AF­TER WAR, THERE ARE BIRDS

Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - G.M. EN­RIQUEZ G.M. En­riquez is a pseu­do­nym

My sis­ter said there is prob­a­bly not a per­son in Zam­boanga who did not per­son­ally know some­one who had been killed.

THE TREES WERE CUT LONG AGO, BUT THE BIRDS still come to Plaza Per­sh­ing ev­ery year in search of a Piedras Platas. It is a com­mon say­ing in Zam­boanga City that, be­fore cross­ing the street, one must look three ways: left, right, and up­ward—then run, be­fore the drop­pings fall. The mi­gra­tory birds are silent, gray, lined by the dozens over wire and ledge. I won­dered where they go home to—or if they, like me, were away for the rest of the year, and came home only for Christ­mas.

Dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son of 2013, as we drove down the boule­vard, my mother told me to lock all the win­dows. We passed the Joaquin F. En­riquez Me­mo­rial Sports Com­plex, com­monly known as Grand­stand, where 25,000 evac­uees tem­po­rar­ily resided. They spilled out into the street, block­ing the road. Their tents were pitched on the traf­fic is­lands, go­ing down to the beach. Bad­jao boats were raised on stilts so the wa­ter could not wear the wood on the days they were not at sea. They were cook­ing, sleep­ing, gos­sip­ing; chil­dren, some naked, chased each other around the maze of tents. Some of them turned their heads, sun­burnt faces re­gard­ing us through the tinted win­dows.

Even­tu­ally, the tents dwin­dled and we cruised past the set­tle­ment. The air un­sti­fled it­self.

De­spite its cur­few lift, Zam­boanga City bore the face of a war vet­eran. The port city is home to Chris­tians, Mus­lims, and Lu­mad, or in­dige­nous peo­ples; we would like to be­lieve that we revel in this cul­tural di­ver­sity. It has seen many wars, but the cri­sis of Septem­ber 2013 reignited old wounds. Armed rebels from the Moro Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front, rep­re­sent­ing Nur Misuari, marched into the city to hoist their flag at the City Hall. A clash with the mil­i­tary en­sued, leav­ing more than a hun­dred dead and 100,000 dis­placed. Zam­boanga bore burns, hair­less patches of land where houses were razed to the ground. Around 10,000 homes were burned in nine dif­fer­ent barangays.

Stray bul­lets lodged into the necks of the pi­geons of Fort Pi­lar, send­ing them spi­ral­ing down­ward. The gov­ern­ment has since been built a dovecote.

Ur­ban leg­end says there was a re­mark­able sur­vivor: a myna that es­caped from one of the house­holds that had burned. It sat on a fence, a di­sheveled black bird among the in­dif­fer­ent gray ones. It opened its mouth and echoed, “Cease­fire!”

Here is a brief cat­a­log of birds for when I re­gard Min­danao. First, I think of the Min­danaoan Bleed­ing Heart, an en­dan­gered pi­geon en­demic to the south­ern is­lands. It is said to keep to the ground more than it flies. It has a red blotch on its chest, as if it had been shot through the heart. It teeters on the brink of ex­is­tence be­cause of mas­sive de­for­esta­tion and de­struc­tion of its habi­tat. Other sources clas­sify the bird as a dove. A bleed­ing dove—how is that for sym­bol­ism?

The most ob­vi­ous bird that comes to mind when one con­sid­ers Min­danao is a Maranao sym­bol, a totem called the Sa­ri­manok. It is a great rooster said to only cease its crow­ing on Judg­ment Day.

Up in Pa­so­nanca Park, per­haps rec­og­niz­able from ele­men­tary Sibika text­books for its tree­house, there is an aviary. In its day, it housed an emu, cock­a­toos, horn­bills, tou­cans, a cou­ple of ea­gles, and a pea­cock. The last time I vis­ited it, the cages were all empty. There was an oc­ca­sional rus­tle among the leaves, but the birds were nowhere to be seen.

There was a spate of killings in my city that took a quar­ter of a thou­sand lives in less than two years. In April 2012, Univer­si­dad de Zam­boanga Pres­i­dent Ar­turo Eus­taquio III was shot five times by two uniden­ti­fied as­sailants. That same year, we fea­tured in our school pa­per a batch­mate who had wit­nessed her mother’s shoot­ing. We called her “a sur­vivor.” In Fe­bru­ary 2014, Re­gional Trial Court Judge Reyne­rio Esta­cio Sr., who had re­port­edly han­dled politi­cians’ and ter­ror­ists’ cases, was shot seven times on his way to work. The year be­fore, Jus­tine Wee, the son of a lo­cal busi­ness­man, was shot dead in an eatery by a man in a hel­met. My sis­ter had been class­mates with his brother, and he had been my mother’s stu­dent.

