Friday, March 09, 2012

The Red Earth

The earth wept muddy tears the day after they killed Fr. Fausto Tentorio.
Huge balefuls of rainwater poured in from the sky, turning the dirt road of the neighbouring town of Antipas into a raging brown river, as if heaven itself was angry over the death of the Italian priest and the irretrievable loss it meant to the village.
The white van splashed through mud and gooey dirt, giving us a fleeting glimpse of rain-soaked wooden shacks through the window. Along the way, it felt like wading neck-deep through sorrow itself.
But this was only in Antipas, for in the town of Arakan, where his convent stood witness to his murder, the sun shone so fiercely it could burn the soul dry.
Pebbles and rocks turned death white along the road, hot as an oven, as we passed by an army detachment guarding the town’s entry.
Fr. Fausto was killed between seven to eight o’clock on October 17, 2011; a Monday, while a flag ceremony was in progress at the school ground across the church compound. When we arrived the day after, people were staring at the spot of red earth where the priest’s blood had dried underneath his car, some shred of broken glass the telltale signs of the incomprehensible violence that had shocked the whole town, the whole country and the world, prompting the Italian Ambassador himself to openly speak during the priest's burial against the prevailing state of impunity in the Philippines.
But here in the compound of the Mother of Perpetual Help parish, people were talking about the gunman and a waiting motorcycle; and what sorrow and what anguished and what outrage the tandem had left behind by killing Fr. Fausto, or Fr. Pops as he was called here, who must have probably been ducking his head to enter the car, when the gunman pulled the trigger, and the waiting motorcycle started revving its engine at a distance, the gunman sprinting toward it.
Women were debating about what particular time this thing could have happened. Was it seven or eight o’clock? Probably eight? one of the women guessed, because school teachers were saying their flag ceremony started late that day.
“Uhh, it could have already been past eight o’clock,” murmured an old woman, who showed me a handkerchief full of the reddish earth she scooped from where the priest’s body had lain, soaked in his own blood.
The woman said she was going to bring the bloody earth with her, a remembrance of Pops. She was a friend of Old Rosita, the cook, who did not hear the shot, not any shot at all, she said, shaking her head, the wrinkles around her eyes giving her a tired, exhausted look; her mouth gaping.
Old Rosita, the cook, was going out to throw the garbage when she saw a body lying beneath the priest’s car. She thought it was the driver trying to fix the engine. When she saw it was Pops, she thought it was a heart attack. Alarmed, she tried to lift the priest, and that was how the priest’s blood poured all over her.
Napundo, she said, referring to how the blood must have pooled around the priest’s chest after he was felled by bullets. “I called but no one came for help,” she said. She was a thin delicate woman of about seventy and her short hair was streaked with white. She shivered when she recalled the amount of blood all over her body. “It was here, all over me,” she said, shaking.
She said it took a while for the police to come. When they took him to the hospital, she would have gone along with them, too, except that she was a total mess, Pops’ blood dripping through her clothes from neck down. She couldn’t probably go to town that way, she said, shaking her head again.
They said he was a priest not content to just say mass when his people was in danger. Someone recalled an encounter between government troops and NPA guerrillas in one of the villages of Arakan, where one or two NPA guerrillas were killed. The story went that the soldiers held on to the body of the NPA fighter, zealously guarding it so that anyone who dared come close to claim it, was considered the next target. No one dared come out to claim the body. Fr. Fausto did. He sent word to the soldiers the church will take the body to give it proper burial and arranged for the barangay officials to take the body itself.
The old woman said some policemen and soldiers were in the school ground the morning Fr. Fausto was killed. There was a “bayanihan” at the school ground and soldiers were there supposedly to help the parents.
Fr. Pops was already dead when they reached Antipas. The whole town mourn for the death of the priest.

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