TAGUM, Philippines — Dr. Frank Manzanares and his American wife, Mary Lou, were in the emergency room the other day, stitching up a road-accident victim, when they began to reflect on what life has been like for them in the last 10 years or so at Christ the King Hospital in this remote, war-torn provincial capital.
"They come in by the hundreds every week--bullet wounds, grenade blasts, blown-off arms and legs, you name it," said Manzanares, a surgeon who earned his medical degree nearly 30 years ago in Cleveland.
"And then there are the guys with gangrene, pneumonia, tuberculosis--the casualties of a rebel's life in the jungle. Seems like every day we end up playing God. 'This one over here,' you tell yourself, 'has got a ripped-up liver and a punctured spleen and a bullet in his lung; he won't make it. That guy's only got some grenade shrapnel. We can save him.' So we forget about the first guy and get to work on the second.
Just Like 'M.A.S.H.'
"Yeah, we get 'em all in here, the Communist rebels, the government soldiers and, mostly, the civilians who get it in the cross-fire. It's just like that TV show 'M.A.S.H.' We're a hospital in a war zone, and we're sick and tired of it all."
It has been like this during the long civil war for Manzanares and his Chicago-born wife, whom he met in medical school in Ohio. After graduation, he persuaded her to return with him to the troubled southern island of Mindanao.
With the backing of the Roman Catholic Church, the couple moved to Manzanares' old home in central Mindanao, and 22 years ago they opened a hospital in this impoverished province, Davao del Norte. Their goal was to help heal the poor.
But a few years later, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military arm, the New People's Army, began their guerrilla war against the government of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the president who was driven from office last February. Soon after the war began, Davao del Norte became one of the the insurgents' principal battlefields.
People in the Middle
"We've been smack in the middle of this thing for more than a decade--us, and the tens of thousands of other simple people who live around here," Manzanares said, as he tied off the stitches on his patient's arm. "And we are the ones who have had to pay the price.
"For us, it's not a question any more of who's right or who's wrong. We're just as willing to pull bullets out of the rebels as the military. We only want one thing right now. We want peace."
If Manzanares' emergency room that morning was any indication, his wish could be just around the corner. It was quiet, save for the two victims of an accident involving a speeding jeep that had flipped over on the battered highway that runs through town.
The doctor and other residents of Tagum said they believed that the relative peace was the result of cease-fire talks scheduled to begin this week between rebel leaders and two representatives of the government of President Corazon Aquino. She has vowed to find a peaceful solution to the civil war, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, most of them civilians in and around rural towns like Tagum.
Trip Raised Hopes
Each day, the newspapers and television newscasts contain optimistic rhetoric about a possible end to the fighting. Hopes were raised even higher over the weekend as Aquino traveled to Mindanao to meet with rebel fighters who had decided to come down from the hills and rejoin society.
But beneath the hopeful veneer, in the cities, towns and villages of central Mindanao, where most of the carnage has occurred, many doctors, lawyers, leftist leaders, military commanders and even local government officials seem to be more skeptical.
"This is just a lull," Manzanares said. "The two sides are just too far apart. The rebels want a role in running the government, and Cory (President Aquino) won't give it to them. The whole thing seems doomed to fail. So why get our hopes up?"
In Davao City, 35 miles south of Tagum, a half-dozen top aides of the new mayor, Zafiro Respicio, expressed similar doubts.
Leftists Now Officials
The aides, avowed leftists, were swept into the government when Aquino chose Respicio, a longtime leader of the leftist opposition party PDP-Laban, to replace the city's pro-Marcos mayor soon after she took office in February.
"Just five months ago, we were the ones out there on the streets, marching around and denouncing U.S. imperialism and raising the red flag," Respicio's top aide, Cesar Decena, said over coffee, as about 1,000 demonstrators in the public square outside the City Hall shouted slogans against the two U.S. military bases in the Philippines.
Pointing to an office boy who was clearing away coffee cups, Decena added proudly: "You know, that boy was a member of the most deadly NPA Sparrow Unit in Davao. The Sparrows are the New People's Army assassins, the ones who have killed all the policemen here (more than 150 of them in the last two years, according to military authorities).