She was barely 15 years old when she was recruited by members of the underground movement who appear to be regular fixtures in the vicinity of a high school in a town in Bohol. At 15, she never thought she could put her life in a mess, just because of unbridled idealism and pretentious promises of the ideal life where everyone would be equal: “Walay pobre, walay datu, tanan patas, tanan tinabangay (There is no poor, no rich, everyone is equal, everyone helps each other).”
This was what Ka Mariel had on her young mind, desperately going back to it in times when she felt the excesses of her group was something she could not stomach.
Born to a family of seven kids, Ka Mariel thought she has had enough of the hard childhood that the promise of a society with everyone equitably sharing was something worth her life. “They were just there, sitting with the students during break time in the stores nearby, joining our conversations and pitching in ideas that were new to us,” she shared as she adjusted her face mask with her right hand. From her left arm sleeve portrudes a stump of gnarled limb.
At first glance, she is just an ordinary girl in Bohol, accustomed to working in the farm and toughened by the test of time. Until in 1997, her right arm was hit by a bullet, leaving a gnarled limb in its stead.
“I was convinced. I joined them in their meetings in the wooded areas near the school, although I never had any inclination to take up arms like what they proposed to topple the government,” she confessed, with a sense of sarcasm now.
Mariel, herself then convinced she could help them win against the government, joined as among the mass base which the New People’s Army of the Communist Party of the Philippines cling on to survive in the war they have planned to take over the government, starting with instigating the communities in the countryside. “I was there, I would help them out seek for food, medicines, clothing when their companions would come to the lowlands to get food for their comrades hiding in the forests.”
“Once, I was told to accompany to deliver firearms, which were placed inside a sack. M16s, and we had to go through a highway section,” she recalls.
The driver, she easily remembers, was fumbling, knowing that if anyone would see them who knows what was inside the sack would easily connect them to the rebels who were in the nearby forests. “Out of fear maybe, or to make sure nobody could catch us, the driver sped a bit too fast in a potholed road that it never took us long to hit a deep rut where we spilled off into the streets into a wallowing pond where a farmer, who was not an NPA supporter, was cooling his carabao,” she narrated, slapping her thigh to illustrate the fun and the tense situation.
“From the sack spilled, not cassava nor firewood or other agricultural crops, but firearms, and the farmer who saw it, knows me,” she innocently laughed not really cognizant about what this would bring her in courts. They immediately picked up the motorcycle, went on with their mission, knowing the farmer who was also scared upon seeing the firearms would not tell anyone.
“I thought we were able to instill fear on the farmer not to tell anything, but days later, there were stories about me being an NPA, and these have reached my parents and my aunts,” she detailed, knowing there was no turning back anymore.
This was in 1996.
Formally joining the rebels at 15, she found out that her squad was comprised also of teenagers, mostly below 18 and majority were girls already carrying long firearms, a clear violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Although an optional protocol to CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict was agreed, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and the International Humanitarian Law ban armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country from recruiting or using anyone under 18, under any circumstances, in hostilities.
Deployed in the forests of Batuan, Bilar, Sagbayan and Carmen, Ka Mariel, who was nicknamed “Bunso,” had a series of raids under her badge as a rebel. In fact, she confessed she was among the three lookouts when the rebels who disguised as government officials, took over a police camp in Batuan.
“Aside from the two vans which were marked DILG, we were on a flimsy tricycle parked near the van. If there was an immediate reinforcement, what protection could a tricycle give?” she asked, now getting the danger she has gotten herself in. She was also there at a takeover of a town hall in central Bohol, and a key official at the Department of Social Welfare and Development who was from the town has identified her.
It was after that raid in the police camp in Batuan when the severity of her situation truly sank in.
“For hours, we were hiding under acacia shades because helicopters were flying overhead, and it was impossible to move without being seen from above,” she narrated again, innocence still in her eyes, even when she is now 36.
The raid also had the government send in additional troops to hunt us down, Tagalogs and Ilongos, she said. “It was hard, we could not cook during daytime as the smoke would give us out, so we stayed hidden until night time when we could find food and race back to the forests,” Mariel, who was familiarizing the terrain in Batuan with still a few weeks in her deployment from her previous lairs, added.
“It was about 2:00 p.m., one rainy afternoon, we were six left in camp while the rest of the group were away to search for food, when a patrol squad chanced upon us. What we thought was the cracking of the leaves were actually the soldiers steadily creeping to our position. While some of our comrades ran, there was no way to go. We were practically surrounded and the only way out was a way down the rugged cliff, where below was a rice field where there was nowhere to hide. So, we fought it out.”