Death seeped deeper and deeper into our cir­cles. My sis­ter said there is prob­a­bly not a per­son in Zam­boanga who did not per­son­ally know some­one who had been killed.

When my first-grade teacher Miss Cielo died, it was the first time I had seen the body of some­one who had been mur­dered. We did not know why she was killed, or if the killer was ever caught. I was in high school. It was the first wake I had been to with­out my par­ents. Dy­ing seemed, un­til then, a ter­ri­bly adult thing. I was no adult.

A gash cut above her eye and the makeup tried des­per­ately to cover how blue she was. She was bloated; some­one had thrown wa­ter on her af­ter the stab­bing, so any traces of him would be washed off.

At the edge of her cof­fin was a chick, peck­ing at the seeds on the glass.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s for the killer,” my class­mate whis­pered. “Ev­ery time it pecks at a seed, it pecks at his con­science.”

In my teenage years, I was a lit­tle shame­faced to ad­mit where I came from. I did not grow up in the same glo­ri­ous city that my par­ents and grand­par­ents knew, the one that boldly stood up to martial law through a mar­tyred mayor who re­fused to cut his hair un­til democ­racy was re­stored, the one with horse­drawn car­riages, the one with the ice cream par­lor and a comic book store near the univer­sity. I grew up next to Joseph Estrada’s war on in­sur­gence, to Nur Misuari’s first hostage-tak­ing at Ca­batan­gan. I’ve lost count how many times the old air­port has been bombed, how many times the bus sta­tion was blasted. It was not the same city, and yet it was.

It is pos­si­ble to grow up nor­mally in Zam­boanga, and yet to say it was com­pletely peace­ful in re­cent decades would be dis­hon­est. Zam­boangeños looked for peace, do not doubt it; but some­one’s agenda al­ways got in the way.

Vi­o­lence is pre­cisely so be­cause it cuts through ge­og­ra­phy, his­tory, and po­lit­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions. It hap­pens across the board, to ev­ery­one, from the guilti­est to the most in­no­cent. But as it oc­curs in gen­er­al­i­ties, so too does it oc­cur in speci­fici­ties; it hap­pens to masses, and yet it tar­gets in­di­vid­u­als— con­tracts, moth­er­hoods, ro­mances, lives in­ter­rupted by a bomb or a bul­let.

What is my ex­pe­ri­ence of vi­o­lence but sec­ond­hand? I sit on the in­side of a locked car in the af­ter­math of evac­u­a­tion. I sit as an on­looker at a wake, a stu­dent with­out a teacher, but not a sib­ling with­out a sis­ter. Poverty, too, is a form of vi­o­lence that leaves one vul­ner­a­ble; vi­o­lence strikes the poor first, and comes for the rest of us next.

How do I be­gin to write about my city—we of­fer can­dles at Fort Pi­lar: a yel­low one for the fam­ily, a green one for fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, a pink one for love, a white one for peace. We chase sun­sets at Paseo del Mar. My brother spends the sum­mer of his last year of col­lege at Bo­long Beach, catch­ing en­demic crabs, so he could study how they move.

This is our city: it walks side­ways, with a limp. Some­body is al­ways try­ing to catch us and put us in their bucket. The city does not read poetry. It goes to bed at eight in the evening. It has been granted city­ship, and de­spite the grad­ual com­mer­cial­iza­tion and pock­ets of traf­fic, catas­tro­phe and con­ver­sa­tion ex­pose how it still be­haves like a small town. Its old fam­i­lies have spilled out into safer cities, metropoli­tan cities just as the Bad­jao spilled into the streets of the boule­vard. We scat­tered like birds into the di­as­pora, ter­ri­fied of what the prox­im­ity to a bomb felt like, only to come home for Christ­mas.

How do I be­gin to in­ter­ro­gate my po­si­tion when I have the lux­ury of mi­gra­tion? I am at once re­moved and in­volved; by ren­der­ing these in­stances into sen­tences I am hope to map an un­der­stand­ing of vi­o­lence, per­haps a fu­tile ef­fort, as vi­o­lence es­capes un­der­stand­ing ev­ery time it hap­pens.

But as the new year rolled around, on the crisp Jan­uary morn­ing of my re­turn to Manila, I woke to the caw­ing of a rooster. Be­fore and af­ter vi­o­lence, the world rises to re­sume its ne­go­ti­a­tions: as ven­dors at the barter trade, as evac­uees and their bene­fac­tors, as res­i­dents and their rest­less­ness. As long as the cock crows, it will be just an­other day in Zam­boanga.

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