AYUNGON, Negros Oriental, Philippines – Home is where the heart is.
And nothing beats home during the Christmas holidays than to be with your family sharing slices of ham and cheese and roast pork and sipping wine from goblets and singing Yule songs until your voice gives up on you.
But for Lt. Col. Van Donald Almonte, home during the holidays was the space he shares with fellow soldiers, men and women in uniform, fighters and members of the 94th Infantry Batallion nestled in the upland areas of Ayungon, Negros Oriental.
The colonel’s Christmas could not have been more meaningful, with a hint of bittersweet irony.
He had, after all, been among those instrumental in bringing in dozens of couples, rebel surrenderees, back to the fold.
For the first time in years, they are coming back to their families to celebrate what is generally regarded by majority of Filipinos as a THE biggest holiday of the year, one that is usually associated with gift giving and eating and partying and just spending time with your family.
By “they”, we mean the former insurgents, members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the New People’s Army.
But there is no rest for the good colonel.
It’s duty as usual for Almonte although he went a bit emotional when talking about how he and his men (and women) are spending Christmas away from their families just so others could find time with theirs.
“Family (is key),” Almonte said to DNX as he credited what could be the highest number of rebel surrenderees in recent years to that smallest unit of society.
Almonte reveals family is still a major factor why Red fighters decided to lay down their arms and go back to the fold.
“The family remains to be a strong reason why (they turn their backs on the insurgency). At the end of the day, they still rely on their family for support, and their family makes them think twice, and reflect on whether they still want to continue a cause that is slowly becoming pointless, and sacrifice their family in the process,” Almonte said.
The returnees, he added, have also learned to trust the system more, especially in providing support for them on the barangay level.
Things are different compared to what they were once before, the colonel explained, and these include conditions under which the rebels are working in, the sincerity of the government now, as well as the legitimacy of the reasons why the rebels were recruited to begin with.
Almonte shared that where before, people were recruited into the movement based off a sincere belief that they were doing something noble, or at least doing something for a good cause.
Now, things have changed and recruitment seems to be based mostly on desperation, especially since the ranks within the movement are fast thinning, their numbers dwindling.
Those that the movement managed to recruit, they did so by giving promises of material gain, of better lives, even a house, a job for an unemployed brother, or grocery items.
None of these came true.
Almonte and the others working for government, on the other hand, plow on.
Even if sometimes the fight gets lonely.
Still, Almonte says the gains that they have against the insurgency are all worth the effort, seeing the dozens of faces of the former rebels and their partners with their children, some still nursing at the breast.
There’s a lot of running around the camp that Christmas night, lots of bawling off-key favorite entries in the videoke machine, lots of glasses raised to health, to Almonte, to good cheer.
It was worth seeing the rebels reunited with their families.
Even if it means Almonte and the men and women of the 94th IB had to be away from theirs.