How Lolo Pedro Swatted a Toratora and Died

While browsing the internet, I chanced on a science news article on the genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia among Han Chinese. The Nature article revealed  two independent studies that identified “sections of the human genome that, when deleted, can elevate the risk of developing schizophrenia by up to 15 times compared with the general population.” I won’t go into the details of the article because, aside from my lack of expertise on the subject matter, the popular version of the two articles is good enough for non-technical readers like myself.

This blog article however will share a cultural correlate to the science news article. While mental diseases are biological, these are expressed in specific cultural and historical circumstances. I take the medical anthropologist’s cue therefore of differentiating disease, which is biological, from illnesses, a cultural concept. It is within this light that I share my maternal relatives’ reckoning with pagkabuang (roughly translated as insanity). All behaviors or mental states that deviate from the “normal” is considered buang in Cebuano. Psychological illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, dementia, etc, are all subsumed under this general word category.

The family lore goes that at least one member, usually male, of every generation will succumb to a mental illness. I don’t know if there’s a biological basis to this story or whether a professional diagnosis was availed of (except for one), but as far as my mother is concerned, our “schizophrenia” simply runs in the blood–no need to question it, you just keep the grip on what’s real and what’s not and you won’t lose it. This story has been used as a warning to all my relatives to not overdo things or do drugs, because “we got craziness in our blood,” one slip and off we go to Lalaland.  Like us, my mother’s generation too had been told time and again to fear this supposed “genetic tendency” and thus must learn to negotiate life’s challenges with calm and ease. I believe this is not simply an old wives’ tale that older relatives concocted to keep us in check. Aside from the logical fact that they could’ve just scared us off with the usual monsters and the roasting pits of hell, my maternal relatives saw how a grandfather, an uncle, and two cousins were blighted by this illness.

The origin of the “schizophrenia” myth started with the unusual death of my mother’s maternal grandfather who was shot by Japanese soldiers in the dying days of World War II. When the villagers heard that the soldiers were on patrol, they fled to their mountain hideout except for Lolo Pedro. The soldiers spotted Lolo Pedro on top of a coconut tree cursing at toratora or zero fighter aircrafts flying overhead. He also brought with him a long stick to swat at these flying jetfighters, flaying at them everytime they passed by the coconut tree. He was an easy target for the patrolling soldiers. They trained their rifles towards Lolo Pedro, placed him in their rifles’ crosshairs, squeezed their triggers, and took the crazed man down from the tree.

You see, the tiny island of Po’o at that time was right smack in the middle of the largest naval battle in world history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the naval war when Allied forces first witnessed Japanese toratora planes diving straight at enemy warships and gunboats. The Allied Forces however routinely defeated the Japanese forces in less than a week. For older island residents, the impact of this war was such that time and history were only divided into three episodes: before the war (wala pay gera), during the war (panahon sa gera), and after the war (pistaym). Personal events, like birthdays, are remembered more along this organizing principle of time than the actual dates.

The war was a shock to many island residents. From a sleepy fishing village, the place had been converted into a battle zone. The villagers were rounded up and their movement monitored and restricted. Many were subjected to abuses. Rumors reached that children were flung to the air and then stabbed with bayonets. Some of those who escaped the encampment were pursued and killed. A relative of mine, who was then a child, escaped a gruesome death when she pretended to be dead after getting stabbed with a bayonet. With her guts spilling out of her abdomen, adult relatives sneaked the child out of the island on a canoe. They traveled a full day to the neighboring island of Leyte where she was nursed back to health.

Coconut Fiber Dress. My grandfather didn’t quite sew something as grandiose as this, but yes you got the point of him sewing clothes from coconut fibers.

Those who escaped the Japanese garrison fled to mountain hideouts. While there, they lived a semblance of a normal life, far from the reach of the occupying forces. My late maternal grandfather, a Chinese immigrant tailor (whose timberland-owning family scampered out of China because of the Nationalist Revolution of Sun Yat Sen–yet another interesting story to pursue!), remembered sewing clothes from coconut fibers for the refugees (see photo on the side to give you an idea). The violence spiraled that whenever there was a chance for retribution, the island residents grabbed every opportunity for revenge–Japanese soldiers, who survived the naval battle and found themselves beached on the island, were routinely attacked and killed.

If you’ve been to the island of Po’o, you would not imagine that this place had once witnessed so much bloodshed. Your day starts with a rooster’s call and ends with the warmth of bahalina down your throat. Yet World War II was a crazy time. And, apparently, we still feel the insanity of war in our “genes.”


Quick Links: Updates on the Murder of Botanist Leonardo Co

The links here will be constantly updated.

News articles:

Summary of Findings of the Fact Finding Mission</a>

Justice For Leonard Co website

Justice for Leonard Co and His Companions!

