Rorelyn Mandacawan, an 18-year-old Manobo tribal girl, hangs a Christmas lantern during an activity in Manila where displaced tribal students have sought refuge. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
There is no escaping Christmas in the Philippines, especially in Manila, even for tribal girl Rorelyn Mandacawan who hardly understands what the celebration is all about.
The 18-year-old is one of 70 young tribal students from Mindanao who came to the Philippine capital in June to seek support for their community that has been plagued by armed conflict.
Rorelyn and the other students have sought refuge in the city because of alleged threats to their lives from soldiers who accused them of supporting communist rebels.
In one forum attended by students of a Catholic university in Manila, Rorelyn was asked what she wanted for Christmas.
"I just want to go home," she said.
Deep in her heart, however, Rorelyn knows that it would be impossible for her to go back to her community, especially after the government extended martial law in Mindanao for another year.
"I did not know anything about Christmas," she told ucanews.com. "But our teachers told us about what it should mean," added the girl.
Her teachers talked about the birth of "Jesus the Savior" and all the "good things" that people should do, like promote peace.
Rorelyn said she remembers home when she hears people talking about Christmas.
Home for her is the village of Nasilaban in the town of Talaingod, in Mindanao's Davao del Norte province, where peace seems elusive because of conflict.
"If Christmas means peace, then there is no Christmas in our village," she said.
Displaced tribal people from Mindanao sing during an event at the residence of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in November. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Absence of peace
Rorelyn and her friends' ordeal started on June 29, 2017, when a government militiaman shot at a teacher at the village school.
"It was terrifying," recalled Rorelyn. "The man also aimed his rifle at us."
In August 2017, the young girl first came to Manila to speak about the situation in her village under military rule.
She returned to her village in March but fled two days later when a firefight between soldiers and guerrillas erupted.
The government closed all roads to Nasilaban and accused the teachers and students of orchestrating the attacks.
Rorelyn and one of her teachers walked for nine hours under the cover of darkness to reach safety.
The tribal people of Talaingod are not the only indigenous community that has been displaced by the conflict in the southern Philippines.
The group Save Our Schools Network has already documented at least 535 attacks on tribal schools across Mindanao since martial law was declared in May 2017.
At least 58 schools have reportedly closed since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in July 2016.
The group said martial law in Mindanao had seen "widespread violations of basic human rights in the course of the government's counter-insurgency program."
Duterte declared martial law across the southern region following the terrorist attack in Marawi last year that left almost half a million people homeless.
The military has denied allegations of human rights abuses since martial law was introduced.
Helping children laugh again
To alleviate the situation for tribal children, a network of church groups has initiated activities to make them "feel that Christmas has not abandoned them."
"We would like to at least make them forget about the conflict even if it's for a moment," said Redemptorist priest Teodulo Holgado, spokesman of the group Sandiwa.
Christmas gatherings are being held in religious communities for children "to be children even for a day."
"We want them to laugh, play, and sing and dance. Conflict has taken away their childhood," said the priest.
In his message, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao called on Catholics to "share the spirit of Christmas" with victims of conflict.
"Let this year's celebration of Christmas be a reason for all of us to help resolve the root cause of armed conflict and foster long lasting peace," said the prelate.
Rorelyn knows that her journey home will not happen this Christmas, but she is hopeful that "one day I don't have to wait for December to experience what Christmas has to offer."