Bugnay revisited

This idyllic Kalinga village, nestled on a mountain side overlooking the Chico river, was where Cordillera’s hero, Macli-ing Dulag, was murdered 18 years ago.  Macli-ing’s death anniversary, which falls on April 24,  has been celebrated over the years as Cordillera People’s

Day.  People who had done solidarity work in the struggle against the Chico Dam project usually congregate on this day in Bugnay, not only to honor the memory of a dead man but to keep alive the dream of a unified Cordillera.

I first visited this place 20 years ago as part of a contingent of journalists and activists from Baguio and Manila who had been invited to witness a bodong of various Cordillera tribes and villages.  A bodong is a peace pact between two villages meant as a way of handling potentially conflictive situations in their day to day dealings with one another.  Cross-cutting ties formed by such bodongs support the precarious peace in a region where boundary and water disputes still spark fierce tribal wars.

Macli-ing presided over a novel application of this traditional concept in order to unify the villages that were to be affected by the government plan to put up a system of four dams along the Chico river.  He brought together villages that had been enemies in the past, or mutually isolated from one another.  For the first time, village elders from different tribes found themselves in one another’s presence, talking about a common threat.

This collective bodong ran for three days and three nights.  The agenda covered a wide range of subjects.  At one point, the elders were talking, for instance,  about how to handle situations where the government soldiers assigned to the area happened to be also members of their respective tribes.  Would their actions as aggressors be covered by the terms of the peace pacts?

The meetings were conducted in such a fertile mix of languages that even the interpreters who sat with us visitors from the lowlands could only provide a general sense of the debates.  What was evident to everyone, however, was the charismatic Macli-ing skillfully shuttling back and forth between huddled groups during tense moments, and keeping the negotiations from breaking down.

Just over a year after this historic Cordillera meeting, Macli-ing was slain by armed men, believed to be government soldiers, as he rose from his sleep to answer voices ordering him to come out of his house.  His killers did not wait for the door to open.  As soon as they sensed Macli-ing was standing behind the door, they fired. Ten bullets ripped through the lawanit door and instantly snuffed the life of the simple man who truly personified Cordillera independence.

Macli-ing was buried in front of his house, exactly where his assassins might have stood when they shot him on that clear summer night in 1980.  I had expected to find something more reverent, more appropriate to his stature, than the shabby slab of cement that covered his grave, against which pigs were freely rubbing their muddy bodies on the day I visited.  But heroes do tend to be taken for granted in their own backyard.

Most young people in this village do not remember who Macli-ing was or what he stood for.  Twenty years after it became the arena of the war between official development and radical revolution, life seems harsher in Bugnay.  Respiratory ailments and distended bellies, sure signs of gross malnutrition, plague the children.  Pregnancy and goiter seem the common lot of the women.

The Chico river is not dry yet, but its present flow is but a shadow of the elemental force that once drew the National Power Corporation to these parts.  Many payaos, those terraced farms recently declared a part of the world’s heritage, have been abandoned.  The drought and the searing heat are turning the pine trees and the coffee plants into combustible material. Forest fires are engulfing the Cordillera from Benguet to Kalinga.

There are still no signs of central government presence in Bugnay, not even, mercifully, a single election poster from Lakas.  This village of 900 people is still without electricity and a health center.  There is no sign either that the military or the NPA are still interested in this community.  Once more, this is forgotten territory, shelved in the national consciousness, awaiting another issue that would rekindle developmental and revolutionary attention.

Yet, even as time seems to have stopped in this village, no community remains isolated forever.  Change will come to Bugnay sooner or later. It will not always spell progress, and it will certainly not be without pain no matter how hard Macli-ing’s people try to control its pace.

Francis Macli-ing, the late hero’s eldest son, knows this.  He is sending one of his daughters to high school in Tinglayan even if this means she has to hike several hours daily to get to school.  Now on her second year, Helen, Macli-ing’s granddaughter, has learned not only another language but the norms of a new way of life.

I could not help noticing the message in English she scribbled in chalk for her mother Isabel on the front wall of their house.  It said:  “Isabel please clean this house very well, because Helen is getting very angry every minute, every day.”   The message, for now, is lost on Isabel, because she could not read it, or if she could, would not have understood it.  She neither knew English nor the values that made her daughter demand a clean home and assert herself in this manner.

There is a quiet war that is slowly changing the landscape of this region.  It is a culture war.  The generations are its protagonists, and its principal battleground, like elsewhere in the world, is the home.


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