General Santos City, the Philippines
March 27 / 29-30, 2014
Land as far as the eye could see – that was the view from the plane making its final approach to General Santos City. In an archipelago, it is uncommon to see so much land, such horizon-hogging terrain uninterrupted by the sea. It stretched out beguilingly, unending and inexhaustible. No wonder then that my mother’s uncle had claimed a slice of this vast open country long before I was born. Mom and I made this trip to Mindanao to visit his descendants, most of whom we had not met.
I had always wondered how some relatives came to call this southern island their home. Prior to meeting them on this trip, they merely existed in Facebook, not in my life. My granduncle’s son, Tioy Reuben, now elderly but whose memory was still sharp and tongue loosened by a few bottles of beer, told us this missing piece of family history. It was a rare chance to listen to stories from an old guard, so I sat at his feet, as it were, soaking up every word.
At the end of WW2, my granduncle, as other young Filipinos, conscripted or guerrillas, were rewarded with money for fighting together with the Americans. The young men, survivors of the long-drawn war, sought to jump-start their interrupted lives. They looked south and bought parcels of land in the erstwhile Land of Promise, brimming with natural resources that had been left largely untapped.
My granduncle acquired 200 hectares of land in present-day Maguindanao where he settled with his young family. Coming from an agricultural island, he knew well enough to clear the wilderness and turn it into arable land. Even back in the 80s when Mom first visited the province, she observed how settlers’ farms were more well-tended and in order.
This reversal of fortune did not sit well with the locals who would stake their claim to the land their ancestors had sold off. Tension between the former and the new landowners simmered, at times erupting in violence. My granduncle’s silos and crops were torched. Other farmers had it worse; they paid to keep their land with their lives. The government’s agrarian reform eventually claimed the family’s farmland a few decades ago.
Our trip was without incident, away from the island’s hot spot. Still, this long-standing conflict over territorial control remained to be a faint echo of the explosion of bombs in Israel and Gaza. Indeed, the soul of a people was deeply rooted in the land that, no matter how vast, left no room for peaceful co-habitation.
From the highway to the airport for our flight back, we could see Mt. Matutum rising majestically from the plains of South Cotabato. As the word matutum meant “valiant and faithful,” may the mountain stand for our staunch hope for peace that continued to elude Mindanao.