AFTER WAR, THERE ARE BIRDS
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.