By Charmaine Mae “Xx” Dagapioso-Baconga
“Death is end of life, but not of relationship!”
This is one of the statements Prof. Morrie Schwartz shared to his student Mitch Albom during one of the Tuesdays they had together doing their final thesis that was later to be known to the world as “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
For me, Schwartz’s statement is an allegory to what the struggle of building peace is at present. I, as a young and novice peace and development worker, consider myself one of the many people of the present millennium who have continued the struggle for equity, development, and peace, which have been pursued by people of the past decades, centuries, and even during biblical times. They had taken the path long ago, shed blood and tears — of joy and of sorrow, of victories and of failures. They had died, but “their” aspirations of equity, development and peace is our connection with them. It may have been the past, but it is what binds us still with the relationship amongst people who envision Peace, and are envisioning still the Peace for the present and for the future generations.
Ten years ago, in 1998, was the time when I was one of those young community development workers awaiting the coming of two of the most known alternative lawyers to give inputs on electoral reforms and at the same time provide a discussion on the updates of the MAPALAD struggle then (at present, they are more known collectively as the Sumilao farmers).
The lawyers were Bob Gana and Caloy Ollado. Who were they? From my point of view, and from how I had known them, they were two people challenged by the situation of our country, where people have to constantly deal with injustice, poverty, landlessness, and unpeace. As challenged as they were, they never pursued the corporate world, like most of the alternative lawyers and development and peace workers who opt not going to the corporate world, instead struggling with the marginalized sectors in their quest for justice, equity, development and peace.
Bobby Gana was a tall, Tsinoy, lanky guy who wore eyes glasses and with his usual blue pants, checkered polo or white t-shirt and a pair of rubber shoes (kung fu style if I remember). My first encounter with him was during the paralegal seminar in Bukidnon at the KAANIB training center. Cindy, a fellow SIADO then, and I were the documenters in that training way back November 1997. I was tasked to bring him to the training in time for his session on labor law. True enough, Kaka’s description of him, as I described above, fitted him perfectly.
We rode on a van going to Sumilao and took a habal-habal (motorcycle with extended seats to accommodate more people) in going to the training center. We never had a long talk or even just a chat on that trip. I just introduced myself and was a bit shy to open up any conversation. Anyway, we arrived safely at the center and when it was his time to give his lecture, whoa, what an experience he had on the topic. His style of teaching was that of Paulo Freire’s popular education. He was exuberant in his session and was very much engaging. What surprised me most was his ice breaker, “Mga palaka, sa may sapa…..” He would sing and act and laugh.
What a spirited man. A tall and lanky guy that he was, he amused me of his “person”. It was during his sharing that I was challenged to take up law, and silently I said to myself I would like to become a lawyer like him. (Well, I never did take up law, but still dreaming of winning cases in life’s journey in the courts of reality – me versus myself.) Bobby being a person of great personality –a great teacher and a great lawyer – who wouldn’t be “idolizing” him? It was only at that time that I understood labor law, which helped me understand deeper the situation of the farm workers in Bukidnon. On the eve of the socials, he sang his favorite song, “Even Now” of Barry Manilow. Kaka told me that he had just broken up with is girlfriend. That day, that moment that I finally met him in person, I was like a lovestruck student. Though he was not the tall, dark and handsome man every young woman seems to be looking for, he was a special man nonetheless – full of dreams, full of life, and full of love to mankind.
Caloy Ollado, on the other hand, was different. He was quite a hunk of a guy. He would stand out against all the hunks present with his dark skin, toned body and enticing smile. I just knew him through Kaka, and stories of him about his struggle with the urban poor in the slums of Manila and how he was able to work in repelling the anti-squatting law in December 1997 with some lawyers. I also learned how caring he was to his colleagues, most especially to Kaka. Like Bob, Caloy was very close to Kaka. And on the day that I met him, it was then the time when he dropped by the office after the trip to Loreto, Dinagat Island, Surigao del Norte with Kaka. He was really a hunk, in white, hugging t-shirt, and ragged maong pants. He was so alive, full of jokes and full of visions of tomorrow’s generation. Any woman who wants to marry a hunk, a lawyer, and a fighter, Caloy would be number one on the list.
On February 2, 1998, all the staff of Balay Mindanaw Foundation, Inc. (BMFI) were gathered on this day. It was a Monday. We were having a staff assembly and a was having a staff development and discussion on electoral reforms, electoral engagement on the partylist system, and updating on the MAPALAD case. We were awaiting the coming of these two bachelor lawyers who were supposed to fly in from Manila at 10 o’clock in the morning. It was already way past 10, so we thought their flight was delayed. Until finally, we heard the news of a missing plane. Since the television at the Mindanao Formation House at that time was not working, Kaka, myself and Cindy went to the SHARP center beside the office to watch the news. It was then that we learned that Bob and Caloy’s plane disappeared after a brief stopover in Leyte.
