Helen: A Childhood Among Terrorists
She came from a war-torn region called Mindanao, located in the Southern portion of the Philippines. A young mother with four young children at the age of 29, she impressed me at first sight like a typical Filipino house help. She stands at five feet five inches, with brown complexion, slim body and with an uninteresting face adorned with a flat nose typical to our race. I thought she is just ordinary until I listened to her story.
Helen’s parents are both Filipinos but of different religious background. Her father is a Catholic and the mother she has known is a Muslim. She told me that in her childhood, whenever she committed a fault, she was made to kneel down by her mother on small fragments of broken glasses. I was terribly shocked at this story. It was a common practice for Filipino parents in the past decades to punish and correct their erring children to kneel down for several minutes or several hours on mung beans or corn kernels spread on the floor. This is a vanishing form of punishment and now seldom practiced by present generation Filipino parents. To kneel on mung beans or corn kernels can still be a very hard bearable punishment, but to kneel on broken glasses– I could almost see Helen’s tender knees bleeding and she crying due to excruciating pain! I wonder what kind of a mother she has! Helen confided that she suspects that because of her mother’s cruelty to her, she might not be her biological mother. Her neighbors might be privy to this child abuse, but they are either uncaring or they did not know that this can be reported to proper authorities.
When she narrated to me how she witnessed her town mates being killed by bullets coming from the fightings of the Abu Sayaff (terrorists) and their opponents which are either Philippine military men or fellow Muslims, I noticed how calm and emotionless her voice was. Even when she was talking of a 12-year old schoolmate who died during the fight, there was not a trace of bitterness, only a hint of fright which was probably evoked at the thought of that incident. It sank on me that perhaps these fighting which are accepted as common occurrence in their place has made her callous to the misfortunes of others .She said that she and her family survived by fleeing and hiding behind big rocks during the fightings.
I asked how she and her family earned their living in Mindanao. She said that her family planted corn and rice. At the age of 11, she had to plow the field with the help of a carabao, a beast of burden similar to a cow, from 8 to 11 in the morning. After her graduation from elementary school, at the age of twelve, she was betrothed by her mother to a well-to-do man aged 54, old enough to be her grandfather. This is an arranged marriage practiced by some Filipino Muslims and non-obedience to this custom is considered a great offence by the child against her parents. Helen found this too repulsive and because of this she ran away to Manila with her cousin.
Manila, the capital city of the Philippines is a bustling commercial city, a place where many young maidens from the remote provinces of the Philippines think they will hit it big in life. But alas! In most cases, it turns out that instead of getting out of a miserable poverty-stricken life, their miseries become doubled if not tripled in this city which can be likened to a dangerous jungle. Uneducated women like Helen land in very low paying jobs, usually as maids of people who can sometimes treat them unfairly or cruelly. Many of them turn to prostitution when they can no longer bear their poverty and hardships in this city. Out of the five households where she worked in Manila, Helen told me that she only found one good boss. The rest did not treat her well. One boss even made passes at her so she left him and his family.
While in Manila, she experienced for the first time how to be happy. She fell in love at the age of 18. The man also came from the province and she thought this was somebody who is the answer to her prayers. During the first months of their live-in relationship, she was happy. Until she found out he was a womanizer. Still, she went on living with him until they had four children. Then the worst tragedy struck! Her eldest daughter who was five years old at that time was raped by their seventeen-year old neighbor. She told me she saw her daughter shivering with fright after the incident. Medical findings confirmed her worst fear that the rape really happened. The suspect now languishes in jail.
Her husband left her and their children to work in Manila. In the span of two years that he worked in Manila, all she received from him was 150 pesos or the equivalent of 3 dollars. This made her decide to work in order to feed her children. She left her four children in the village to a kind couple who takes care of them while she works with me. I allow her to visit her children every Sunday and she returns for work on Monday. Listening to her life story makes me admire her strength and resilience in the midst of life’s trials. And I start to realize how much luckier I am.