Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yamot Aetas and Mt. PInatubo 20 years ago

“BINULSA KO na lang ang aking kalungkutan (I put my sorrow in my pocket).” —Paylot, an Aeta leader.

Here are excerpts from the feature article I wrote shortly after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption that went on for days in June 1991. I had gone to Zambales when the volcano was still spewing ashes and tracked down the Aetas and the Franciscan nuns whose idyllic community in Yamot on the volcano’s slopes was buried in ash and was no more. Nine years earlier in 1982, I spent time there and wrote a magazine article on the experience.

It was the Aetas of Yamot and the nuns who first alerted Phivolcs about the volcanic rumblings. I remember Sr. Emma Fondevilla, FMM, a scientist who lived among the Aetas, rushing to my house to show me the information. It was the Inquirer that first came out with her story. At first the Aetas were not taken seriously because the volcano was believed to be dormant. (Sr. Emma is now the provincial superior of the FMM in the Philippines.)
Then Mt. Pinatubo sprang to life in 1991 and gave the world an astounding pyroclastic show that darkened portions of planet Earth and caused some climate change. The Aetas of Yamot would later publish a coffeetable book “Eruption and Exodus” for which I wrote the foreword.
Today I remember with fondness the late Sr. Carmen “Menggay” Balazo, FMM who spent many years of her life organizing the Aetas so that they would become self-reliant communities. After many years and the Aetas had come into their own through Lakas (Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales), the Franciscan nuns moved on, confident that the Aetas would continue what they had begun.

The complete article “Somewhere, a Buried Village will Rise Again,” came out in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine on July 7, 1991.

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They weep not, for the village is not dead and buried. It lives in the villagers. Wherever the people go, the village will be transplanted. This is what this group of Aetas believes, this is what they hope to happen. Yamot, their home, is gone, buried in ash by a thundering volcano, but it will rise again somewhere.

On the day of the deadliest eruption, these Aetas were camped on a hilly place called Tomangan when suddenly the heavens heaved and darkened and then rained grayish mud and solid particles. The signal flags were raised and the bullhorns were sounded. It was an awesome sight. A stream of humanity shrouded in grey descending and fleeing for their lives. Somewhere a bus was waiting for them. Theirs was perhaps the most organized evacuation plan carried out during the dark hours. This group of Aetas was different.

Earlier, when Pinatubo became restless, the Aetas held study sessions on volcanoes. The people were shown pictures and video footage on how volcanoes behaved. The nuns invited resource persons from Phivolcs. Until that time the Aetas did not know much about eruptions. There were no oral accounts passed on by their ancestors. If there were, they must have been lost during those 600 years that the volcano was silent…

I tracked them down in Sta. Cruz town which was the sixth evacuation center the Aetas of Yamot stayed in. That time they were getting ready to move to Candelaria which they hoped would be the last…

Every time the Aetas moved, they took with them their meager belongings and farm animals. As early as April when Mt. Pinatubo started to grumble, they already headed for safer grounds. Still, they did not expect the volcano to bury their dreams so swiftly. Yamot, their village, was within five kilometers off the volcano.

They had evacuated to Tomangan when the deadly hour came without warning. They had no choice but to leave behind the work animals they had taken with them the past two months as they were preparing for the worst. They un-tethered the animals so that they could run for their lives but hoping that Aetas and animals would find each other again someday. “We know our animals,” says an Aeta leader. “We know how they look. I hope they are alive.”

The memory of that encounter with an angry volcano remains. Until that time, they had no idea how fierce a volcano could be, especially when it started raining solid particles “na parang buto ng sitaw” (the size of beans)…

The nuns are homeless, too. These past months of “organized wandering” they have been living in tents just like the Aetas. Like Ruth said to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go.”

The Aetas of Sitio Yamot in Poonbato (Botolan, Zambales) have come a long way. Ten years ago (1981) when the nuns came for the first time, many of the Aetas were afraid and diffident. But it didn’t take long for the Aetas to welcome them. The Aetas were impressed that these nuns lived simply in huts in their midst and did not attempt to Christianize them. The nuns taught them how to read and write and not be fooled by middlemen. They did not start off with ABC. It was L for “lota” or land and D for “damowag” or carabao. They learned how to compute how much they were cheated on their bananas by scheming traders…

In 1982 when I spent time there, the nuns had been in the area barely a year but already they had wrought changes in the Aetas’ lives. The key was organizing. Now 10 years later (1991), the Aetas of 12 sitios in that area have eight cooperatives. Most of the Aetas in the coops belong to Lakas. It was through Lakas that many of the Aetas found a voice.

Yamot slowly became a dream village. Then the eruption and the exodus.

“Nanay namin ang Pinatubo (Pinatubo is like our mother),” says Palawig Cabalic, Lakas secretary. There dwells the Divine, whom the Aetas call Apo Namalyari. There in the afterlife, they believe, there their souls will go….

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Tags: Aetas , Community , culture , Disaster , Eruption , Evacuation , Mt. Pinatubo , Religious orders , Volcano