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Ka Vernon

We walked uphill where tall cogon grasses were already starting to don their silver shade.

The following personal essay is part of the Against Forgetting notebook, with art by Neil Doloricon.

There are 316 names etched in granite on the Wall of Remembrance at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, which honors the lives of those who gave of themselves against the tyranny of the Marcos dictatorship. These names are but the known, documented, and verified fighters for freedom. But for every name that has been carved in that wall, there are countless others, maybe in the tens, hundreds, and even thousands, who gave of themselves, too—their time, talent, skill, and often the ultimate price that was their lives. They will forever remain unknown, remembered only by their kin. Or maybe, only by the very earth that holds their remains in its embrace in some far-off hill. But it is clear that a greater number sacrificed themselves a little too soon. Too young and a little too brave. I knew one of these nameless ones.

It was 1979. I was new to serious activism and newer still to venturing into a zona—a guerrilla front. After several months deep in the heart of the country’s more active guerrilla bases, I felt like my life had fast-forwarded at blinding speed. I had married a cadre who was a former classmate and was trying to adjust to the hardship of a life so different from the bourgeois life that I knew.

Embedding ourselves among the peasants and carrying all our worldly possessions in a backpack, our team of mostly three persons would merge with, and then leave, the main camp in the Cordilleras to organize in other parts of the zona. Always on the move, we never tarried too long in one place so as not to endanger the peasant family sheltering the team, or arouse suspicions among the other barrio folks. It was a dangerous time. It was also a time of exploration, of discovering who the peasant masses were. 

Soon after entering the guerrilla base, my husband and I became part of the skeletal propaganda unit where we could only sporadically publish the regional paper due to lack of a regular staff. Before I came, my husband was the entire regional staff. My arrival was a great relief for him. But the paper needed an artist—a dibuhista, an illustrator. Very urgently. The masses were not interested enough in a publication full of text and nothing else. Despite our efforts to gild the paper with some illustrations, the few “talents” among the roster of cadres that could be cajoled into trying their hand came out simply crude, for want of a better term. The need for an artist was incumbent.

I remember the day we finally found our artist. My husband and I went out of the zona for some urgent business, and in the process got married in Catholic rites at the insistence of his relatives. When we came back to the zona the following day, we were met by a guide—giya—who took us another couple of miles to another post farther inland where two comrades and a different guide awaited us. It turns out, the camp we left the other day had been compromised, so the comrades had moved to another location. They were waiting for my husband to make an important decision. 

Upon entering the peasant’s hut, I saw a dark young man, slightly built to the point of scrawny, seated in a corner of the bamboo hut, looking a little lost. He tentatively smiled at my husband who went forward, his hand extended in greeting.

“Kasama (Comrade),” he greeted the young man.

“Kas,” the young man replied, with a timbre of diffidence.

They engaged in a soft, almost inaudible conversation, while I busied myself gazing out to the distant hills—all seemingly planted with rows upon rows of coconut trees. This picture of tranquility and greenery was in startling contrast to the violence of poverty that is the reality of peasant life.

A little later my husband beckoned me over.

“Kasama, we have our artist,” he informed me with enthusiasm. “Meet Ka Vernon.”

I extended my hand for the usual hand-clasping that comrades give each other each time. 

“Finally,” I said, by way of greeting.

Later, my husband told me about Ka Vernon. Ka Vernon had actually been in the zona for more than a month but had to be kept in isolation. While with a community organizing unit in another red area, he was captured by army personnel who were on a counterinsurgency sweep where Vernon was assigned. It was a good thing that he was unarmed. With only an accusation from an anonymous barrio informer to go on, the soldiers had taken him into custody. Ka Vernon, the informer said, was a guide to the guerrillas. 

Insisting upon his innocence, Ka Vernon was taken to the barracks and tortured to extract more valuable information from him. But his seemingly innocent and unassuming looks must have convinced the soldiers and lulled them into complacency, for they did not keep him under lock and key in the barracks. For some time, the soldiers kept him as a messboy in the army detachment. 

