At around 8 o’clock in the morning of July 31, two helicopters carrying US trainors of the RP-US “Balance Piston” in Camp Lucero, some five kilometers away, hovered near the home of fifty-three year old Saldia Abu, a mother of seven. The sound of the helicopters frightened Saldia. Her face turned pale and her body trembled, recalled her youngest daughter Neneng. “It’s war again, we have to pack up. But I can’t run anymore, I feel too weak and old to run,” Neneng quoted her mother as saying.
Fifty-three year old Saldia Abu, mother of seven, became a widow in her early 40s. A very hardworking woman, she raised her children by tilling a parcel of land here, growing corn, bananas and vegetables. She shares with the landowner the proceeds of her harvest from the farm on a percentage basis.
After a backbreaking work in the farm, Saldia would spend evenings weaving mats and baskets to augment her income. She was an expert basket maker.
At around 8 o’clock in the morning of July 31, two helicopters carrying US trainors of the RP-US “Balance Piston” in Camp Lucero, some five kilometers away, hovered near her home. The helicopters landed at about one o’clock in a cornfield, destroying the crops of Esmael Ambag, with fully armed soldiers jumping out.
The sound of the helicopters frightened Saldia. Her face turned pale and her body trembled, recalled her youngest daughter Neneng. “It’s war again, we have to pack up. But I can’t run anymore, I feel too weak and old to run,” Neneng quoted her mother as saying.
Out of fear, Saldia decided to move over to Barangay Pebpuluan with her two children and her 12 month-old grandchild that same afternoon.
Carmen is an infamous conflict area, home to the notorious Ilaga vigilante group decades ago and a stronghold of the Bangsamoro fighters. The Ilaga was composed of settlers who fought Moro communities in Carmen.
The fighting in the early 1970s had gone down to communal violence as ordinary civilians took up arms to defend themselves. Ilaga vigilantes cut off the ears of their enemies as a trademark of their fighting prowess. In retaliation, the Maguindanaons in Carmen also formed their own group called
Barracudas to fight the Ilagas.
Members of Saldia’s family and neighbors were victims of the Manili Masacre of 1971, a tragedy which until now is carried in the collective memories of Carmen residents.
Residents of Carmen, including Saldia’s relatives, attended a meeting inside a mosque in Barangay Manili, upon the invitation of the now defunct Philippine Constabulary. While inside the mosque, members of the Philippine Constabulary reportedly threw grenades on the people inside, treacherously claiming the lives of about 80 innocent civilians. A survivor of the Manili massacre recalled that the perpetrators shot those who were still alive, including young children who were tagged along by their mothers.
As a widow, Saldia carried all her children to safety in the evacuation center in November 1999 and the Estrada administration’s “all-out war” in 2000. With a meager supply of relief goods, Saldia continued her weaving and selling mats and baskets in the evacuation center in Damulog, Bukidnon.
At around this time, Saldia had developed a heart condition, complaining of chest pains, nervousness and severe headache. She also suffered from ulcer and fatigue.
The helicopters and the arrival of soldiers frightened Saldia. She evacuated to Barangay Pebpuluan, some three kilometers east of Manarapan, on a carabao sled, to escape from what she thought would be another war in her own community. When she arrived there, her condition had worsened.
Saldia’s relatives who were also residents of Manarapan said barangay leaders informed them US and Filipino troops were coming to the village for a medical-dental mission in August. No one expected them to come on July 31, fully armed and on board Huey helicopters.
Saldia suffered chest pain, stomach ache and severe headache. She was so nervous. She had previously consulted a doctor who diagnosed her of heart ailment, ulcer and fatigue.
She died on a Tuesday, August 3, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, three days after the helicopters hovered near her home.
Aisa Bandila, said they could not blame the helicopters and the US troops for the death of her mother-in-law, Saldia. They could not have caused it because Saldia had already been sick even before the troops came. But the helicopters surely hastened her death, Aisa said. “She could have survived longer, maybe one month or two months more but her trauma of the many wars she had witnessed in Carmen was just too much for a tired old woman like Saldia,” she said.
When it was over, the military training exercises in Carmen claimed the lives of at least two persons – an army corporal who was killed in an accidental firing by his buddy inside their quarters in Camp Lucero and Saldia, the Moro civilian who had survived previous wars but had had enough of them.