Terrorized for Being a Teacher in The Philippines
Ricky is a teacher against all odds, especially if you consider violent death one of the “odds.”
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the three R’s should not include “random bursts of gunfire.”
Ricky, Davao City, Philippines
I could see they were ready. They were proudly wearing their uniforms, guns hanging from their necks. The Alamara, which are indigenous people armed and protected by the soldiers, were also there, surrounding me. Daggers waiting. The first time it happened, I was just waiting to feel a sharp, stinging pain or maybe something wet, dripping.
You will be taken to a shanty, interrogated and forced to admit that you’re part of the New People’s Army. That you’re a rebel. It’s tough and your life is always on the line, so I knew the moment I decided to do this, I had to prepare myself to die. But I also had to be strong enough to not die.
I have a colleague who was once attacked in his own classroom. He was shot at right in front of his students. Luckily, he was able to jump and the bullet missed him. But some of his students did get hit, some even in their private parts. I’m always afraid it’ll happen to me because the people who do this — the soldiers and the Alamara — who just shoot whenever and whoever they want to, they’re never held accountable. They don’t pay any price.
There are people following me. They’ve been following me and my fellow teachers since we got here in 2014, and even now, I can feel them lurking around.
But when you’re in the classroom, it’s all different. My students always greet me with a smiling face and their insane energy. It’s clear they cannot wait for classes to start. I have to be gentle with them, as they are victims of this undying war. I have to be creative, to deal with the trauma they’re feeling, even when they try their best not to show it. These kids are strong, you know.
Creativity goes a long way here. Sometimes my students run out of paper or lose their pencils, and so we go out and gather banana leaves and find small pieces of coal. That’s our pen and paper. At least they learn, even the basic strokes of writing or how to properly hold a pen. When our blackboards get destroyed, whether by the weather or the bombs and fire and bullets, I use sacks and plastic bags in lieu of a blackboard.
This is where you need to be tough and gentle at the exact same time. To get to the school where I teach, you need to cross 42 rivers and creeks combined, and walk for two days. There’s no cellphone signal, no electricity and of course, no internet. Basically, there’s no way for you to quickly ask for help in case you need it, and this is the place where you would almost always need help. I’ve been teaching here for five years now, and frankly, I don’t have plans to stop.
The war intensified in 2014, and that’s when we evacuated here to Davao City. When we first got here at the refugee camp, I would tie a rope and hang Manila paper because we didn’t have blackboards. When it would rain, the kids would help pull down the Manila paper so they wouldn’t get wet. Everything was still fresh then, and my students were so vigilant. There was a point when if they saw someone in uniform, a policeman or a soldier, they’d stand up, even if we were in the middle of the class, and they’d all be ready to run for safety.
Whenever they’d hear loud noises, like a speeding car or loud vehicle horns, they’d be extra alert, looking around, checking their surroundings, then they’d say, “Sir, nay sundalo sa gawas,” which means, “Sir, there’s a soldier outside.” I’d have to explain to them that here in the city, it’s normal for police and soldiers to roam around. Because in the hinterlands, it’s a traumatizing “norm” for most of them, who grew up being alert to combat boot tracks.
I understand it though, where these kids are coming from. I was in their shoes once — a kid trying to learn despite the war. One time, my friends and I were roaming around the vast fields. We didn’t have classes that day, but we had helicopters hovering above us. I feared that we would get hit by bullets or that a bomb would fall and we’d be shattered to death. These soldiers don’t have a specific target, you know. They just drop bombs wherever they want to.
Three years ago, I received a text message: ‘Sir, what color of flowers do you want?’ There was no significant celebration, so I knew this unknown sender was talking about my burial.
I guess God really wanted me to become a teacher. I’m not a fan of kids, and education is not my first love, but here I am. It’s a sacrifice, but it’s the kind of sacrifice I will choose to take no matter what. I cannot count how many times I’ve thought of quitting, but then what will happen to my students if I decide to throw in the towel? Now, whenever I hear the kids sing, somehow I feel better.
Since this lifestyle started, I need to set high limits and be extra vigilant all the time. There are people following me. They’ve been following me and my fellow teachers since we got here in 2014, and even now, I can feel them lurking around. I cannot go back to the hinterlands and teach there because there are threats that if the soldiers or the Alamara would see my face, they would kill me. They’re looking for me, and they want me dead.
Three years ago, I received a text message that read, “Sir, unsay color sa bulak imong gusto?” (“Sir, what color of flowers do you want?”) There was no significant celebration, so I knew this unknown sender was talking about my burial.
* “Ricky” is a pseudonym used to protect his identity.