Instructions to Contributors to the Leonardo L. Co Justice Fund

UP botanist not killed in crossfire: probe

Scientists: Army’s bullets killed top Filipino botanist Leonard Co

Leonard’s passion

Statement of the University Council of U.P. Diliman.

Miriam Defensor Santiago files resolution for a Senate investigation

Army says it was encounter, Left says it was a massacre

Icot says Kananga ambush incident an ‘isolated case’

A very bad week for Philippine science

They killed him like cowards

Slain botanist also worked in Cordillera

Deputy commander of 8th ID says sanctions would be meted to soldiers if found responsible on death of 3 civilians

Leyte sets up ‘safety protocol’

Statement: Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Inc. calls for Justice for their late President Leonard Co

Candor hides grief over loss of admired botanist

Investigators set out to probe botanist’s death

Wife of slain forest guard seeks justice

But they still don’t know whose bullet killed botanist

Co probe mission off to Leyte

Citizen-based fact-finding mission off to probe botanist’s death

Cordillera NGOs mourn Co, salute him as ‘scientist of the people’

The irreplaceable ‘Sayang-tist’

Solons doubt botanist killed in crossfire, seek probe

9 firearms used in Kananga shooting turned over

UP forensic experts to autopsy slain botanist’s companions

De Lima orders probe of botanist’s death

Police probers point to ‘NPA presence’ in botanist’s death

No crossfire

Cordillera NGOs mourn Co, salute him as ‘scientist of the people’

Botanist’s case not isolated, says health group

No apologies offered for death of civilians

Leonard Co, son of UP, is home

Lopez group mourns slay of top botanist, 2 others

“Killing of the Philippines’ top botanist, Leonardo L. Co: another case of shoot first, ask questions later?” — KARAPATAN

Groups Say Impunity in Human Rights Violations Resulted in the Killing of Renowned Botanist

Kin of farmers killed with botanist demand impartial probe

Leonardo Co

Military knew Leonard Co was in the area – EDC

‘Slain UP botanist a rare species’

Agham calls for independent probe into Co’s killing

Who really killed leading botanist?

Slain botanist heard begging for mercy

‘Gunfire came from one direction’

Family doubts botanist killed in crossfire

Leyte ‘crossfire’ survivor: I did not hear exchange of gunfire

Rebels, military in blame game over killing of top botanist

‘Bullets did not come from soldiers,’ says AFP commander on crossfire casualties

NDF-EV condemns yet another 19th IB massacre claiming the lives of a distinguished scientist and his two assistants

Cayetano seeks independent probe into botanist’s death



Tribute to the slain botanist, Leonardo Co:

Tragic loss amid climate of impunity

A revolutionary tribute to a true people’s scientist-CPDF (NDF)

Biodiversity Heroes

Leonard, the ‘plant philanderer,’ lies among his treasures

The death of a scientist

In praise of good men

Thanks, Professor Co

Leonard Co (1953-2010), Filipino botanist

Work of Leonard Co on medicinal plants

In Memoriam: Leonardo L. Co (1953-2010),  by Jerry Gracio on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 1:36am

Leonard Co (1953-2010), Filipino botanist

Remembering Leonard Co

Leonard Co: Naming the plants, planting the seeds

Ang kahalagahan ng ginagawa ni Professor Leonardo Co

Leonard Co: Scientist for the People

UP’s plant-man extraordinaire

In memory of Dr. Daniel Lagunzad and Leonard Co

In Memoriam: Leonard Co (1953-2010)

A botanists’ legacy

Leonardo Co

Facebook Page: Leonardo L. Co: In Memoriam

AAA and human rights

The American Anthropological Association made a commendable stand on the human rights situation in Honduras. The AAA commited to push the Obama administration on the following points:

1. Acknowledge and condemn the human rights violations that have been committed by the de facto government in Honduras since the June 28, 2009 coup d’ etat;
2. Give support to progressive forces in Honduras striving to create a real democracy and provide support not received from the international community;
3. Work with allied countries to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the ongoing crisis in Honduras; and
4. Join other Latin American countries in withholding recognition of individuals selected in a subsequent election held November 29, 2009

The resolution’s approval reveals AAA’s commitment to an engaged and reflexive anthropological practice. Social scientists should not just stand idly by, record observations, and do “fieldwork” as if imprisonment and political persecution happening in their research area are mere chapters in a book project.

AAA has set a good example for other anthropological associations who are mired in political paralysis due to paeans to “scientific objectivity” and “disciplinary boundaries,” or too dazed in the ultra-relativizing impact of the postmodernist critique.

