It was a spectacle that Julieta Gomez had become deeply familiar with: the pistol muzzle fixed on her forehead, the mob of men clad in all black, and the incessant flash of their mobile phones. It was an uncanny reflection of the surveillance, harassment, and pillaging that characterized the daily patrols of the soldiers who terrorized her hometown.
On July 16, 2021, 25 police officers ambushed a hut in Barangay Pansol, Quezon City to arrest Gomez and fellow Caraga-based Lumad activist Niezel Velasco. The two were pressed with raps of murder and attempted murder. They were already handcuffed when a number of M4 rifles and other incriminating paraphernalia were planted inside the bungalow to lend more weight to their alleged crimes.
Karapatan Caraga slammed the absurdity of the charges pressed against the two. The saturation of military checkpoints scattered across the barangay should have immediately flagged the illegal equipment the two were supposedly carrying, the group said.
The nearly two years of jail time that Gomez has served has revealed to her the character of a state that goes through great lengths just to erase indigenous peoples’ stake over their own land.
Gomez, 42, is a Lumad-Manobo born to parents who held official positions in their barangay at Agusan del Sur. She was 15 years old when her friend invited her to a progressive organization, which introduced her to the throes of the Lumad conflict.
Behind the Caraga region’s status as the mining capital of the country lies the unsavory practices endemic to the area. Taganito Mining Corporation, one of the big-name prospectors in the local mining and quarrying industry, withheld royalties due to Surigao del Norte’s Mamanwa tribe for nickel exploration in their ancestral lands. Nickel Asia, of which Taganito is a subsidiary, deployed paramilitary groups to expel Lumads throughout Mindanao from their villages.
Gomez’s development work is an unequivocal counterattack against such oppression. In 2010, as a member of the Kahugpongan sa mga Lumadnong Organisasyon sa Caraga (KASALO Caraga), she took part in a campaign hosted by multiple indigenous tribes lobbying for a one-percent royalty from the profits generated by mining operations. From then on, Gomez placed herself at the helm of numerous community barricades and protests.
All the while, she was serving as a volunteer teacher at the Sildap-Sidlakan Lumad school. Under a Mindanao thronged both by the henchmen of mining kingpins and the goons of counterinsurgency groups, her work was a life-threatening endeavor. Although their curricula only bear practical and scientific learning outcomes, Lumad schools are continually flagged as breeding grounds of rebellion–assertions that usually precede ransacking and marauding by the military.
The 2015 killing of Emerico Samarte, former director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, and the massacre of volunteer teachers Chad Booc and Gelejurain Ngujo II in 2022 are a looking glass into the plight faced by Lumad school teachers.
As an organizer who traversed these difficulties for 27 years, Gomez has cemented her place at the forefront of the struggle for indigenous peoples’ self-determination; she has acted as the treasurer of KASALO Caraga, Provincial Focal Person of the National Anti-Poverty Commission for Agusan del Sur, wherein she safeguarded the Lumad’s stake in the Local Government Unit’s decision-making processes. She was also coordinator for the Katribu Indigenous Peoples Party-list on the day of her arrest.
Yet, these positions only attracted more heat toward her name. On occasion, when she still worked in Mindanao, she would be notified that a case had been filed against her in the local court, the most severe of which was kidnapping and illegal detention. She also made repeat appearances in tarpaulins spread across Butuan City labeling her a high-profile terrorist.
The militarization of Mindanao has been a mainstay of every administration’s policy-making track record, as evinced in Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya,Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, and Duterte’s Executive Order 70, all of which injected entire garrisons of military men into the region. This only shows how anxious the state is to neutralize all spaces for dissent from a people whom they deem as a hurdle to the actualization of their interests.
In aiming a pistol at a helpless, unarmed woman, Gomez’s assailants were not only able to mirror the miseries she has weathered as a Lumad organizer. They also painted a portrait of the state-sanctioned subjugation of the entire Mindanao region. Gomez has gleaned much wisdom through her activism, but the events of her arrest taught her something new: that no matter how far from home she may be, she can never be separate from the battles of her people. ●
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