Anger / Love / This Filipino Life

Portrait of an Egotist I: Rona Mahilum

By Henry Hunt for RD (1997) 

I. Eight-year-old Girl Saves Her Five Siblings From a Fire, Including Her Older Sister, Who Acted Like a Useless Piece of Shit Despite Being Older and Bigger 

Blazing oil suddenly spilled onto Rona’s bed and splattered the floor. Rona jumped up. Hearing sizzling, she realized that her shoulder-length hair was on fire. The blaze leapt to her clothes. She hit at the flames searing her head and shoulders. Safety was but a step to the door.

Then, in the light of the fire, she saw her brothers and sisters stirring.

She grabbed the first child she could, five-year-old Cheryl. She rushed down the ladder steps into the yard, where she lay the child under the big banana tree. Then she ran back through the smoke, squinting and holding her breath, and lifted four-year-old Ruben and one-year-old Rhocelle to safety.

The fire had begun its slow, serious business of spreading through the house…

Rona entered again, then carried seven-year-old Roberto outside. He watched his sister, her hair and clothes still smoldering with flames, run back inside for nine-year-old Roda. Unable to lift her, Rona pushed her older sister out the window.

Finally her small body was overcome, and she collapsed facedown in the rubble.

II. She Was Practically Fucking Dead and Her Dad Was Ready To Dig a Fucking Grave For Her 

As she negotiated the long, dark path home, Nenita’s thoughts were hopeful. She had left the town market around midnight, securing a few pesos at the fiesta. Then she smelled something burning.

She ran to the clearing, and saw her house.

The roof was gutted, its roof nearly gone. Beneath the banana tree lay her children – all but one.

“Where’s Rona?” Nenita yelled.

“I don’t know,” Roda answered.

Nenita dug through the rubble. A black, round lump, like a pile of charcoal, caught her eye. It was Rona, pulled up into a ball, facedown. Most of her hair was burned off. A thick, black crust of charred skin covered her back and scalp.

Rona had not shown a flicker or a twitch. Nenita felt for a pulse but found none.

“Rona is dead,” Nenita told her other children.

III. She Miraculously Wakes Up On the Way To the Hospital 

Rona’s father, returning home towards morning, offered to dig a grave near the house. But Nenita could not yet accept that her child was dead.

For reasons not entirely rational, she decided to take Rona down the mountain to a village six hours away on foot, where there was a small hospital. Perhaps a doctor would at least confirm that there was no life in her little girl.

In the morning sunshine, Rona’s wounds were terrible to behold. Her left ear was a tiny nub of burned skin. Heavy, black crust covered her head and back, oozing pus.

Nenita gingerly washed the soot from the girl’s face, which somehow had been spared by flames.

Carrying her daughter, she trudged along the steep jagged paths, along steep hills and deep valleys. A heavy rain started in the afternoon. Cold drops slammed down, battering Rona’s encrusted back.

Finally Nenita stopped to wait out the storm.

As she slid Rona off her back, Nenita saw that the child’s eyes were open and looking at her. “Momma,” came a small voice, “where are we?”

“We’re going to see a doctor,” she said gently. Then she called out joyfully, “You’re alive!”

“Yes,” came the small voice again. “I’m alive now, but I’ll probably be dead again.”

IV. She Accepts Her Death 

Examining Rona, the doctor found that she had third-degree burns over her scalp and back. Her left ear was gone. The burns were nearly a day old, and infection was mounting.

The doctor told her mother, “If she is not admitted, she will die.”

Explaining that her family did not have any money, Nenita asked that Rona only be given first aid. “I cannot throw away the future of all my children to help just one,” she said forcefully.

The discussion took place in front of Rona, who remained silent.


V. A Series of Fortunate Events Conspire To Save Her Life

A. On a Sunday afternoon in August, Mayor Lim sat at home reading an editorial in the newspaper Today. Lim felt his eyes fill with tears.

B. His city had recently voted to give an award to a Filipino boxer, but he did not accept the money.

C. The editorial urged the mayor to give the money to someone who deserved it: a little girl who had won her scars and her honor not in a boxing ring but in a ring of fire.

D. Now Lim began calling the editorial office, but no one he spoke to knew the exact whereabouts of the child.

E. So he chartered a plane.

F. On August 20, Nenita was scrubbing clothes in the river when people came running to say that police were looking for her at her home. Nenita walked home to find Rona. Along with the policemen, the two started the long journey down the mountain.

G. Doctors in Manila began a series of surgeries to reconstruct Rona’s shoulder and neck muscles. The city of Manila paid all medical expenses. Gifts amounting to 2.7M (in 1997 currency) have been given to the family.


“I did it because I love them.” – Rona Mahilum




Note: This photo was taken while she was still in hospital. Her shoulder and neck muscles are constricted from the injuries. She is forcing her head upwards.




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