the Tacbil Mosque where most of the victims died. Photo by AT MACULANGAN

In an attempt to ferret the truth of what really took place – and avoid any disinformation – the various editors, authors and everyone involved in the entire process from research to designing the lay-out triangulated the data checking facts and figures thoroughly before final publication. For their own safety, naturally they are unnamed in this publication, except two authors (A. E. Amaral who wrote On the Palms of My Hands (Bloomington: Authorhouse) in 2007 and the news reporter, Sheilfa  B.Alojamiento (writing for The Moro Kurier).

Also identified are the members of the Human Rights Victims Claims Board or HRVCB who signed affidavits (who included Ambai Hadji Mohammad, Hadji Druz Ali, Non-ain H. Utoo, Dondo Edo, Muhamad Paudzi Piana and Kamad Tacbil Gunao) and the oral testimonies of Mariam Kanda, Mohamad Piang, Dondo Edo Balabang, Abduladzid Tacbikm Nigannad Jabda abd Nadaju Kanda. Interviews were conducted by members of the HRVVMC and the Sultan Kudarat State University.

The municipality of Palimbang is located along southwestern Mindanao facing the Celebes Sea, founded as a town in 1959 consisting of 46 barangays, 24 of which are located along the coastline including Barangay Malisbong where the Tacbil mosque is located. Its adjacent towns in Sultan Kudarat and South Cotabato include the towns of Senator Ninoy Aquino, Kalamansig ang Lake Sebu.

The Tacbil mosque in Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat province. File photo, September 2018, courtesy of NAGUIB SINARIMBO

Except for the coastal areas, its terrain is mountainous where there are still forests left. Its land is fertile and suited to extensive agriculture cultivated by both Muslims and Christians, some of whom were also fisherfolk.  An American private logging company – the Weyerhaeuser Company – had acquired a logging concession in the area since 1968 and continue to operate in the area until the 1970s. Many of the Christian settlers were dependents of this company.

Two developments in the early 1970s would lead to the tragedy that unfolded in Palimbang in 1974. First was the spread of the Ilaga-Blackshirt conflict that had erupted across Cotabato-Lanao in the late 1960s and which even expanded to coastal areas such as Palimbang owing to its mixed population where armed clashes began to take place. The Moro National Liberation Front had also expanded and it was not long after its conflict with the Philippine government would lead to violent encounters and Palimbang became an MNLF sanctuary, especially in the interior near barangay of Libua.

Palimbang’s thousand-fold grief: Endurance — An artwork made in response to the survivors of the 1974 massacre of more than 1,000 Muslim residents of Palimbang, who expressed the hope for a memorial. The 32 granite blocks inscribed with the names of the victims, compiled with the victim community, are hopefully to be installed at the Tacbil Mosque where most of the victims died. Photo by AT MACULANGAN

By June 1974, there were rumors that the MNLF facilitated training camps there and route supplies through the area to rebel groups in Cotabato City. In the process the Meyerhaeuser operations got disrupted and thus, the company sought military intervention as ambushes of their personnel by MNLF forces were taking place. The logging employees began to express concern and not a few expressed the desire to leave the place but the military governor, Colonel Siongco promised reinforcement. A C-47 aircraft then began strafing the area hoping to drive the rebels away leading to 50 casualties including 10 military deaths.

Eventually the Weyerhaeuser officials asked for aid and Colonel Siongco responded with a ruthless campaign including ambushing civilians. Gen. Fortunato Abat – over-all commander of the Central Mindanao Command – arrived shortly at the company’s airstrip in Milbuk along with a joint Philippine Marine-Philippine Army forces whose operation in the area was meant to dislodge MNLF positions there. The joint Marine-Army amphibious exercises was organized which began on September 22 starting at Kraan River, towards Kolong-kolong and was terminated by September 25.

The Philippine government, time and again, denied that a massacre had taken place. But primary and secondary sources gathered by the HRVVMC have proven conclusively without any doubt that a massacre took place with most of the killings taking place in and around the mosque on September 24. The bombardment of the coastal settlements took place before the military landed. Once the soldiers reached shore, they gathered the residents and the men were segregated and detained inside the mosque. They were then “systematically killed under the custody of the members of the Armed Forces, taken out of the mosque in different batches over the course of several days.”

This report further asserts that “the true scale of death is still unknown as with the total number and identities of all its victims.” The first reports indicated that only around 300 men were killed, but later the number was increased to 678 with a report in The Moro Kurier. Initially the seven-member Committee tasked to investigate the massacre came up with a list of 848 names, but more investigation through oral interviews and statements of local residents indicated that the number could go up to 1,500 men. Thus when the Philippine Commission on Human Rights issued a report, it acknowledged the deaths at 1,500.

The Commission on Human Rights last September 6, 2019 came out with Resolution No. AM2019-183 recommending that each year on this day be declared a commemoration day of the massacre while the Provincial Government declared September 24 a non-working holiday in the municipality of Palimbang.  A marker that served the massacre’s memorialization is being proposed right at the sight of the massacre – the Tacbil mosque which still stands proudly today in Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat.

