From Philippines guerrilla ‘post’ to hospital life, Vanessa’s journey of courage

Cameron Walker is a law/arts student at the University of Auckland. From November to December 2012 he took part in an exposure programme with the Philippines’ human rights movement. Here he interviews Vanessa Delos Reyes at the Southern Medical Centre of the Philippines in Davao City, a 27-year-old former guerrilla of the New People’s Army (NPA). The interview originally appeared on Pacific Scoop.  Thanks to Cameron for passing the interview on to us.

Former NPA guerrilla Vanessa Delos Reyes talks to the author, Cameron Walker, in the Southern Medical Centre in Davao City, Philippines. Image: Cameron Walker/PMC
Former NPA guerrilla Vanessa Delos Reyes talks to the author, Cameron Walker, in the Southern Medical Centre in Davao City, Philippines. Image: Cameron Walker/PMC

At first it was difficult to adapt to life as a guerrilla. Living in the mountains brings its own set of challenges. New recruits must get used to building temporary shelter, known as postings. Now Vanessa Delos Reyes is grappling with life in support of detainees after a crippling spinal wound.

Vanessa is undergoing physical therapy to restore movement to her lower body after suffering a bullet wound to the spine while carrying an injured colleague to safety during an attack by the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Scout Rangers in 2011.

She had been a member of the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, since 2006.

Before arriving at the hospital, I had been told to expect to be searched by armed guards. Instead, I was greeted with warm smiles and handshakes by Vanessa’s parents and a Catholic nun who is in charge of the hospital ward.

Delos Reyes was sitting on her bed.

She laughed when I said she didn’t really look like a terrorist. It became apparent during the visit that we had a similar sense of humour.

 From student to guerrilla

Vanessa Delos Reyes, the second youngest of four siblings, studied agriculture at the University of Southeastern Philippines.

Philippine universities adopted a number of American traditions while the country was a US colony in the early 20th century. Students join sororities and fraternities for academic support and to take part in social and charitable activities.

Delos Reyes was elected leader of the Pi Sigma Delta co-fraternity by her fellow students.

She enjoyed her studies but like many Filipino students struggled with financial difficulties. During her studies the university had become more commercialised, with government education budget cuts and large fee increases.

In the Philippines, large numbers of students drop out of degrees before finishing them, not due to a lack of academic merit but rather a lack of finances. Many jobs available to students during their studies and even after graduation are casual, poorly paid and unable to properly cover the costs of study.

One of Delos Reyes siblings had to drop out of university due to financial constraints.

Delos Reyes had wondered during her student years why “students had to pay such high fees while those in government were rich and did not have to worry”.

In Philippine politics. the same last names appear continuously because the country’s political system is dominated by wealthy dynasties.

At university, Delos Reyes came into contact with Kabataang Makabayan (KM), the youth organisation of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, an alliance of underground left wing organisations, including the Communist Party.

She took part in political discussions with KM about political economy and the different forms of struggle in the Philippines.

Joining the NPA

After this, she decided to go on a five-month integration with the New People’s Army (NPA).

At first it was difficult to adapt to life as a guerrilla. Living in the mountains brings its own set of challenges, such as learning where to wash and go to the toilet.

New recruits must get used to building temporary shelter, known as postings, that can be assembled and disassembled quickly in case of an attack by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It is a highly mobile life.

At the end of her integration she was given the option of returning to the city or joining the NPA. She decided to join.

Why an armed struggle?

I asked why she felt armed struggle in the Philippines, a country which in theory is a democracy, was necessary. She answered that the country has an extreme division between rich and poor and there has been violent repression against those who have pushed for social change peacefully.

She cited the 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre when police and soldiers opened fire on peasants during a land dispute at a huge landholding, owned by the family of the current Philippine President, killing seven and injuring scores more.

Not long before I arrived in the Philippines a 14-year old-boy had been killed when police opened fire on residents protesting the forced demolition of their homes in a Tarlac City urban poor community.

Delos Reyes said of the situation: “The poor only have stones to fight back against the guns of the army. That is why we need armed struggle”.

She joined the NPA because she wanted to “help change the nature of Philippine society, so everyone is able to access services” such as education and healthcare.

Political killings

The year Delos Reyes joined the NPA, 2006, was a turbulent year in the Philippines. In February, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared a state of emergency and civil liberties were suspended.

The office of a newspaper critical of Arroyo was raided and those who attempted to hold rallies were beaten by riot police and arrested.

A group of left wing congressmen and congresswomen were forced to stay inside the Congress building for several weeks to avoid being arrested. While one of their colleagues, Crispin Beltran, was arrested and held in detention for more than a year, after the state of emergency was lifted.

Under Arroyo’s administration murders and disappearances of trade unionists, peasant leaders, progressive clergy and student activists by the armed forces became common place.

To many observers the events seemed eerily similar to the situation during the Marcos martial law dictatorship (1972 – 1986). The spate of extrajudicial killings has not come to an end under the rule of the current President Aquino.