When the Maguindanao massacre happened, some Philippine social science associations refused to make a stand because the issue is “beyond the purview of the discipline” or, worse, stayed mum just because. One prominent archaeologist implied that the issue–the deadliest in our electoral history–is for journalists to cover and not a concern for archaeologists.

Though I am not a member of AAA, I am hoping that US-based anthropologists, whose research interest is in the Philippines, will bring the dismal human rights situation in my country for AAA discussion–more so, in the light of the recent illegal arrest of the Morong 43.

Free the Morong 43

To know more about the Morong 43 issue, please click here

On the Maguindanao Massacre

On that eventful day of November 23, I went cold when I got the news that one of the 57 massacre victims was Atty. Cynthia Oquendo, a fellow activist, friend, and mother. The last time I saw her was when we had a small gathering a few weeks before: sharing a few drinks and friendly banters over sisig and crispy pata with a few college friends.

There was never any indication that that would be the last time I would see Cynthia, no black butterfly hovering around nor stories of goodbyes that in Cebuano folklore denotes a discreet premonition of one’s passing. We were there gathered, partaking of the cozy warmth of shared memories and the usual fare of how-are-yous sprinkled with a dose of political rhetoric. It was a nice albeit short night.

Many weeks later, there she was plastered on the frontpage: her voice muffled forever, body riddled with bullets, covered in dirt, dumped with 56 other bodies in a shallow grave dug using the Maguindanao provincial government’s backhoe. Brutalized. Dehumanized.

I browsed through various online analyses to understand the morbid logic behind these deaths and all other victims of political violence. I wanted to understand because in less than ten years, I have lost friends through a murderer’s barrel, Cynthia among them. There was Marvin Marquez, a youth activist and my son’s godfather, felled by sniper bullets in the hinterlands of Bohol. Another was Rev. Edison Lapuz, a human rights defender and an occasional house visitor, brutally assassinated while relaxing in his father’s house. There were also farmer-leader friends like Mayong Auxilio and Victor Olayvar, whom I met during my days as an agrarian reform volunteer, killed while preaching peasant rights to landless farmers.

Grief did gnaw at the soul for every passing of a dear friend. It made me reflect on this monster of a social structure that breeds and coddles sociopaths.

According to Mike Dobbie of the International Federation of Journalists: The Maguindanao massacre “is a culmination of the decades-long culture of impunity, where it’s been okay to kill journalists and nothing will ever happen — there will be no prosecution, there will be no trial..” Extrajudicial executions have been so rampant that the United Nations sent a team to investigate. In a 2007 report, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said that:

Since 2001 the number of politically motivated killings in the Philippines has been high and the death toll has mounted steadily. These killings have eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists, and land reform advocates, as well as many others on the left of the political spectrum. Of particular concern is the fact that those killed appear to have been carefully selected and intentionally targeted. The aim has been to intimidate a much larger number of civil society actors, many of whom have, as a result, been placed on notice that the same fate awaits them if they continue their activism. One of the consequences is that the democratic rights that the people of the Philippines fought so hard to assert are under serious threat.

The murders however went unabated even with strong international and local pressure exerted on the Arroyo government. From January to October of 2009 alone, KARAPATAN, a human rights organization, reported 78 extrajudicial killings of journalists and political activists raising the total to 1,119 victims under the Arroyo administration. For KARAPATAN, the blame squarely lies on the shoulders of the government:

In the first place, the massacre would not have happened had the AFP stopped supporting vigilantes and militiamen which it conveniently appropriates for its counter-insurgency program. It would not have happened had the PNP been serious in disbanding and dis-arming private armies as its billboard at Osmeña Boulevard brags. It would not have happened had the Gloria government junked the rule of the gun and its militarist Oplan Bantay Laya…These practices spawned a culture of lawlessness and worsening human rights violations across the land. Local warlords, like their national counterparts, impose their will as laws over their dominion. Worse, law enforcers, including military commanders, become warlords too.

Analysts point to a ‘weak’ or a ‘failed’ state as the structural cause for these deaths. Local elites like the Ampatuans ensure the political survival of national elites in exchange for largesse from the national coffer. To sustain this parasitism, any threat is muffled with weapons siphoned off from corrupt military brass. News reports relay that the Ampatuans maintain a weapons cache that could arm three full-sized battalions, replete with 60-mm mortars, machine guns, explosives, recoilless rifles, AK 47s, among others.

Truth be told, wherever political dynasties reign, a clan-owned military-supplied armory can surely be found. It comes as no surprise then that the massacre happened during the election period. Elections are often imagined as democratic exercises, instead these have become catalysts for intensified, and often violent, elite competition.

With Malacanang-pampered tinpot dictators spread all across the archipelago, the Ampatuan massacre will not be the last. Let’s just pray that no one we know will be the next victim. Again.