Saturday, July 29, 2017

The big picture

MARTIAL law makes many people feel safe. Often left out in the assertion is a question: safe from whom?

In the late 1980s, on my first job, I travelled by land to Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental. I was hired by a consultancy firm hired by a government agency that had World Bank funding to solve poverty.

An invisible speck in the entire bureaucracy, I was tasked to ask farmers about a comic book on land tenure.

Being young, I missed out on the joke and saw only the final report as the Holy Grail of a quest that took me from Alegria in the south of Cebu to San Miguel in Bohol.

In the bus from Dumaguete to Sta. Catalina, it rained hard. My bag floated in the greasy pool that collected the rain dripping from the bus roof. I hugged the comic books in their plastic bag, and worried what I would do without clean clothes for the coming week.

The thought that I would have to revert to the field worker’s strategy of using underwear “side A-side B” distracted me from the camouflage helicopters that hovered over Sta. Catalina, one or two at a time but all the time.

During the motorcycle ride to the upland site office, I asked the driver about the torn bark and hole gouged out by bullets in a tree.

An encounter, he said. Ambush? I asked. Farmers, he said. So what did they fire with: produce? I asked, still peeved about the rain and my sodden bag.

The site office was located beside a military detachment, but it was indistinguishable where one ended and the other began. The same barbed wires connected the margins. When lights went off at curfew, I listened to the distant popping sounds.

Christmas in May, I thought before falling asleep.

Field workers were instructed not to get involved with our neighbors on either side of the spectrum. Yet, we slept near and drove around with one side. Did we feel safer? I thought I did.

Interviews went like a breeze in Sta. Catalina. Above the farms, helicopters crisscrossed like green-bellied flies.

The farmers and I watched the circling choppers more than we discussed the comics. Like strange antennae, the long prows of M16 barrels and muzzles protruded from the sides of the Sta. Catalina “flies”.

The gunner stationed at the open sides of choppers is an “innovation” learned from the Vietnam War, according to a U.S. Army documentary, “The Big Picture”.

Inviting young Americans to train as “shotgun riders,” the 1967 documentary shows instructors sitting beside the open doors as if they were “on (their) front porch,” coaching young men to fire M16s at 450 rounds a minute, with one reminder: “Don’t get carried away while firing; it’s important to conserve ammunition.”

In Sta. Catalina, I finally caught on.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 30, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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