One form of memorialization of the Palimbang massacre is right now on exhibit at the Ateneo Art Gallery at Arrete, Ateneo de Manila University, mounted through the auspices of a mother-project “Weaving Women’s Transitional Justice Narratives,” under the leadership of Prof. Ma. LourdesVeneracion-Rallonza,  Mr. Robert Francis Garcia and Prof. Roy Mendoza. It involves women of Palimbang, Manili, Kalinga, Manili, Lake Sebu, Tboli, Jolo and Tawi-tawi. Curator is Marian Pastor Roces and Lead Artwork Developer is Karl Castro.

Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar on 22 September 2022, reads the names inscribed on the 32 granite blocks at the exhibit at the Ateneo de Manila University, names of victims who perished in the 1974 Palimbang Massacre. Photo by EIZEL HILARIO

There are six major art installations, the most moving being the one on Palimbang. In “Palimbang’s Thousand-Fold Grief: Endurance,” black slabs on which are engraved the names of the victims of the massacre are arranged in a procession-like formation, one can read through the names and even if we do not personally know the victims, they become part of us. These are both lapidas honoring the dead but also tributes to innocent victims of a carnage finally named and remembered and no longer the anonymous, faceless tragic victims of a tyrant!

Immediately adjacent is a multi-mixed media installation complete with a video clip and an image projection – “The En-graved Seventy-Plus Amplification,” dominated by an image of a white mosque appearing like a ghost in the midst of total darkness, luminous and whose beauty takes the breath away. This was the mosque of Manili, a small village in Cotabato which became the site of a mass grave where more than seventy bodies, killed by the Ilaga, were buried. The mosque itself was destroyed, and only its reconstructed image has survived. The video clip showed a ritual of burying the remains of the mosque with utmost care.

The en-graved seventy-plus: Amplification — An artwork in the form of a transparent reconstitution of the mosque in Manili, Carmen, Cotabato, a mass grave where more than 70 were killed in 1971. The survivors fear that the circumstances that led to the massacre half a century ago, are far too similar to those prevailing today, hence their wariness about repeat atrocities. Photo by AT MACULANGAN

Four other installations complete the set and each one has its own unique feature showing the specificities of how indigenous women use art to remember how they got victimized by a ruthless regime but how they also resisted all forms of oppression and domination. With the Tbolis’ “Discretion,”  it is a tnalak inspired installation of strips of red and black ribbons on which are typed the narratives of both their victimization and resistance. There are layers of meaning in the symbols used from the hollow of the abaca balls woven into cloth and the interweaving of the abaca strips crisscrossing through the rows of ribbons. It is a most ephemeral work of art, delicate but forceful!

Even more militant is the Kalinga women cloth (“Tenacity”) with their narratives embroidered into the handwoven textile. Two narratives stand out in the texts, namely the women’s role in resisting the construction of the Chico River Dam and how some of them took up arms from the New People’s Army  to the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army. Both the texts and the formation of the cloth – designed as if it were a tent – attest to the courage of the women as well as their capacity to provide comfort to comrades.

Next installation is a collection of the Tausog women everyday blouse and headgear (“Equanimity.”) These are ordinary women’s wear devoid of glitter and glamour but one can tell that these are very functional allowing for maximum comfort. And yet with their choice of cloth that have colored designs but made of light materials, they would be easy to carry if they are forced to evacuate, for these can easily be washed. And of course, the women’s paraphernalia at home is  not complete if she has no access to what could serve as blanket, shelter or carpet.

Lastly, there is the Sama (“Grace”) installation of white sand and hand-woven small multi-colored banigs. The vast oceans across the Sulu archipelago, the ancestral waters of the Sama people (especially the Sama D’laut) are interspersed with islands and islets of pure white sand, some of which disappear when it is high tide.  On some of these islets are the pandan leaves that can be processed into the straws that can be dyed and woven into fabulous mats of intricate designs. Sama women’s artistic creativity shines best in such settings and with such art forms.

So what accounted for the gender perspective of this exhibit. This project was an offshoot of a Transitional Justice project which if defined refers to a variety of processes and strategies wherein a society comes to terms with past criminal mass atrocities, usually committed during periods of armed conflict or of authoritarian regime, e.g. the entire Marcos dictatorship era which resulted in massacres like those in Palimbang and Manili. Ordinarily, in reference to victims, the highlighted ones are men especially where there are combatants. Women and children are oftentimes made invisible and voiceless.

The organizers of this exhibit on Women Artists made sure that this venture would take stock of a discursive past that has a distinct gender perspective involving women who were victimized by a brutal dictatorship but went on record to manifest their agency and now are willing to collaborate with other artists and cultural workers in producing art installations that function to memorialize their quiet heroism so as to never forget such resistance! 

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is Mindanao’s most prolific book author. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). He is a Datu Bago awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]

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