September 8, 2008, Barangay Tee, Datu Piang, Maguindanao, in the Philippines. The sky was cloudy.
Mandi Bangkong, a resident of Barangay Tee, felt unusually cold for the monsoon season has already started. He was sitting on a bench with other men. His four young grandchildren were playing near the lake while the much older members of his household were preparing for the next meal.
AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) planes were hovering overhead. Mandi Bangkong felt an impending danger. He called his family to run to the lake and take the boats to find shelter in the other bunk. The children ran, covering their heads with their arms in the useless attempt to fend off bullets; the youngest boy crying, calling for his mother’s name.
100 meters above, one of the planes released two rockets aimed at the family of Mandi. Four of his grandchildren, one a pregnant teenager, died instantly of shrapnel and direct bullet hits, the other one died in the hospital while being desperately given first aid treatment. Their father, Daya Manunggal Mandi disappeared in the lake and was presumed to be dead.
Much has been said about military encounters. The properties damaged and individuals killed will remain unaccounted for, unnamed. Such is the character of war. These innocent individuals are pawns to these encounters – collateral damage.
“Unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment, or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces.” (United States Armed Forces Intelligence Targeting Guide)
My closest experience of war was when I was in my sixth grade seeing our town public market in a local television news program surrounded by tanks and military men. The fear that seeped through my senses during that time was beyond my ability to express. For being twelve years old, seeing with one’s eyes the possibility of death and the result of violence were too much for me to bear. And I just couldn’t imagine those whose lives remain lacking of peace because war chose their homeland to be its arena.
War might have gone cliché for some of us who have been constantly exposed to sloppy coverage of war in Mindanao by local news programs. But for those whose lives will be difficult to define outside the context of war – the children recruited to join rebel groups, the family of Mandi Bangkong, faceless and nameless victims of war in Mindanao living a life caught between crossfire, these clichéd portrayals of their lives will forever be unjustifiable.
Collateral damage, a bland and colorless word, will never fully capture the fear, lives lost, family separated all in the name of national security, national unity, national integrity. Behind these nightly television news about the war in Mindanao are lives whose stories are more compelling than the best documentaries ever produced but will remain hidden in numbers because seeing faces behind these numbers will just be too much to comprehend for an ordinary viewer who is comfortably sitting on a couch in a far-away Manila.
Collateral damage will not tell us about the young children who died because the Philippine army mistook them for rebels. Their bodies will not say anything about the atrocities that caused their deaths because they had to be buried, according to Muslin tradition, before sundown, denying them of any chance to be autopsied.
But who will care looking into the death of these victims. They are after all just the usual result of war – collateral damage.