Eastern Samar family reunites after leaving NPA

By Sarwell Meniano

June 11, 2024, 4:12 pm

<p><strong>FREE AT LAST. </strong>Daniel Belicario blows a candle to celebrate his 62nd birthday on June 10, 2024 in Borongan City, Eastern Samar. He said it was the most meaningful celebration after he reunited with four other family members who also joined the New People's Army in the forests of Samar Island. <em>(PNA photo by Sarwell Meniano)</em></p>

FREE AT LAST. Daniel Belicario blows a candle to celebrate his 62nd birthday on June 10, 2024 in Borongan City, Eastern Samar. He said it was the most meaningful celebration after he reunited with four other family members who also joined the New People's Army in the forests of Samar Island. (PNA photo by Sarwell Meniano)

BORONGAN CITY, Eastern Samar – For Daniel Belicario, his 62nd birthday is the most meaningful celebration after he reunited with four other family members who also joined the armed struggle in the forests of Samar Island as members of the New People’s Army (NPA).

The simple party happened just a month after he, his wife Iluminada, and son-in-law Ariel Gaspe surrendered to the government. He served as a political guide and combatant of the NPA operating within the boundaries of the Samar and Eastern Samar provinces for nearly four years.

Two of his children, Merian, 28, and John Carlo, 25, also yielded to authorities in September and October last year. The family resides in upland Osmeña village in General MacArthur, Eastern Samar.

Peaceful birthday

On June 10, the Philippine Army’s 78th Infantry Battalion served roasted pig, fried chicken, pasta, cake, and bread to celebrate the man’s birthday in a resort in Locso-on village here. Also in attendance are 22 other former rebels who belonged to his platoon.

“This is really a happy birthday for me now that I am living peacefully with my family. There’s nothing that bothers me now,” Daniel told the Philippine News Agency.

His decision to join the NPA as a full-time combatant in late 2020 was not well planned, although he admitted that he used to subscribe to communist ideology as a member of the Yunit Militia.

“My son-in-law and I joined other men in our community in a meeting about farming. When we heard that there were soldiers patrolling nearby, we were told to run to the mountains and leave our families for fear of getting caught in a crossfire,” Daniel recalled.

In the mountains, they were trained to embrace the NPA’s ideology and use firearms.

Worried about what happened to her husband, Iluminada also went to the mountains to find Daniel. They met in early 2021 with the help of some villagers who were supportive of the NPA.

“Because of my love for him, I stayed with him even if life in the mountains was very hard and dangerous. While there, I was indoctrinated by their commanders and eventually joined the NPA,” Iluminada said. 

August 2021 firefight 

An intense firefight between government forces and rebels in the forest of Dolores, Eastern Samar, on Aug. 16, 2021, was a turning point for Merian, one of the couple’s eight children. 

That armed confrontation that killed at least 19 rebels hiding in a lair was considered one of the most successful operations of government forces against the communist terrorist group.

“I was sleepless for several nights because I thought that my parents were among the dead. I was really determined to find or learn about them. I was happy when a relative in Hinabangan, Samar, told me that they saw my parents and they’re still alive," Merian told PNA. 

She then left her two small children under the care of her sister. She and her younger brother, John Carlo, traveled three hours to an upland village in Hinabangan town. An NPA supporter led them to the couple’s hiding place.

The siblings hiked for four hours until late at night, climbed the mountain, and crossed several rivers.

“Our plan was to check their condition and stay there for only two days, but NPA leaders told us not to leave since there were patrolling soldiers and it’s very risky to walk out of their hiding place. We believed them,” Merian added.

Like their mother, the NPA made all efforts to indoctrinate them until they were convinced to join the armed rebellion. John Carlo became a combatant, while Merlie served as the organization’s logistics officer.

Merlie found the opportunity to return home in September 2023 when asked to buy food supplies for combatants.

Fatigue and hunger prompted John Carlo to join other squad members to return home in October 2023.

Even if they’re in the same platoon, they don’t see their parents often since they belong to different squads. A squad has 10 to 15 members, while a platoon with 30 to 40 members has three squads.

Returning Home 

Daniel recalled how hard life was in the mountains running from government forces.

He recalled that their longest sleep was three hours since they were always scared of patrolling government forces.

“Our common meals are root crops and fruit trees. We are lucky enough if we get the chance to eat rice once a week,” he said.

With a lack of support from the villagers, Daniel, Iluminada, and four other comrades planned to mine gold in the mountains of Eastern Samar for them to raise money to buy food.

"Our leaders supported the idea, unaware that it was our way to leave the organization," Daniel recalled.

For several days, the group mined PHP3,000 worth of gold. Instead of turning over the cash to NPA leaders, they used the money to start farming again.

They formally surrendered and turned over long firearms on May 24, 2024.

The major factor in their decision to surrender was the letters from their children pleading with them to return.

"I got letters from my children telling me of the benefits if we surrender. They also told us that the NPAs are lying about their claims that former rebels are being tortured and jailed by the Philippine Army," Iluminada told PNA.

Local Engagement

Sending messages to active NPA members is one of the initiatives under the Friends Rescued Engagement through Their Families (FReE Families) program.

The program optimizes the local government’s efforts to link and convince the remaining NPA members through the active participation of the rebels’ families to work for the peaceful surrender of their loved ones and take advantage of the benefits through the Enhanced Local Integration Program.

The family is among 22 former members of the NPA's Apoy Platoon who supported peace efforts in the southern towns of Samar and Eastern Samar by convincing 16 active rebels to return home.

“With the launch of Project Apoy, which stands for Advocating Programs that Promote Reconciliation and Optimizing Gains Yielding Peace, these individuals are set to become key allies in advocating for peace and reconciliation,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Bugaoan, commander of the Army's 78th Infantry Battalion.

The series of surrenders of these former NPA fighters resulted from the follow-through of the government-led local peace initiatives and the FReE Families program. Currently, only 16 members have remained in the platoon.

Brig. Gen. Noel A. Vestuir, commander of the Army's 802nd Infantry Brigade, said the 22 former NPA members would take an active role as peace advocates within their communities.

“These former NPAs were rescued from the deceptive ideology of the Communist Terrorist Movement and are living testaments to the transformative power of unity and reconciliation. Their journey from conflict to collaboration embodies the hope for a brighter, more peaceful future in Eastern Samar and the whole of the region,” Vestuir added.

It can be recalled that upon deployment of the 802nd Infantry Brigade in Samar Island on June 1, 2023, the brigade was able to reduce the manpower of Apoy Platoon from 47 to 27, and its firearms from 43 to 31 at the end of 2023. Seventeen of these personnel and nine firearms resulted from the FReE Families program.

In the first half of 2024, another 10 former NPAs heeded the call of their families to embrace peace, bringing six high-powered firearms with them. (PNA)