Cebu, Philippines – Lovely Savandal used to be a firm believer of the Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated (SBSI), the Surigao del Norte cult facing a Senate probe into abuses reported by former members.
Savandal, who turns 34 years old in November, grew up absorbing the beliefs of SBSI founder Rosalina Lasala Taruc. Her parents, both former government workers who joined the group, groomed their daughter into becoming a devout follower.
Savandal told Rappler Talk on Tuesday, October 3 that her parents taught her to appreciate and uphold the bayanihan or communal spirit that drew in many poor people in the organization’s early days.
In 2012, she met her husband, Ranjo, the father of her three children: Dwayne, 11; Sophia, 6; and Dylan, 4.
Savandal recalled a peaceful life with the organization until 2017. Then, things took a drastic turn when leaders of the SBSI began herding members into their hilltop settlement in Socorro town.
Many of the members were not yet convinced about relocating to the hamlet in Sitio Kapihan, Barangay Sering.
Savandal’s husband was among the reluctant folk.
Owing to her strong faith in the organization, Savandal said she coerced her husband into moving to Sitio Kapihan by threatening a separation. He caved in after a month and joined her and the children.
More members fled to the hilltop settlement after a series of earthquakes hit the province of Surigao del Norte in February 2019.
In the last quarter of 2019, SBSI leaders began collecting contributions from members, Savandal told Rappler in another interview on Wednesday, October 4.
It was also at this time that Taruc raised up Jey Rence Quilario to be the “messiah” of the group, the reincarnation of the Santo Nino or the Child Jesus. He also goes by the name Agila, the Filipino term for eagle.
“Gibaligya namo ang balay, motorcycle, washing machine, ug air conditioner. Gipakuha pa jud mi og loan sa Pag-ibig kay maoy sugo ni Senior Agila,” Savandal said.
(We sold our house, motorcycle, washing machine, and air conditioner. We were even made to get a loan from Pag-ibig because it was the order of Senior Agila)
Savandal recalled that every morning, at 3 am, a siren would go off to alert members to wake up for their daily tasks.
Their eldest, Dwayne, would be at the barracks with his father for their “masi-masi” or physical exercise, training to become an “Agila” or soldier of God.
Their daughter, Sophia, would practice musical performances with Senior Agila.
The youngest, Dylan, was still a baby when they moved into the hamlet.
Savandal said she began to worry for her children, most especially for Sophia who suffered from asthma.
But nothing could prepare their mother for what was yet to come.
Starved and exploited
As months passed by, the family needed to find ways to keep up with contributions to the organization.
Dwayne would go with other children to beg for alms from the households owned by the SBSI’s “royal families” and leaders.
The Savandals only ate root crops to sustain themselves. They neared starvation. The children also stopped going to school.
“Sabi ni Senior Agila, kapag may problema kayo, poproblemahin ko. Pero bakit hindi yon nangyari? Siya lang lumaki at kami ‘yong naghirap,” Savandal said in a Rappler Talk.
(Senior Agila said that if we have problems, he would worry about it. But why did that not happen? He got fatter and we suffered)
In December 2019, Savandal witnessed her 12-year-old sister being “married” to a boy she did not know. She said the cult’s leaders coerced the girl into having sexual relations with her partner.
According to her statement during a hearing of the Senate public order committee on Thursday, September 28, forced relationships were imposed on many minors in Sitio Kapihan.
She recalled some incidents when reluctant child brides were cast out by the community and made to suffer outdoors under heavy rain until they agreed to sleep with their husbands.
Savandal’s children, especially the oldest, started asking their mother every day why they allowed such treatment.
In December 2021, Savandal and her husband got into arguments over their stay in Sitio Kapihan.
She asked Dwayne to convince his father to stay. She still believed all their suffering was worth the “salvation” that Senior Agila promised to bring.
However, in May 2022, Savandal would finally change her mind about staying in the settlement.
That was when she and her fellow members were made to walk long distances to vote in a single precinct, despite the fact that they were registered to different barangays.
Senior Agila, according to Savandal, ordered the SBSI members to process the transfer of their voting registrations to Barangay Sering.
Savandal, with anger in her voice, told Rappler that she fainted at the precinct because she wasn’t able to eat breakfast and was made to cross over a river on foot, while Quilario and other leaders traveled comfortably on a pump boat.
The former member told Rappler she is still mulling over sharing Senior Agila’s line-up.
After the May 2022 election, the Savandals practiced their escape from the hilltop settlement.
Their plan involved traversing a downhill terrain and using an empty guard house, referred to as a “fox hole”, to reach the outside of the settlement.
This plan required them to monitor the movements of guards in other foxholes and those stationed in towers spread across Sitio Kapihan.
On June 3, 2022, the Savandals made their move and walked for almost half an hour to their destination, carefully crossing the land with their children.
Upon reaching their exit point, the family was halted by some guards, who let them go when Savandal’s husband threatened to fight them if they were made to stay any longer.
The family then proceeded to an abandoned house where they waited for two hours until Savandal’s cousin, Vladimir Sangco, came to rescue them.
To fight a cult
Savandal shared that the experience traumatized her to the point of becoming depressed and shedding tears almost every night for four months.
Savandal added that her daughter, Sophia, became less trusting of those around her.
Sophia still constantly avoids interacting with other kids and adults, said her mother.
On April 19, the mother had heard enough stories of other families being destroyed by SBSI and its leaders. She decided that it was time to make a stand.
Together with other former members of SBSI, they formed the Kalihukan Batok Kulto or the Movement Against Cults.
They now plan to help rescue more members who wish to leave the cult. Savandal said many members have already left the SBSI but only 42 have joined the movement.
According to Savandal, those who have yet to join are possibly afraid because of the numerous death threats that were made against them.
Savandal hoped that the Senate’s contempt citation on Quilario and other SBSI leaders would encourage more former members to speak up about the cult’s abusive ways.
As of this writing, the group is getting legal assistance from the Cebu for Human Rights and the municipal government of Socorro.