Our hearts were pounding, sweat rolling down our foreheads. And then the confirming news came out — their Cebu Pacific flight crashed on Mt. Lumot, part of the mountain ranges of Balatukan in the areas of Gingoog City and Claveria. Our session was put off, all the cellular phones ringing, everybody calling somebody else, and the room was filled with contained emotions of fear of losing people – not ordinary people we know casually, but our very own colleagues. The real toll set in when we heard the news there were no survivors on that plane. But still hopes were high that they may still be alive.
We traveled to and fro, almost everyday to Claveria, at the converging area for rescue and communications in San Isidro, Aposkahoy, and in Mat-i. Rescuers from everywhere were all over. The first few days were full of excitement and hopes of meeting some of the passengers alive. Pictures of Bob and Caloy were given to rescuers and I could still remember I gave one to Nong Bobong, a paralegal up to this day, who was one of the volunteers who climbed that slippery mountain. The days passed, and a week later, helicopters were already bringing body bags. Reality set in. All aboard flight 387 died. Family members shared stories of people aboard the plane calling their loved ones with their cell phones just before the crash.
Eventually, we stopped going to and fro Claveria. People were now trooping to Dynasty Court right in downtown Cagayan de Oro, where relatives of the passengers were met by Cebu Pacific personnel. The call for identification of the bodies, or whatever parts were found, were already scheduled. Kaka, Kaloy, Doc G, a brother of Caloy, and others (whom I cannot remember anymore) went to the airport tarmac and were met by the gruesome view of bodies laid down the pavement for identification. I may not have seen it, but I can feel it every time all of us meet and talk and share memories of the people whom many adored, respected and loved. The office, too, was transformed into a place of rescue, of counseling, and even became a mini restaurant. It was a place of celebrating the lives lived by the two, and of mourning their loss. It was painful. It was gruesome. It was unthinkable. I cannot anymore write every single detail into this article. But deep within, I said to myself, some may just be kept within me.
This is my account of the many stories of Flight 387. I did not have a very direct relationship with Bob and Caloy as officemates nor friends nor special friends. But I seemed to have known them prior to meeting them in person through Kaka, Kaloy, Normie and others who have worked closely with them. And still, I could say that I can still claim that their death has a great impact on my life. Why? Their aspirations of hope and struggle for the marginalized people were shared to me, to us at Balay Mindanaw, to the MAPALAD farmers, and to all whom they have met and have worked with. I was awed by their life stories and yet, when I was still learning from them, they left this world without telling us goodbye. If it was not because of us, they may not have taken that flight and they are likely to be alive till this day. But the reality is, they are not anymore in this world.
There have been many cases won by the paralegals and lawyers on agrarian reform, many advocacies have been made and many stories have been published on small victories. But there are many cases still to be fought – in the courts, in Congress, in the streets, in the mountains, in the lands.
Till this day, I could still hear Bob’s voice singing “Mga palaka….” and hear Caloy’s voice cajoling Kaka to become mayor of Loreto on the night they arrived from a visit there. I could still see vividly that penmanship of Bob on the whiteboard — big, round strokes where he wrote “labor law,” and the naughty glitter of Caloy’s eyes teasing Kaka.
What else could I see?
People still struggling, people still marching the streets, people still hoping that the land could be theirs, when it is really theirs… People are still continuing the journey of attaining justice on their landlessness, despite the loss of these two great lawyers. Their visions of a just and equitable society still live on, and the fight that they fought still continues.
Could I say that their lives whom they have shared with us, workers and farmers alike, were wasted by their death? I don’t think so. They still are in our hearts, our minds, and in our lives. They may have died, their bodies broken, but not their visions and hopes and aspirations — these bonded us with them, the relationship still continues… And that is still why, we keep on reminiscing their lives and keep on going to Claveria to celebrate the lives they have lived and the struggle that is still being struggled.
Like the song Bob often sang, “Even now,” and it goes:
Even now when I have come so far
(Yep, we have come so far in the struggle with the farmers)
I wonder where you are
(we know you are just there, in a quite place)
I wonder why it’s still so hard without you
(It may have been hard with out you both, but you keep us going still)
Even now when I come shining through
(We are shining through despite the pains of walking the road less traveled)
I swear I think of you
(We do…not yearly-but in our hearts)
And how I wish you knew
(I know, you know)
(Until now- Bob and Caloy)
When I never hear your name
(I remember my memoirs of you)
And the world has changed so much since you been gone
(Indeed, it has changed so much—more cases, more people)
Even now I still remember and the feeling’s still the same
(The fire is still burning)
And the pain inside of me goes on and on
(The pain is still healing)
I swear I think of you
(We don’t have to swear – we really are living your legacy)
And God I wish you knew
(I feel you both knew)
Like Mitch and Morrie, their thesis has already been written and published and has taught many people, most especially me, that death never breaks the cord that keep our bond strong.
Bob and Caloy, we are still writing the thesis of life’s journey for equity and justice for everyone else here in Mindanao, for the Philippines and for the world. It has been a decade already when you both struck upon us the reality that we can still move on and continue the journey. May peace be upon us all.
Thank you. Maraming Salamat. Daghang Salamat for always being with us!