An eyewitness Account of Exodus 84
by Columban Fr. Robert Burke
This is about the Long March, or Exodus '84, to allow it a scriptural description, three days of torrid sun and long kilometers from Kabankalan to Bacolod , a distance of about ninety-five kilometers, or approximately sixty miles. I was there. A long line of marchers (numbering at the start more than 1500) carrying streamers and placards moved over a hot asphalt road like a colony of ants, twisting into curves, seemingly endless.
Leading the march were the people of Oringao, their parish priest a prisoner in the Bacolod Provincial Jail; behind them, the people from Tabugon, their shepherd a prisoner too. The two groups set a furious pace the first long day, as much as to say: We are coming, we are on the way! Stringing along behind them were groups from different parishes, carrying identifying banners to announce the Christian community and the parish of which they were members. I walked with the Bacuyangan group, thirty-five who had travelled one hundred kilometers north to Kabankalan to join the march.
A little about my group. The woman waling behind me wearing the conica, a Philippino straw hat, was a mother of eight, with little ones at home. Why was she here? The fellow just ahead of me, denim pants, a faded T-shirt, a crushed straw hat, his feet calloused and toes spread wide from long bare-footed walks in the mountain. What was his reason? The several teachers, still young, carrying banners, shouting with the rest. Why? The seventy-one-year-old catechist, dressed in back carrying her own bag with a few boiled eggs and change of clothes. Had she nothing better to do?
My group was a microcosm of the Long March that stretched beyond sight before us and behind us. Mostly they were poor farmers, fishermen, laborers who would describe their lives: ‘Isang kahig – isang tuka' (One scratch – one peck, i.e., living just from day to day).
Down the line from me, Father Demit Gatia, Scripture scholar, Rome-educated, diocesan priest, and beloved, and further down the line Father Nanding Reyes, dedicated assistant to Kabankalan parish. Ahead of me, walking with brisk bristle strides, Father Eamonn Gill, story-teller of exceptional ability, moved up the line in search of an ear for his many stories.
As the heat of the day intensified, drop outs sat by the side of the road and waited medical aid from the Ford Fiera marked with a large red cross that scurried up and down in the line of marchers like a water-bug in a lily pond, driven often by Father Terry Bennett. A second Fiera with mounted camera operated by fifty-one-year-old Father Brendan O'Connell (a capable photographer) patrolled the march, and the camera recorded for television this assault on Bacolod . Why – why so many?
The marchers moved north like a long freight train, and its whistle at every crossing, every town was the shrill voice magnified by a portable sound system that shouted: ‘Singgit sang banwa!” (The cry of the people!)
An avalanche of voices responded: ‘Kahilwayan!' (Freedom!)
The microphone: ‘The cry of the Negros Nine!'
The people: ‘Freedom'
The microphone: ‘The cry of the Negros Nine!'
The people: ‘Let them go free! Let them go free!'
The Long March enters another town on its route. Deep-throated bells of century-old Spanish churches, like solemn old men, welcome the marchers and respond to the message the carry to Bacolod : an emphatic Yes! Yes! Yes! Crowds line the side of the road, pressing cups of water, fruits, candies, bread, into the hands of the perspiring marchers. The day lengthens, the pace slows. Shirts are bleached and salt-crusted. There is silence now except for the slop, swish of sandaled feet on hot pavement.
Then the day's destination is reached, and the marchers sprawl on the grass-covered plaza of the town's church. The advance unit of cooks, supervised by Consing Perez, prepare supper for this huge crowd. From them it has been a guessing game: how many will have joined the march, and will there be enough for all?
After supper, darkness and quiet settle on the group, most of who sleep immediately. Father Dodo Dejilla, energetic and capable organizer of the Long March, huddles with his lieutenants to evaluate and plan. As for me, I lean against a tree in the darkness, and my head is like a cage of mice – thoughts, questions scurrying about, bumping into one another. One day's march over, two to go…
The Final day
The final day, the final march : The southern group, now swollen to about three thousand, reached Bacolod on the morning of the fourth day.
A sudden tropical storm drenches marchers, sags broad-brimmed straw hats, withered cardboard signs, as the group marches through down-town Bacolod . There is a cheer as the southern group meets the group from the north of Bacolod who have marched approximately the same distance, a thousand or more in number. The two groups like giant waves meets, swirl, unite and move on towards the provincial jail. Five thousand chant: ‘Upud sa amon, Negros Nine, hilwayon, hilwayon!' (Come with us, Negros Nine! Let them go free).
It is a second Jericho assault as their voices bounce off fifteen-foot-high white-washed prison walls, and salt tears mingle with puddles of fresh rain water as marchers pass the jail gate where the Negros Nine watch, pressed against the bars.
You can make a difference
You can help the Negros Nine in so many ways