She was shooting at a sniper when somebody on her side hit her trigger arm and sent it swinging harmlessly over her shoulder. “There was a burning pain and I managed to just lay there gripped in pain and praying for reinforcement, which did not come,” she said.
“Ang mga Army, salbahis, mga walay kaluoy, mao nay among isulti sa among mga sakop (The soldiers are savage and merciless, that is our usual line to our comrades),” she said, but then the Army actually took her to a hospital in Bohol, her right arm barely attached to the elbow.
After getting her wounds cleaned, they rushed her to a city hospital and then was flown to Cebu for better treatment and for her security. Captured as a warrior, Ka Mariel was tried in court and faced charges including subversion, murder, and a pile of other charges. Incidentally for her, being a minor, Ka Mariel was tried but was granted parole.
She want to Manila to find work, her employers having no idea who she was. But now that she has lost one arm, she earned a scholarship program for Persons with Disability (PWD) and got help from a Boholano advocate for child rights coalition.
Child Right Advocate Amihan Abueva helped Ka Mariel get trainings including quilting, and many other skills.
In Manila where she started to get a bit better with managing her money, Mariel has decided to totally change her life – from killing people as a rebel to adopting a baby boy to make sure he grows into a more productive citizen.
“I was there in a hospital when he was born, processed all the necessary documents for adoption, and took care of him,” she detailed, uncertain how she could sustain taking care of an infant, singlehandedly. She even brings the child to his parents then, but the child would rather go with her than join his siblings who are among Cavite’s financially hard-up.
“Nalooy ko kay siyam na ang ilang anak, sunod sunod pa, polus mga walay trabaho (I pitied the family because they have nine kids already and the parents don’t have a job),” she said, not really minding taking care of a child despite her otherwise useless right arm. “Wala lang, gusto lang ko nga makatabang (I just wanted to help),” she replied when asked what made her decide to help.
Seemingly, as a child rebel warrior, the move to correct her messy life has reached a point where something radical has to be done, not by force and firearm but by love and care. By 2018, however, she learned that her father in Bohol got sick, so she decided to come home finally and face the ghosts of her past.
As a parolee, and intending to sustain the support for her adopted child, Mariel found work in Bohol when a former comrade, now a rebel returnee whom she called “Nanay,” saw her and told her about formally surrendering to avail of government assistance and clear her name in the Army’s order of battle.
With the government’s enhanced comprehensive local integration project, Mariel was processed into the comprehensive assistance package for rebel returnees including safety and security guarantees for the former rebel, a P15,000 immediate assistance, subsistence while in custody of the Philippine Army, facilitation in securing new IDs and identities by the local DSWD, support in her relocation to keep her from stigma, and livelihood assistance worth P50,000.
“With the P15,000 initial assistance, I bought a motorcycle as my service to attend to the processes of my reintegration, which is also used to run a small buy-and-sell business. I buy bananas, camote and other farm products and resell them in the town, getting a neat profit which I use to subsist,” she shared, noting that her brief time in Manila has taught her to judiciously use her money.
“With the P50,000 livelihood assistance, I bought a small farm lot in a town in Bohol, and started, along with good neighbors, a small house and a productive farm where I grow range chicken, goats and duck,” she said.
She also planted camote, cassava and other crops including vegetables for her and her adopted child Yohan’s consumption, who is not yet eight years old.
Asked about her security from the NPAs now, she said, “I have been wanting to see them and demand from them their promises. Ingon sila, mag salbahis ang mga Army, pero ngano nga nia pa man ko karon (They said the Army was merciless, but how come I’m still alive until now?),” she asks, questioning the promises that the rebels have peddled to the innocent recruits.
Asked why she joined the NPA at a young age, she said her favorite lie that they peddled back then was: “Walay bata sa grupo kon kamao lang mohunahuna (As long as one knows how to think, then no one is too young in this group).”
Now, she has a new take at this lie, saying: “Walay matiguwang sa grupo kon kamao lang mohunahuna (Nobody can grow old in the group, as long as one knows how to think critically).”
Ka Mariel, then child warrior who has offered her arm to a cause she falsely believed, is now among the 47th Infantry Battalion’s speakers in their community engagements calling the rebels to end local communist armed conflict in Bohol.
After all, the Army believes, there is nobody as credible to fight a lie than someone who has been a victim. (Rey Anthony Chiu, PIA-7)