from Tingug (published on april 17, 2018)

I was twelve when I saw the macabre urban legend walking before my eyes.

I was grade six in Kidapawan, and my section in Notre Dame was having its retreat in Guadalupe Formation Center shortly after Joseph Estrada pardoned Norberto Manero Jr.

I could see him from the screened windows of the large pavilion in which retreat sessions were held, overlooking the road from the gates of Guadalupe to the Bishop’s Palace further inside the compound: the man they called ‘Kumander Bukay,’ ‘The Priest-killer,’ ‘The Cannibal,’ or more sinisterly ‘The Brain-eater,’ walking solemnly from the gates  towards the grave of Fr. Tullio Favali.

In the urban imagination of Kidapawan, the story of Manero has passed into the realm of legend and folklore, becoming archetypal of what I call Cotabato Gothic.

‘The man named Manero killed an Italian priest and burned his motorcycle before he ate the priest’s brains.’ That was the story I heard as a child growing up in Kidapawan. I must have heard it before I was eight, because when I was old enough to go to Guadalupe on recollections and our teacher brought the class to the grave of Fr Favali, I knew more about the story than what she told my classmates (I recall trying to look for bits of brain matter on the charred motorcycle when I first saw it).
Fr Tullio Favali’s grave in Guadalupe, Balindog, Kidapawan, with the remains of his motorcycle

North Cotabato is mythic like this. The distance or the danger of travel between towns, or perhaps the inherent tendency of Mindanao Settlers to invent reality to make something more dramatic, meant that news and history when told are often stripped of facts and condensed into pure impression, often embellished to capture the horror or wonder, until only that fabulous version is remembered. This was how violence and insanity became normal in the world I grew up in.

And yet behind the macabre and the fantastic there is almost always a grain of truth.

Fr Tullio Favali was murdered by the Manero Brothers on the 11th of April, 1985 in Tulunan. The Manero Brothers, Norberto, Edilberto, and Elpidio, were members of the armed group Ilaga, which ravaged our side of Mindanao from the 60s to the 80s.

By most accounts, the Ilaga started out as a militia in the settlements of what was once the Empire Province of Cotabato, organized by Ilonggo settlers who were tired of having the land they tilled pillaged by neighbouring Moros. From there the group became a paramilitary unit which helped the military in its fight against Muslim and Communist insurgents.

In the troubles of the late 60s, Ilaga was consumed by its narrative of hate and evolved into a cult-like group, with its members being reported wearing strings of human ears (cut from their victims) as talismans. Magical powers were routinely attributed to its leader, Commander Toothpick, and to its other commanders. The group went about earning a notoriety unseen in Mindanao perhaps since the days of J.W. Duncan. On June 1971 they massacred nearly a hundred civilian Muslims, including children and the elderly, in the mosque of Manili in Carmen (read Rogelio Braga’s vivid account of the massacre). When the writ of habeas corpus was suspended on September of that year, the Muslim community in Kidapawan’s Poblacion went on exodus en masse overnight as the Ilaga came in and looted their homes.

The court decision that found the Manero Brothers and their cohorts guilty of the murder of Favali is a sobering read, in both senses of the word. It demystifies the legend that even then had already enshrouded the case (the court decision acknowledges this at some points), but it is still an account of a cold blooded murder done very publicly and in broad daylight.

The Manero brothers and their friends who were in Tulunan on 11 April were high ranking members of the group operating in North Cotabato. They were there to go on a killing spree of pre-identified targets, among whom was another foreign priest, Fr Peter Geremia, whom the group suspected of having links to the NPA (the Catholic church of Kidapawan and of the province, as I’ve written here last time, has a history of actively fighting for social justice). After shooting several people, the group came across Favali, who arrived in the house of Domingo Gomez. They burned the priest’s motorcycle, and when Favali came to react over the burning, he was shot in the head.
Fr Favali

While Norberto  was the one often called ‘The Priest Killer,’ Favali was actually shot by another Manero, Norberto’s brother Edilberto. It is what Kumander Bukay did after the priest died that lent him the notoriety. ‘Edilberto,’ I quote from the court decision, ‘jumped over the prostrate body three times, kicked it twice, and fired anew. The burst of gunfire virtually shattered the head of Fr. Favali, causing his brain to scatter on the road. As Norberto, Jr., flaunted the brain to the terrified onlookers, his brothers danced and sang “Mutya Ka Baleleng” to the delight of their comrades-in-arms.’

This danse macabre is all that stuck to the province’s imagination, and from there the horror of it grew as it was embellished. The Manero Brothers were essentially reduced to just one person, ‘Manero’ (a name which I observe had since eclipsed ‘Kumander Bukay’ in notoriety), and stories of how this Manero ‘ate the priest’s brains’ or ‘had the priest’s brains as pulutan with Tanduay’ became more widely known than the actual details of the murder.

This is how legends are born in North Cotabato.

By the time I was growing up, the incident had been all but forgotten, but the horror of it lingered, as parents in Kidapawan in the 90s told their children of the story barely remembered of the man who ate a priest’s brains.

On the day I saw Norberto Manero he was walking towards the grave of the man whose murder he was party to. He was visiting the grave for the first time, as an act of reconciliation.
Manero (right), with his intended target, Fr Peter Geremia

But I did not see it that way, and so do many, still. Reconciliation is far too subtle to be understood in Mindanao,  it has always been easier to see demons in people, to be blind to the struggles of others in light of the atrocities they commit. Just as Manero and his fellow Ilaga lost sight of Favali’s humanity in their score-long hatred of Moros and insurgents, so too did the province lose sight in Manero of what might once have been a poor farmer’s son dragged into counter-insurgency by the violent circumstances of his island.

The truths of this man were lost in the thousand dead Acacia leaves that confettied him in Guadalupe.

Today even the memory of that horror is slowly fading away. In Kidapawan at least, where Fr. Favali is buried, I get the sense that part of the drive to progress is to discard the sordid memories of a painful past, that for us to be a happy town we must somehow forget that we once saw suffering and misery. We dance the Samba and the Cha Cha, but we forget even the melody of ‘Mutya ka Baleleng.’

Favali, who gave his life to his mission here in Mindanao, deserves better, just as the Maneros, who in the madness of their hatred ended up killing many innocent people, deserve better. The lessons of the past, of the lethal power of blind resentment, of the ease with which truth is distorted, and of the many murders that still remain without justice, they deserve better than just being dismissed as the obscure interests of morbid historians. They can be re-contextualized, perhaps even reevaluated, but they deserve better than to be forgotten.

But then again, that is also how legends die in North Cotabato.