The mournful chant reverberated through the small four walls of the hut…” Aieeeee” . Guinnaban - 9 at that time - was cowering in the eerie shadows and staring at the old woman wailing for the gaunt, pale corpse laid on the long table. The head of the corpse lay at a grotesque angle - nearly severed totally from his body.
“ Uma nangwa kansika anna?”” ( Who have done this to you?) she wailed even louder “Aiieeeeee”….. everyone joined in and the hut became a cacophony of mournful cries.
The barrio captain motioned to the elders for a conference and they filed outside, their faces, grim and murderous. There was a hubbub of angry and frenzied debate.
Finally the barrio captain raised his arm and said “ Intakkon no, umma uwayon yo, ittod tako kanida de kingwada” ( Then what are we waiting for, let’s avenge his death.)
And so a full blown “tribal war” has began.
Guinnaban, grew amidst these bloody chaos caused by two warring tribes who both wanted domination over the municipality. He accepted it as a way of life: the constant refuge in the deep forest even in the stillness of the night when the “enemy” had come to attack, the code of silence even when what he wanted was to wail at the injustice of it all; at age 10, he had stood as a sentinel on one of the night watches.
The “enemy” did not select their victims. Women and children were not spared by their avenging spears and bolos. Men had their head always severed from their bodies, as a symbol of victory. No one ventured outside their barrio’s perimeter unless escorted by warriors.
He was 12, when a Belgian, missionary priest , Fr. Carl Belucci, dared to trek to their far flung barrio. Everyone was wary of him. What did this white haired man with a long aquiline nose wanted with them? He was not the enemy surely but might he be a spy? No one wanted to welcome Fr. Belucci and his companion to their nipa huts.
Guinnaban could not explain what prompted him to approach the priest. “ You are not here to help us, are you?” he queried with big round eyes.
“I am here not only to help, “ he said in his soft, mellow voice; and Guinnaban believed him.
At his age, he had a keen perception of people's characters. His judgment of strangers had an amazing accuracy, and he did this just by looking at their eyes. He knew, the priest was his salvation.
From then on, Guinnaban served as the altar boy in each Holy Mass the priest celebrated. He began to learn that there was salvation for everyone, even his enemies.
The elders however, were too far gone to forgive and forget whatever the sins of the past were, and continued with their thirst for vengeance.
Some younger men pleaded with the elders to forge a peace pact with the other tribe to end the senseless war.
They started proceedings but it seemed that their efforts were futile, there was still no vestige of reconciliation. It was at that time that Fr. Belucci was called back to the parish church in town as it was becoming increasingly dangerous for him to stay on in the barrio.
“Do you want to come with me?” Fr. Belucci asked Guinnaban, two days before his scheduled departure.
“You can continue serving as an altar boy and can go to school simultaneously.”
“But what about ina and ama?” Guinnaban wanted to go but feared for the safety of his parents.
“They can come with you.” The old priest patted his head.
So on that gloomy, Monday morning, Guinnaban and his parents got what little was left of their belongings and joined Fr. Belucci on his 5 hr-trek to town.
As soon as they have arrived in town, he was baptized to Christianity by Fr. Belucci and had been named Benedict, after St. Benedict. He liked the name Benedict. For him, it symbolizes hope and courage. The church people started calling him - Benny.
The abrupt change of environment had made him and his family uncomfortable at first. There were moments he thought he would prefer going back to the barrio.
“Hey, what’s your name?” one tall, gangly boy, motioned to Guinnaban.
“Benedict” he replied.
“Benedict? That's a fancy name, huh? Far from your ugly, Kalinga name.” and the group would roar with laughter.
“ Let’s see if you can live up to your name, “ laughing, they left him speechless, at the center of the school’s quadrangle.
Scenes like these had been common in his first days in school.
They always picked on him and made fun of him. “Here’s the native,” they would taunt and ridicule him; but as days laboriously passed , it was evident he had bested them all in any category. Be it in Mathematics, English, Literature, or Music, he had an eye and a heart for all these.
He was the Grand Champion in the Math Quiz bee, the Spelling Bee and had won the Short Story Writing Contest sponsored by the English Society. He then earned their respect and admiration.
And every single one of them started calling him Benny - even those who had belittled him from the start .
He graduated from St Theresa’s College as the high school class Valedictorian of ‘ 67, with all 6 medals: His gold for academic excellence, his leadership award, his Insular Life gold, Best in math, Best in English and Most Outstanding graduate.
The years went by in a flash for Benny. He was 17 and in college.
He was in physical torment. His face was numb. He could not even feel the blast of the gelid air into his naked body. His face was bloated and he had difficulty opening his eyes. When he moved a muscle, his entire body screamed with pain.
“ Where are the others?” the sweaty, smelly face of the man was inches from his own.
All Benny could do was to shake his head. He had no idea what the man was asking. There was a slap to his face as he was slipping again into unconsciousness. “ Tell me where the others are!” When he could not answer, another blow landed and he gratefully slipped into a dreamless "sleep".
He and three others were arrested for illegal assembly. He was elected as the President of the University’s Student Council and they were conducting a meeting to resolve a “tribal war” that was brought to the city and had began to disrupt the university students’ safety.
He knew that it was an unspoken rule that warring tribes should make the cities off limits. This was respected by both tribes, but some scalawags had only vengeance foremost in their minds, and they had attempted to murder a young, innocent boy, who knew nothing of it , but just had the misfortune to belong to Benny's tribe.
It was martial law at that time, and any assembly, was considered a threat to national security. They were caught and detained without any warrants of arrest and tortured to reveal supposedly very important communist agenda.
In his bouts of consciousness and unconsciousness Benny had a striking thought . If these soldiers would continue what they are doing right then, he would definitely join the ranks of the red, and this made him smile inwardly.
It was on the third day that Fr. Belucci came and had brought him to the hospital. Even priests were suspected of being communist supporters, for Fr. Belucci was not spared. He was brusquely frisked like anyone before he entered the camp premises. What kind of society is our country turning to? Benny thought.
College life had been a tremendous challenge for Benny. Being from the cultural minority, he encountered the same ridicule and scorn he had experienced during high school. The only difference was that, he was no longer bothered.
Just like in high school, when his peers realized that he was a brilliant and talented student, they accorded him respect and admiration. Women adored his exceptional humility in spite of all the feathers on his cap.
His parents and Fr. Belucci had always been very supportive of him.
TO BE CONTINUED...