Looking For Right And Wrong In The Philippines

My Uncle Pepo didn’t want to take us to the farm. It was too dangerous, he said, and he didn’t want me kidnapped on my first trip back to the Philippines in 22 years.

Our family had owned the farm since the end of World War II, when the US government granted the land to my great-grandfather for his service as a guerrilla fighter resisting the Japanese occupation. Uncle Pepo, my mother’s cousin, a dentist of modest means, was the farm’s de facto manager because he lived closer to it than anyone else in the family. From his home in Iligan City, a bustling industrial town on the northern tip of Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, the farm was less than an hour’s drive up the mountains and into the jungle. Yet even Uncle Pepo hadn’t been there in years.

With eight major languages spoken across its 7,000-plus islands, the Philippines is a fragmented place, and even the dangers vary by region. On the northern island of Luzon, communist insurgents attack from base camps hidden in the mountains. In the Visayas, a cluster of touristic islands in the center of the country, military forces recently warded off an attempted terrorist attack by Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist group pledging allegiance to ISIS. In Mindanao, the threat comes from the Islamist rebel groups determined to form an independent state for the country’s Muslim minorities.

These rebels carry on a war that their ancestors had waged for centuries, resisting the Spanish colonizers who arrived in 1521 and the American occupiers of the early 20th century. In 1989, the Philippine government granted the rebels partial autonomy over a crescent of land along the eastern coast of Mindanao. Today, the region is a hub of militant activity. Communist guerrillas, Muslim separatist rebels, and jihadist terrorist groups have all made base in the area. The fighting got so bad this May that President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the entire island of Mindanao.

My Uncle Pepo and other locals consider the rebel-controlled land off-limits, and the area just outside its border a danger zone. Our farm sits 5 miles from that border.

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