One day he managed to escape. He ran, not back to his family in the barrio, but to the hills, frantically sending communication after communication to the Kasamas that he was free, and for somebody please to come get him posthaste before he could be recaptured.

But the Kasamas could not just take him back. Security protocols had to be observed. Was his story true—or had he been turned? Was he now a dangerous decoy, or was Ka Vernon still a true Kasama? They took him in for safekeeping, but made him stay along the fringes of the red area lest he was no longer what he had been. A trusted peasant ally was assigned to keep an eye on him and watch out for telltale signs of a traitor (a “demonyo,” in the parlance of the movement). But most of all, to look for indications that this comrade was for real. Still.

While this seemed rather callous, the movement had lost a major number of comrades through this modus operandi by the military forces. It could not afford to be naive and complacent. Eventually, Ka Vernon passed his quarantine and entered the main camp in our company.

In the days that came, Ka Vernon drew in a corner of every hut we’d find ourselves in, as we worked on the paper that chronicled life among the people and the revolution. Every little bit of news was given an intense illustration through his artistry, from a peasant managing to steal arms from a drunk soldier to the legendary raid of a coastal army detachment where the Kasamas disarmed the personnel manning the detachment and carted off the whole armory in less than twenty minutes. With not a single shot fired. This merited a full front-page illustration of soldiers with surprised looks on their faces, and a grim and determined Commander who led the raid, wearing an eyepatch. How Ka Vernon loved to put all this into pictures. And how the peasants looked forward to the papers so they could oooh and ahhh over it as they went over the details over and over again.

Days blur into other days when you are in the struggle. Each unit did its assigned tasks, and each came from the red areas to the white areas and vice versa, in a constant interchange of comrades. Some stayed long enough that you got to know them; some faces remained strangers, never staying too long; and some you never saw again. Sometimes you’d catch snippets of how they died. Some just disappeared without a trace. 

In the early months of the following year, I left the zona because I was having a difficult pregnancy. It was my first, and the rigors of life on the run was just too much for me. By now, we had additional staff for the paper; everything was going as smoothly as it ever could at a guerrilla paper.

The safehouse where an ally would pick me up and bring me to my husband’s parents’ house was a two-day trek from where the main force was camped. And since there were no reports of any enemy movement in our whereabouts, we decided that I should just be accompanied by one kasama. Since my husband was in the middle of an urgent planning conference, Ka Vernon would walk with me to the pick-up point.

As I was not expected to hike for a whole day, we would  stop at several trusted peasant allies’ houses. It was best, the Kasamas decided, to walk in two-hour intervals, take rest stops, and then arrive in the safehouse for the night. In the morning, we were to wait for reports of enemy movement, and if there was any, we would wait for things to abate before making our way to the next safehouse. We were not armed.

It was bittersweet to leave. But my husband and I, we knew what this kind of life we had chosen entailed. It would still weigh heavy on the heart.

Ka Vernon and I started early. In the two-hour walk towards the first safehouse, we exchanged few words. It was always best to be alert. Besides, I could not speak the local language, and we would have been compromised if the wrong person heard us conversing in the language alien to the place. 

We walked uphill where tall cogon grasses were already starting to don their silver shade. As we reached the peak of the hill, Ka Vernon inquired if I was alright to move on. I nodded, feeling tired but refreshed by the touch of the slight breeze that passed among the cogon, leaving a barely perceptible murmuration.

Midway downhill we passed a cultivated slope abundant with ripening watermelons, round and robust. I made a passing remark about how good those watermelons looked and how wonderful it would be to have watermelons on a day like this. Ka Vernon said, indeed, this barrio was renowned for its sweet and tasty watermelons.

After a little while we reached a peasant’s hut nestled in the slope of the hill. A carabao was tethered to a coconut tree, chewing on a cud of grass.

“We will take our rest here, Kasama,” Ka Vernon said.

