Davao Del Norte, Philippines – Up on the verdant mountains of Talaingod, a young pig squeals as four men grab its legs and a freshly sharpened bolo readies to slash its throat.
Dahosay Ansam-on, 77, utters a prayer to the Magbabaya, or the “supreme being” in Ata Manobo language. As they return to their homes, the villagers hope to live in peace.
It’s been a month since Ansam-on was reunited with villagers who fled when armed men threatened to set a school on fire in retaliation for the death of a relative killed by communist rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA).
Vivien Pepito, one of the school’s teachers, could not forget her ordeal on the night of July 6, when those men knocked violently at the door of a staff house where she and her family lives.
“They wanted to get in,” she told Al Jazeera. “I cried for help so the villagers could come to our rescue.”
Bringing spears and arrows, villagers drove away the men. Locals call them Alamara, a paramilitary group with alleged ties to the Philippine military blamed for attacking tribal communities in Talaingod and other towns in the province of Davao del Norte in the southern Philippines, according to Human Rights Watch.
The next morning, villagers said the men also wanted to kill Pepito and her husband, Jessie, who teaches at the same school. Over the next few days, the community, many of them parents of Pepito’s pupils, guarded the teachers and the school. Eventually, many decided to flee the village.
The Alamara men accuse Pepito and other teachers of being members of the NPA, alleging the school also promotes the group’s communist ideology to pupils.
In the same month, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte made a formidable threat: that he would bomb community schools that sympathised with communist fighters. He alleged these schools operate without government permits.
Soon after, the Philippine military accused Pepito’s school, Salugpongan, of serving as a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the NPA, local media reported.
Months later in September, one of the school’s pupils, Obillo Bay-ao, was shot allegedly by the same men who harassed Pepito and the other teachers.
As tensions rose, villagers fled and sought shelter in Davao City, where a Protestant church assists indigenous peoples caught in fighting between government troops and leftist fighters.
An estimated 3,000 indigenous people fled starting in 2014 because of attacks by militiamen.
Located in Sitio Dulyan in the town of Talaingod, Salugpongan is more than 100km away from Davao City. Villagers take a 30-minute kidney-jarring trip on an off-road motorbike from the mountains down to the plains before embarking on another trip to Tagum City in Davao del Norte, eventually leading them to Davao City.
The bike trip alone costs about $10, an amount that could go a long way if spent on food, said Pepito who has been teaching Ata Manobo children for three years now.
Pepito and her husband went to the same university where they first met. After a series of assignments as students in the community, the couple decided to volunteer as teachers here as soon as they finished their education.
“I grew up having biases against minorities. When I met these people, things changed,” said Jessie.
Pushed to the margins
Salugpongan – or the Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center – was established in 2003. It was created to empower the Ata Manobo people who are no strangers to turmoil.
In the early 1990s, their leaders initiated a tribal war against a logging company that wanted to enter Talaingod.
In response to rising calls the protect the minority, former President Fidel V Ramos signed into law the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, which led to the creation of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, an organisation often criticised for failing to serve the people it was mandated to look after.
Mindanao was annexed into the Philippines through the 1898 Treaty of Paris even though the American colonial government, and the Spaniards, never conquered the island.
Since then, waves of migrations from the northern Philippines have pushed indigenous tribes to settle into the hinterlands as the newcomers found homes on the plains.
Which is why the Ata Manobo people, like other minorities in the Philippines, often take it on themselves when it comes to matters concerning their ancestral land. Unfortunately, when they stage protests demanding the government to protect their rights, the military calls these efforts communist “propaganda”.
Maria Victoria Maglana, a development worker and human rights advocate, debunks this idea.
“The view that the Talaingod Manobos are being used is premised on the ultimately derogatory mindset that the Lumads (indigenous people) do not know what they are doing and that they are ignorant and gullible,” Maglana wrote in a newspaper column.
On that Sunday morning, children and their parents dashed towards the man with the pig’s blood. They dipped their fingers into a basin and hurriedly drew red crosses on their foreheads. They say the blood will protect the villagers from the Alamara and the military, and that they will no longer come back.
“When they’re here our lives are only put into trouble,” Pepito says.
Hours later, back in the lush mountains of Talaingod, the sacrifice is turned into a feast. People plucked banana leaves and took turns in shoving food onto their makeshift plates.
For now, says Pepito, as long as the troops and Alamara militiamen are far from the school, the villagers can live in peace.