 The NPA’s rural role

The Philippine media often report when the NPA undertake tactical offensives against the Armed Forces of the Philippines and paramilitary groups. Yet it would be a mistake to think that armed attacks are the only activity of the NPA. As the Philippine academic Paz Verdades M. Santos wrote in her essay in the edited collection Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines (2010):

Though it wages a “people’s war”, the NPA is essentially a political rather than a military force. Aside from armed struggle, its primary tasks are mass base building and land reform.

Delos Reyes explained that she and other NPA members would speak to people in poor rural communities about their problems and work to find solutions.

Rural communities have been badly neglected by the government and lack basic services, such as healthcare. NPA medics conduct medical missions in isolated communities. The guerrillas also help mediate in family disputes and disputes between peasants over farm boundaries, as well as help them negotiate better prices for their produce.

The level of services provided by the underground movement is so advanced in some areas that it is referred to as the “underground government”.

A near fatal encounter

Vanessa lived as a guerrilla for nearly five years until May 30, 2011, at around 1pm when a group of Scout Rangers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines attacked her camp in Davao Oriental.

As the NPA fighters tried to repel the attack, two guerrillas were injured and two were killed. Delos Reyes ran into open fire to rescue one of the injured. While carrying her wounded colleague to safety she was hit in the spine.

Vanessa was taken by her colleagues to a safe place and they conducted first aid. They took her to a hospital in Surigao del Sur. She was completely paralysed from the waist down. There was a 50/50 chance whether she would live or die. Medical attention in Davao was required.

As a goodwill gesture in response to the NPA previously releasing captured soldiers, the Vice-Mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, sent a private plane to fly Delos Reyes from Surigao del Sur to the Southern Medical Centre of the Philippines in Davao.

The human rights organisation Karapatan and Exodus for Justice and Peace, a religious organisation that works to build a peaceful settlement to the conflict in the Philippines, helped facilitate the safe transfer.

Vice-Mayor Duterte told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that once in Davao the authorities could arrest her but he would make sure that her rights were respected.|

 Under armed guard

Delos Reyes was initially under heavy military guard at the Southern Medical Centre. This must have been a strange sight considering she was paralysed from the waist down and lying in bed with no ability or desire to escape.

She was now considered hors de combat (out of fight), according to the Geneva Convention. A fighter is hors de combat if they are in the power of an adverse party and are unable to take part in any further hostilities due to their health condition.

Despite her serious health condition, the Armed Forces attempted to have her removed from the hospital and brought into full army custody. The courts blocked this request.

 Free Vanessa Movement formed

In July 2011, four charges of frustrated murder (attempted murder) were filed against Delos Reyes. One charge has already been dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Delos Reyes family, university friends, her former fraternity, church people and human rights organisations, such as Karapatan, SELDA (the ex-political detainees organisation), women’s organisation Gabriela and the Union of People’s Lawyers Mindanao have formed a Free Vanessa Movement to push for the three remaining charges to be dropped.

They argue the charges are politically motivated and not based on concrete evidence. It is yet to be disclosed who Vanessa is alleged to have attempted to murder.

Delos Reyes has also received strong support from Luz Ilagan, a Davao resident and congresswoman from the Gabriela Partylist. In a press release Ilagan wrote:

Vanessa has manifested sheer courage in living out her political beliefs. Some may not agree with the path she took, but the fact remains that she is proof of how women and the youth are desirous of real political change, and that they play a role in the over-all struggle for genuine change and democracy.”

 The Hernandez Doctrine

The Hernandez Doctrine, an important Philippine Supreme Court decision, held that those who have engaged in insurrection against the government should only be charged with the political offence of rebellion and not multiple common crimes.

This legal precedent, which originated in the 1950s case of Amado V. Hernandez, a union leader and alleged sympathiser of the Philippines’ first Communist Party the PKP, has been upheld a number of times by the courts.

A number of legal commentators argue that this precedent should also be upheld in the case of Delos Reyes and other NPA fighters – if they are going to be charged with anything it should be rebellion, not common crimes, such as frustrated murder.

 Ongoing medical treatment

Delos Reyes’ supporters also argue that as a hors de combat, she is entitled to medical treatment and other rights under international humanitarian law so the charges should also be dropped on humanitarian grounds. Her medical condition means she will never be able to join the guerrillas in the mountains again.

At the Southern Medical Centre of the Philippines, Delos Reyes has been able to undergo therapy to try and restore movement to her legs and feet. She can now walk a few steps with the help of a walker – a remarkable improvement on a year ago, when she had completely lost any movement or feeling in the lower half of her body.

Although to travel any further distance a wheel chair is required.

The Free Vanessa Movement has started fundraising to pay for Vanessa’s ongoing medical costs. During my visit Vanessa showed me her medical bill for 550,000 pesos (NZ $16, 142) – a lot of money in New Zealand but even more for a Filipino family of limited means.

Future prospects

I asked Vanessa Delos Reyes what she would like to do once her legal difficulties are over. She answered that she would continue her therapy but would also like to work for SELDA, the organisation of ex-political detainees.

“I can’t walk at a rally but I can do paperwork,” she said.

No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, it would be hard not to be moved by Vanessa’s bravery under fire or continued commitment to her principles, even in the face of an ongoing legal battle and an injury which will have lifelong consequences.