ON SATURDAY, George and Macel Vigo were laid to rest in Kidapawan, North Cotabato after moving tributes by family and friends.The Vigos were development workers and community journalists. They were murdered not far from their home on June 19 by two men on board a motorcycle. They join the lengthening list of casualties in what appears to be a war against the Left and all those formerly or currently associated with it.
George and Macel were members of the militant League of Filipino Students in the 1980s. Like many other activists during that period, they moved out of hard-core Left politics to do development work, first becoming involved with social action projects of the Catholic Church before forming their own NGO, the People’s Kauhayan Foundation, which pioneered in building “zones of peace” in areas ravaged by conflict. These peace zones are communities where armed groups are not allowed and where citizens take active part in resolving conflicts.
Those who know the Vigos say that the couple were not involved with communist guerrillas. Their main concern was promoting dialogue and reconciliation in an area that had seen so much fighting. They tried to bring together different groups — Muslims, indigenous peoples, Christian settlers, anticommunist militias and former NPA guerrillas — that had traditionally been at odds with each other.
George and Macel also did some journalism, as reporters for a short-lived community weekly, the Headliner, and as founders of the Federation of Reporters for Empowerment and Equality (FREE). George was correspondent for UCAN, the Catholic news agency at the time of his death, while Macel had a program on a local radio station. They also frequently acted as field producers for foreign broadcasters, including the British Broadcasting Corp. and the US-based Public Broadcasting Service’s documentary program, “Frontline.”
It is not clear why George and Macel were killed. The military blames the New People’s Army (NPA) for the murders. According to local reporters, the military has tried to get eyewitnesses to the murder to point to one Dionisio Madanggit, allegedly an NPA hitman, as the gunman. Its theory is that the George, a former communist, had upset the NPA by giving information to the military.
In his tribute to the Vigos, Fr. Peter Geremia, an Italian priest who has been based in Kidapawan for decades and who was the couple’s spiritual adviser, also recounted that “official investigators deceived Macel’s mother into signing a statement that attributed the killing” to the NPA. “They accused George and Macel of supporting the NPA, then blame the rebels for their killing.”
I first met Fr. Peter in 1985, as a young journalist investigating the gruesome murder of the Italian priest Tulio Favali by anticommunist militiamen led by the infamous Manero brothers. These militiamen, or vigilantes, as they were called then, were engaged in, among other things, cannibalistic rituals.
At that time, Fr. Peter was himself accused of being a communist because he had protested against military abuses. He was the real target of the killers, who gunned down Fr. Tulio in his stead. (I remember interviewing the military regional commander, who told me, “It’s not so difficult to muster enough bravado now to kill a priest. The problem is they no longer wear habits like they used to in the old days.”)
I have been to the places where George and Macel did their peace work and know that fear, hate and suspicion are deeply rooted there.
“Here, killing is an amost daily occurence,” I wrote then of the town in Tulunan, where Favali’s murder took place and where George and Macel helped build a zone of peace. “A visitor wonders why no funeral parlor has set up shop here, why mutilated corpses must still be driven several kilometers to the funeraria in the next town of Mlang.”
That was 21 years ago. After the fall of Marcos and negotiations with the communists and Muslim insurgents, Tulunan experienced a respite from the killings. Local efforts, like those undertaken by the Vigos, helped extend the peace. But war would soon be all around.
The all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2000 brought fresh fighting to the area, sending thousands of refugees streaming into the towns bordering North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao. The Vigos continued to be the voice of peace. Among other things, they organized the Kids for Peace, bringing children, including their own, to talk about their hopes for an end to the fighting.
They also helped form Kalampag or Kotobatenyos for Good Government, composed of civic and church groups, which, according to Fr. Peter, was set up to “promote a style of leadership respectful of all our people and to heal the wounds of the victims of abuse.”
“We wonder,” asks Fr. Peter, “if they became targets because of their participation in Kalampag or because of all their community involvements. They were considered moderate activists, journalists working within the system — young professionals who cared deeply for their family and community values.”
Fr. Peter recalled seeing them shortly before they were killed. “They didn’t envision a violent death on that day,” he wrote in his tribute to the Vigos. “They didn’t even mention threats or issues. They focused on their own personal and family concerns. It was a sort of renewal of their personal relationship and their deepest commitments. After our long sharing, they walked away holding hands like young lovers. They looked as if that was the happiest moments of their life, a peak experience. They poured out so much affection that I was amazed. As they rode home, they were shot down like birds flying in the sky.”
Orlando de Guzman, a BBC reporter now based in Indonesia, has this to say about the Vigos, who were both in their late 30s:
“They were never afraid to speak the truth, even though they were clearly aware of the dangers they faced. I took comfort in the idea that they were perhaps invincible. They were activists as much as they were journalists. Their concern for the people around them led them not just to write stories, but also be deeply involved in the struggle for justice and peace in their war-torn community. George and Macel were true heroes for me.”
It would seem, from the testimonies of those who knew the Vigos, that they were the sort of citizens this country needs badly. They were socially committed individuals who tried to do what they could, in a place that had been so wounded and so riven by ideological, religious and class conflict. We need people like these alive, not dead.
On June 23, Kidapawan Bishop Romulo Valles saluted the Vigo couple and their commitment to peace:
“A commitment never to accept violence as inevitable or unstoppable. A commitment to overcome the apathy and fear that weigh down our best intentions. A commitment to do unceasingly the works of peace: to meet with all men and women of good will, to dialogue, to mutually forgive each other our trespasses and failures, to strive to build community of respect for each other, a community of genuine peace.”
[Orlando De Guzman has set up a blog to honor George and Macel and to keep track of the ongoing investigation of their murders. He has also set up a fund to help the couple’s four children. Click here for details.]