GENOA, ITALY – Here I am at the heart of the Italian Riviera, yet I dream of Mt. Ragang, the “Blue Mountain” in Lanao del Sur, one of the highest mountains in the Philippines. Perhaps it is because it has been a year since I first saw this mountain, from Mt. Kalatungan in Bukidnon. Yet, I have always thought of Mt. Ragang ever since I had to compile the list of the highest mountains in the Philippines. I have always wanted to climb it.
by Gideon Lasco
Mt. Ragang, at 2815 MASL, is one of the ten highest mountains in the Philippines. Also known as Mt. Piapayungan or Blue Mountain, it is the highest active volcano in the country. Based on what little we know about this mountain, it also has one of the most pristine forests we have. And yet, Mt. Ragang is the highest mountain in the Philippines that cannot be climbed. In fact, it has not even been documented as having been climbed!
It cannot be climbed because it is at the heart of the conflict that has cast the whole island of Mindanao under a perception of danger (unrightfully so: most of Mindanao is actually peaceful). Rumors surround this mountain. Some say there is a rebel fortress within it. Even the officials of the towns surrounding it say it is too dangerous to venture there. One tourism officer with whom I talked over the phone confessed to me that being “tourism officer” in their area is an irony in itself.
The veteran climbers tell me that there were attempts to climb Ragang before, and they tell tales of negotiations, of protection money being asked by some sides of the conflict, but ultimately, they all decided that it was too dangerous.
Yet, I still dream of Ragang, and I have faith that someday, we will be able to climb it. When I was in Maguindanao, I accidentally dropped my cellphone on a jeepney, and gave up hope of ever finding it, until, that same day, I was contacted by a family who lives at the foot of Mt. Ragang. They asked how they can return the phone that they picked up; they said that they are returning the phone because they are good Muslims. However, Zhamir, my Muslim friend, was the one who introduced himself as owner of the phone. If I were the one, would they have returned it? It takes some element of faith to see the goodness within people.
Returning what rightfully belongs to another is the crux of the conflict, and we need good people – Muslims and Christians alike – to join hands to make this happen. This is of course a very complex issue, and I have neither the right nor the knowledge to prescribe any specifics. I leave it up to those who are active in their fight for peace. But what I can offer is hope, and the willingness to return to that part of the country if there is an opportunity to demonstrate the potential (if not the realization) of peace.
Time is of the essence. When I first came to Mindanao in 2005, I spent a week at the highlands of Sultan Kudarat where there is no electricity and where we had to take baths in the river. There we visited the Manobo tribes, and when they found out that I was from Manila, they told me something I will never forget: “Tell them how much we suffer.” Each day that hunger, displacement, illness, hidden violence, discrimination, and lost opportunity comes upon them is a great loss, a hemorrhage which we cannot allow to continue.
Even amid difficulty, however, I have seen the generosity and grace of the people of Mindanao. As a medical doctor with a deep interest in folk ways of healing, I have met acceptance instead of suspicion among indigenous villages that are Bagobo, Manobo, B’laan, Talaandig, and Tausug; the dignity by which the lumads cling on to their way of life is admirable, and my memories are as vivid as the garments of the T’boli or the finest cloth of the Samal. The generosity of the people I have met is too compelling to dissociate with the notion of hope that I harbor. Furthermore, the mountaineers I’ve met are very nice and I think of Mijan in Bukidnon, the Ateneo de Davao Mountaineers, Basil of Dipolog, among many others.
Yet this hope is tempered by the reality that danger truly exists. After climbing Mt. Kalatungan in Bukidnon, I experienced hiding behind a door of a village hut when some bandits arrived, and for a moment, I was actually afraid that something bad might happen in such a lawless environment. I have also experienced being hosted by some powerful politicians in Mindanao, and the level of protection that they employ by way of high walls, bodyguards and firearms is quite astounding.
On the other hand, the tranquility of Mindanao is undeniable in a vast section of the island, and even though it is difficult to dissociate perception from reality, I have to try. Indeed, there are so many mountains in Mindanao that can be climbed without fear of harm. Vast sections of Tawi-Tawi, which I visited in 2006, are peaceful and I still remember walking around Sibutu island in the dusk. So close by was progressive Malaysia, proof that Islam can represent peace and progress. Unfortunately, the generalization of “Mindanao” has done harm to its repute, but not only that, there is also the generalization of the Philippines itself as a land of conflict.
Amid all these, and more, there lies Mt. Ragang, the Blue Mountain. If it could speak from the depths of its embers, what would it tell us, having seen what lies hidden from the view? Will it cry out? The sorry suspicion I have is: it will thank the fog of war for protecting it from the ills that have befallen mountains elsewhere: destruction. Indeed, if we are to achieve peace in Mindanao, what implication does it mean to a mountain like Ragang? We must be careful lest the price of peace become too much for a mountain to bear.
Nonetheless, we cannot pay the toll for this conflict forever, for the toll that I speak of is the disruption of our dreams. For me, it is to climb a mountain, but for many, it is to live decent, peaceful, meaningful lives, or simply to live, to survive, to breathe the air of freedom. The image of that old Manobo man who told me “Tell them how we suffer” still clings to me, and even though I did what he asked me to do by publishing their story in a national newspaper, his real dream, unspoken, ought also to be realized.
I dream of Mt. Ragang because I dream of peace in Mindanao, and I know that the only way for mountaineers to climb that beautiful mountain is for peace to descend in that beautiful land. This descent is not like rain which comes and goes by the whim of the Divine; there is no rain dance to call upon peace, only the long road of development which goes hand in hand with freedom. The people I have met in Mindanao give me reason to hope, and if in my lifetime my dream comes true, the summit would truly be a sight to behold. God bless Mindanao! You are homeland of my memories, and I always look forward to my return.
January 21, 2012