Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mattress peddlers, NPA hostages

A heart-rending sight for me is that of a lone man carrying a whole bed or aparador on his back and walking the streets of the city, hoping to sell the homemade furniture, be relieved of the load on his back and go home with some money. A Philippine version of the Carrying of the Cross, indeed. I see this every now and then, and I wonder if bad elements would even think of divesting such peddlers of their wares and money like they do to taxi drivers, pedestrians and students.
This thought played on my mind as I went over the case of the Initao 6, homemade mattress peddlers from Initao, Misamis Oriental, who were abducted by the communist New People’s Army (NPA). The men left home on Aug. 10 and were said to be headed for the Bukidnon uplands and even stopped by a fiesta in the hope of maximizing their sales. They are James Mabaylan, 60, driver; Nelson Bagares, 46; Segundino Dailo Jr., 46; Ernesto Callo Jr., 34; Julieto Sarsaba, 30; and Ronal Boiles, 28. Four are married, Sarsaba and Boiles are single.
The abduction became publicly known when a press conference was held at the residence of Bukidnon Archbishop Antonio Ledesma sometime in early September. On September 13 the NPA under Commander Parago in Paquibato district (bordering Bukidnon and Davao) owned up to the abduction and stated the reason: the mattress peddlers were allegedly spying for the military.

The families of the hostages had sought the help of Davao City Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte but he reportedly declined to intercede on the hostages’ behalf. His reason: he was a resource person of the National Democratic Front (of which the NPA is part). But there are those who have speculated that Duterte, known to be a persuasive politician, did not want to see a repeat of the failed release of jail guards whose freedom was reportedly promised to him by NDF chair Luis Jalandoni.

So the Initao 6 are still out there, in forests primeval perhaps, without their mattresses to sleep on. Or did the NPA abductors seize the mattresses, too? Might these have contained deadly weapons in them?

I got an update on the Initao 6 from Jurgette Honculada, a gender and labor rights advocate from Zamboanga who serves as a member of the Government of the Philippines Peace Panel (presently headed by human rights lawyer Alexander Padilla) in talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF. So-called peace talks have been on-and-off for the last 24 years. And though dwindling in number, the CPP/NPA/NDF can still wreak havoc in a dramatic way, like the recent attacks on mining operations in Surigao del Norte.

Should these talks just continue for as long as it takes? Or do we want to see a denouement of some sort? (In plain language, maghalo ang balat sa tinalupan.)

On the subject of mattresses. Some 15 years ago, a group of enterprising young men from Davao, Bukidnon and Davao City tried their hand at making homemade coco coir mattresses . These men later married and settled in Barangay Tubigan, Initao, which became a center of mattress production.

Mattress making is the main source of livelihood of more than one-third of families in the barangay. Children help convert coconut husk into fiber through the pagkuskos method. Each mattress contains around 10 kilos of coir. The women make mattress covers from out of sacks. The men do the carpentry and assembly, as well as look for customers.

Here are details that might interest supporters of community-based livelihood programs. Mattress production in Initao increased with credit from cooperatives. A loan of P40,000 to P45,000 can fund a team of six persons (driver, producers, peddlers, canvassers) who will travel to sell. They load as many as 50 mattresses onto a vehicle and take them to as far as Caraga, Davao, Cotabato and Zamboanga . They go during or after harvest time when farming families have money to spend. A mattress could sell for P1,000 to P3,000. The person who takes out the loan could go home with a net of P7,000 or less if the trip stretches to month. The rest get their share, too.

The Initao 6 just went out there to sell mattresses. Now they are hostages.

Last week, a letter of appeal on their behalf was sent to the NDF Negotiating Panel based in the Netherlands, through its secretariat in Cubao. The letter was signed by Misamis Oriental Gov. Oscar S. Moreno, Vice Governor Norris Babiera, Archbishop Ledesma and five other bishops (Catholic and Protestant), and Paul Paraguya of Balay Mindanaw Foundation.

“We are appealing, in behalf of the families of the above-named individuals, for their immediate release and the peaceful resolution of this unfortunate incident. These individuals are marginal vendors who earn their living by selling homemade foams and mattresses, made by their community-based livelihood projects… Based on our own investigation, they have never been involved in any unlawful undertaking that would have warranted their prosecution before any courts of law, nor have they been tagged as military or police informers.

“Their families pray … that they be released unharmed in the spirit of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. A single day in captivity is almost an eternity for their families who desperately need and depend on them for daily subsistence and fatherly love… The agony, stress and anxiety brought about by the incident are too much for their families to bear… We … share in both our government’s and the NDFP’s quest for a principled resolution of the problem of insurgency.”

Have mercy on the mattress peddlers.
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