November 23, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Orphans of the revolution

Boying* has a blank expression on his face, oblivious to his surroundings. He has been asking for his mama for days, but no mama comes to him -- no matter how loud he cries. Now, he just sits with a distant and longing look, in the company of blood relatives that he has never seen in his life except for these past few days. Boying’s mother has been shot to death on June 30. Boying is two years old; his mother a single mom. She was trying to get back on her feet, working to get an overseas employment. She brought Boying to the province, to Boying’s lola, so she can concentrate on finding a job.

Boying’s mom was a former member of the New People’s Army (NPA), her assailants were her former comrades. She left the movement six years ago, but the NPA has a long memory especially against those who left them. Those who leave the movement are considered as traitors and “counterrevolutionaries” and hence, must be punished. The NPA-Bicol region found out that she emerged from hiding and was in the neighborhood where she grew up so they watched her, waiting for a chance to strike. She was shot 17 times, rendering her face unrecognizable. The assailants made sure that she was dead together with her brother.

Hundreds of miles away, the child in the mother’s womb will see the light of day in two months, but she will never see the smile of her father. Her father is a soldier who died fighting the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu. Not even christened yet, she now is orphaned by a conflict she never chose to be a part of.

In the evacuation center in Balo-i, Lanao del Sur, seven-year-old Sara joins the activity of a civil society organization -- they were asked to draw what they dream of becoming when they grow up. She had a hard time thinking beyond the current conflict taking place in her community in Marawi so she drew houses burned and planes dropping bombs, explaining that she just wants the conflict to end so they can go home to her father and she can go back to school. Her father chose to be left behind when they evacuated on the third day of the Maute siege in Marawi to watch over their meager belongings. After a week in the evacuation center, they can no longer contact him. Four weeks in the conflict, rescue workers were allowed to enter the conflict zone -- they rescued some who were trapped in the conflict, and recovered the bodies of those killed. It was an unfortunate day for Sara and her mother.

Lito, 11 years old, weeps and seethes in anger. His father was killed by soldiers during an armed encounter. His father is a member of the NPA fighters operating in Compostela Valley. Lito has vowed to avenge his father against his killers by joining the NPA.

In Tarlac, Diwa and her family continue to search for her father, missing since 2001. He is now among the statistics of the “disappeared,” not knowing if he was a victim of state-sanctioned operation or the internal purging of the NPA.

Lean Alejandro once said: “the struggle for freedom is the next best thing to actually being free.” But the irony of it is that these children didn’t choose to be a part of the “revolution” of their parents. The greatest paradox is that while their parents claim that they wage these armed rebellion for their children and for the children of the future, it is these same children who now suffer the consequences of the armed conflict. How can anyone explain to children that an “ideology” is responsible for the death of their parent/s?

These children, once the light of their parents’ world, have unwittingly become burdens to those left behind. Two-year old Boying is a problem in the eyes of his mother’s blood relatives. They themselves are having a hard time to get by with their day-to-day lives, with Boying’s grandpa himself bedridden. Boying is an additional responsibility they didn’t choose. The relatives are now looking for someone -- anyone -- who will take in Boying. Perhaps the blank expression on the boy’s eyes reflect the uncertainty of his future.

Sara’s mother is home-based, the husband is the main breadwinner. With him gone, the mother doesn’t know how to fend for her three young children. The unborn child of the soldier will grow up with the label “child of a hero” but can only hold-on to the soldier’s medals to comfort her on days she longs for her father. In the forests of Compostela Valley, Lito is training to become a fighter like his father. And Diwa, now an adult, carries the burden of not knowing the predicament of her father.

All strategies and programs on peace and conflict somehow gloss over the children orphaned by armed conflicts. Decision makers talk about big ideas like political autonomy, poverty alleviation, demobilization of forces and arms, programs for communities affected by conflicts, transitional justice, among others. Yet, no one talks about the orphaned children. It is not even clear which agency in government should cater to them should the government decides to finally view them as the responsibility of the State. To the state and society, they are the invisible shadows of the long-drawn conflict.

It is time that they are recognized as major stakeholders in peace and security. The government must put up a program to cater to these orphans -- it cannot and should not just be the domain of concerned civil society groups. Programs have to be put in place, first of which are those that address the social protection needs of the children, support for their education, and psychosocial intervention for the children and their families. Armed groups must also be made to account for all the summary executions they have committed in the name of their revolution. Far too many children have been orphaned by the armed conflicts. And they have been neglected long enough. They deserve better, and now is the time to act.

*All the children’s names were changed to protect their privacy.

Jennifer Santiago Oreta is a faculty member of the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science, and a member of the think tank Security Reform Initiative (SRI).