12 October 2008

Nagdilaab: The Story of Esperancita Jupida and Milet Martinez

Espie Jupida was one of the main sources for a 2005 research study on The Impact of the Armed Conflict on Women Workers in Mindanao undertaken by the Committee for Asian Women (CAW), a regional NGO addressing the needs of Asian women workers.

As program director of Nagdilaab Foundation, Espie helped develop programs for widows and orphans including psycho-social (or trauma) healing and youth skills training that turned war materiel into works of art. For the research she arranged group dialogues with members of Uni! Viudas (Widows Unite!). The accounts were wrenching: of widows who could not properly mourn a husband's headless corpse, of children who wanted to join the police or paramilitary or become lawyers to avenge their fathers' deaths, of young widows who chose to marry soldiers for security, of families fragmented, of older children seeking livelihoods in distant places, of teachers in remote upland areas forced to "marry" an members of armed bandits on pain of violence, of young teacher-abductees unceremoniously dumped by their fiancées in the belief they were "spoiled goods" or rape victims.

Men may pay with their lives but women and children bear the scars and wounds of war.

Espie, Milet and a small but growing number of peace builders have staked their lives on the simple but risky proposition that peace must come through peaceful means. Espie once said "We NGO workers are also secondary victims of the conflict", referring to the fact that they serve as shock absorbers of near-daily accounts of violence that claim life, limb, liberty. And without fanfare, with deep compassion and a generous spirit, these peace builders "walk the walk" daily: through education, organizing, skills and literacy training, and now, Grameen credit programs.

But that daily walk has led Espie into the jaws of who knows what. It is a path that NGO workers (and social workers, as well, mostly female) take knowing the risks and consequences, whether in Isabela, Pikit, Patikul, Datu Piang, Parang.

For a month now, peace workers Esperancita Jupida and Milet Martinez were abducted in Basilan. Several of their colleagues have escaped but Espie and Milet remain in custody. The abductors are reportedly an armed band that includes teen-agers. The emerging pattern of abduction of workers (e.g. of an electric cooperative) and NGO staff is very disturbing. It is not only fund-raising through terrorism; it also holds hostage the entire community, paralyzing peace-building efforts and undermining hard-won gains at the grassroots level.

Espie, Milet and other NGO and social workers have claim to fundamental rights that include life, liberty and humane treatment. Espie is reportedly unwell and prolonged abduction and life on the run make the hostages vulnerable to illness. Several groups were urging authorities to vigorously pursue negotiations to secure their release. Their sad plight remained stories drowned out by seemingly more urgent concerns including an imperiled global economy, congressional investigations and death and devastation. The media must continue its coverage of their abduction so that Espie and Milet do not become part of the harrowing but soon-forgotten statistics in Basilan’s chronology of violence.

Nagdilaab is Cebuano-Visayan for raging flame. As Espie and Milet await negotiations, may the fire in their hearts brighten the dark nights and warm their beings, may the fire in their belly steel their resolve, may the day come, and not too late, when Basilan's guns and spears turn into pruning hooks and man shall learn war no more.