On 1 September 1939, the United Kingdom began the massive evacuation of civilians in anticipation of the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. The plan was called Operation Pied Piper, after the folktale with the eponymous musician who lured the children of the village of Hamelin away, never to be seen again. It may have been a poorly chosen fictional reference, but it indicated the fact that Operation Pied Piper focused on children, moving them away from their families and homes towards supposedly safer areas as a security measure during wartime.

Fans of the Narnia Chronicles would be familiar with this event because the Pevensie children were, according to the story, among those evacuated; the wardrobe in the title of the first book was found in the countryside manor in which they were placed at their foster home.

The plan was crafted in 1938 when the threat of a German invasion seemed imminent. Various areas in the UK were classified as zones for either evacuation or reception. The former were commonly cities that were deemed most vulnerable to being targeted by the Germans, while the latter were low-risk regions, mostly in the countryside, that were not practical military targets. At the same time, other families opted to send their children overseas to as far away as the United States.

At the outset of the evacuation, children traveled in the company of their teachers or members of the wartime Women’s Voluntary Service. Transport and railway personnel also played a vital role in the endeavor. At their destinations, the children were billeted in either specially set up evacuation camps, or with local families. Though these families received financial compensation as support for the additional mouth to feed in their households, it was deemed as part of their patriotic duty to take children in and care for them for the duration of the war.

News of the capitulation of France in June 1940 and the fierce aerial bombing campaign targeting London known as the Blitzkrieg in September of the same year (and other bombing attacks in other British cities) prompted additional waves of evacuation. All in all almost 3 million children were evacuated throughout the war years. Many returned to their home years later after having been sent off.

Julie Summers recounts their bittersweet reunions and the evacuation’s aftermath in her book When the Children Came Home: Stories of Wartime Evacuees. As with any massive undertaking, there are variations to be expected in the results: some children found it difficult to resume their lives, while it was a flawless transition for others. Some had been placed in homes that were poorly prepared to receive children, while others formed affectionate bonds with their adoptive parents that lasted throughout their lifetimes. Because evacuation was a voluntary act, Summers calls attention to the heart-breaking dilemma faced by parents who had to choose, at that critical juncture and without any guarantees, what they thought would be best for their children. Historians now say that the death toll from the bombings of the cities would have been higher had it not been for the transferring of children away from them. It was indeed an extraordinary time that called for extraordinary decisions.

Some people have been casting doubt about the Talaingod 18 incident and questioning why the teachers and school administrators of the Salugpongan Community Learning Centers, and the parents of the students concerned, acted the way they did. For those who genuinely want to better know the context, it is fitting, to begin with how these community schools have been designed to run.

Salugpongan Schools at the advanced grades from Grade 7 onwards were purposefully intended to be boarding schools. One reason for this is that, though many communities are able to run elementary level programs, some of them cannot, as yet, fulfill the more stringent requirements to host a local high school. To make sure that they continue their studies, elementary level graduates are then accommodated at properly accredited high schools in other Salugpongan communities, sometimes away from their own home villages. The boarding school approach also ensures that children are not absent in class and are not burdened with traveling between home and school (which, in these parts, means walking for hours on mountain terrain). Because of this older students transfer around and live away from their families as they finish high school. It must also be said here that as boarding schools, the Salugpongan Community Learning Centers provide all the basic needs of their individual students such as food and toiletries while striving to create a sense of communal responsibility through collective farming, and cleaning and repairing the school and its grounds.

In short, simply in order to finish schooling, students and their families endure being away from each other for extended periods across a number of years. During these periods of separation, the volunteer teachers at these schools are, for all intents and purposes, entrusted to care for these students in their parents’ stead. I once interviewed a mother at the Haran evacuation center, and while she terribly misses her two children studying at two separate Salugpongan schools outside of Davao City, she would not have it any other way because this was the best chance for her kids to finish their studies.

Last 28 November, the teachers at the Salugpongan school at Dulyan were faced with extraordinary circumstances. Their school was forcibly closed by a rabble that they later reported was led by tribal leaders who had been pressured by military personnel. By that evening they had to make a crucial decision: to either remain under threat from the incessant throng, or to evacuate to safety. Bear in mind that most of the students under their care came from villages far away, and that the events unfolded in a matter of hours.

Because these teachers carried out their obligation to their students and the parents who placed their trust in them, they were arrested for allegedly kidnapping their wards. The minors among their students were then taken under the “protective” custody of the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD). At this point that it was the parents’ turn to suffer, because for several days they were denied their right to simply take their children home. They had to take their case to court to be reunited with them. Witnessing all this reminded me of the historical precedent events like Operation Pied Piper set for families faced with conflict.

Now, some people may say that it’s apples and oranges. You can’t compare World War II with Martial Law in Mindanao. Certainly there are crucial differences. But the dilemma of whether to split the family up is a present one in any precarious situation. Among Talaingod Manobo families it has been a long-present condition in their arduous pursuit to educate their children. Because there were no schools in these areas for decades (a responsibility, first and foremost, of the State), these families and their private educator-collaborators have had to devise a schooling program that, though it entailed that some students live away from their homes, could nevertheless still respond to their education needs.

More recently it has taken on a more serious form with the near-constant threats of militarization and forced school closure, as instantiated by what happened in Dulyan. The teachers stand by their decision to put the safety of their wards first, even if it put them, the teachers, in jeopardy. The parents, in turn, stand by their teachers; for better or for worse evacuation, or living apart from close family members, has been a prominent part of the lives of this adult generation of Manobo, and facing such a decision is not in the least alien to them.

I thus do not think we can presume to know better than they who have had to face these predicaments first hand, and who have long ago chosen to endure the pain of separation for what they see as the greater gain of their children being able to graduate. Not the DSWD who arbitrarily held the children away from their parents allegedly for lack of proper “paperwork” proving that they are indeed related (as if the children would not be able to recognize their own relatives), and certainly not those who insist that Martial Law is fine simply because the abuses committed under its auspices does not affect them personally.

For those who come from families that never had to decide under duress to live apart from each other, for those who have enjoyed, or currently enjoy, the opportunity to go to school and finish with little trouble, I urge you to pause and consider these wonderful privileges. There are many others who have fallen outside, or were forced out of, this world of privilege and comfort. But this has not stopped them from dreaming and laboring to achieve those dreams. And for the Manobos of highland Talaingod, the Salugpongan schools that they painstakingly built and sustained, the same schools that are now under threat especially with Martial Law, is the very materialization of those loving labors and lofty dreams.(davaotoday.com)

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