The peasant greeted us warmly and ushered us in, seeing to our comfort. After laying down his pack, Ka Vernon said he was going to do a little reconnaissance and that I should take a rest. I drifted into a light sleep and woke up to a slight tap on my shoulder from the farmer’s wife. There was Ka Vernon behind her with a broad smile on his face, cradling two very round and shiny large watermelons.

“There, Kasama. You have your watermelon. I told the farmer you were craving watermelon, and he was happy to give us two.” Even the peasant happily ate the watermelon. It was so cool, so sweet. We said profuse thanks to the peasant, and left. The watermelon was our lunch.

We arrived at the next safehouse when the sun was but a faint glow in the sky, the light slowly giving way to the dark. It was better this way, to avoid being exposed unnecessarily. Having been informed beforehand of our arrival, the peasant already had the steaming rice and spicy string beans in coconut cream topped with smoked fish ready as our evening meal. A feast.

Before retiring, I asked Ka Vernon where he learned to draw. He said he was self-taught. As a child, instead of honing his reading skills, he preferred copying the illustrations in his reading books, to the dismay of his mother.

Like most stories in the barrios where the hacienda system prevailed, Ka Vernon’s story was an oft-repeated refrain. As the eldest, he was expected to help till the land where his father was a tenant when he was old enough. He would not finish high school even if it was free. There was not enough money to buy uniforms and school supplies and other school fees. It was a luxury his family could not afford. And he had younger siblings who needed to finish elementary school.

But he loved to draw. On any available material that he could find, be it paper bags or empty cartons of cigarettes that the owner of the sari-sari store in the centro of his barrio so graciously provided him. He even drew on the ground.

I remember his eyes lit up when he told me that his most treasured possession was a new Mongol pencil given to him by a Kasama who was doing peasant organizing work in his barrio. 

“I was just so very, very careful with it, Kasama. I would sharpen it so very, very carefully with my knife because every inch of that pencil was so precious,” he said.

The morning was cool and quiet as we made our way to the safehouse where Ka Vernon would leave me in care of the peasant who would take me to the city. We walked before first light so that very few saw us.

This time the terrain was no longer hilly. It was flat, interspersed here and there by groves of abaca and the ubiquitous watermelon. While no one would have minded if we helped ourselves to some, we did not. It was not just the way. You must not add to the burden of the peasants..

We arrived at the safehouse to a snack of boiled sweet potatoes and steaming instant coffee. After some pleasantries with the couple, Ka Vernon rose to leave.

“O, Kasama, ingat (be safe),” he said, extending his hand.

I shook his outstretched hand, expressing thanks for his company. And then, adding in jest, “I hope you don’t get yourself captured again.”

“Don’t worry,” Ka Vernon answered. “They will never get me alive again. I swear.”

Each time you leave the zona, you never know who will still be there when you go back, if you ever make it back. A year would pass before I found myself in the guerrilla zone again, having birthed a daughter and  having built alliances in the city.

Raw with emotions at having to leave my child with family in my hometown, I rejoined my unit in the mountains.

We had a new artist. Ka Vernon was killed the past year in an encounter with an army patrol. The peasants said he was cornered in a hut where the copra was being dried and refused to give up even while the soldiers demanded that he surrender. 

The new artist introduced himself as Ka Darwin. Where Ka Vernon was taciturn, Darwin was voluble. He said he took the name Darwin in honor of Ka Vernon, who at the time of his death had taken the name Darwin. 

Ka Vernon was the very first peasant comrade that I ever had close interaction with. The youthful enthusiasm by which he carried his responsibility as our artist is the memory I will always have of him. While everyone knew that to go underground was to face death at any moment’s notice, his loss made the stakes of the revolution feel real to me. But the revolutionary paper for which he had poured out his heart and his artistic skill—and eventually his life—lives on, still eagerly awaited by the peasants to this day. It carries his legacy, and will continue to do so as long as this paper keeps chronicling the lives of those like him, of those who dared to fight the tyranny that remains to this day. Deep in the heart of that part of the Cordilleras where the kasamas still wage the struggle, Ka Vernon’s name is etched forever, though I never knew his real name. Mabuhay ka, Kasamang Vernon. Live on!