LEYTE, Leyte - They left their homes as early as two years ago and joined hundreds of other cultists here in digging up tunnels to save themselves from the "ring of fire" the cult leader, Seferino Quinte, claimed would descend at the turn of the new century.
But the ring of fire never came. Instead, illnesses struck them, for which Quinte could offer no comfort. In fact, three members of the Romano Katoliko cult died recently, among them a 12-year-old boy and Quinte's granddaughter herself.
"The deaths have alarmed us at the local government," said Wilma Combate, this town's information officer. Combate said they learned about the deaths when the cultists failed to secure death certificates from the mayor's office. "The dead were immediately buried, and their deaths were not registered. They did not secure death certificates," she said. Helen Quinte, eldest daughter of Quinte's son Cristituto, the "successor" of Mang Perino (as Quinte is called), died of miscarriage. She got married with someone from Biliran last August and returned home to join her family here last December.
Alex Campos, 12, died of bronco-pneumonia. The boy and his parents left their home in Barangay Maanda, a coastal village some 23 kilometers north of this town last November and settled in Sitio Abu, Barangay Salug, six kilometers from the poblacion.
A still unidentified man died of old age, Combate said.
All three died inside Quinte's four-hectare property here where he and his followers dug up tunnels since early 1997. The STAR learned that the cultists never occupied the tunnels because no "ring of fire" came, as Quinte had predicted.
A team headed by Dr. Lorna Pededa, the municipal health officer, learned about the births when they conducted a medical mission in the village last Jan. 7, in response to reports of deaths and growing cases of bronchial diseases in the area.
Pededa's team found out that from an initial 120 families in the first week of November, the cult has increased to 160 families, with many infants and pre-schoolers. "There are many infants there," she said. Solon's aid
Rep. Eduardo Veloso visited the place last year and pledged to donate construction materials to develop the area.
"Nagsaad man hi congressman nga hatagan kami (The congressman has promised to help us)," said Mariano Dotario, 56, a councilman of Barangay Bubod, three kilometers south of Barugo town. He, along with his wife and eight children, has joined the cult.
Combate said Veloso also promised to donate P5,000 and 50 sacks of rice to Quinte's group.
For his part, this town's mayor, James Arnold Ysidoro, said they have extended support to the cultists after the reported deaths and outbreak of diseases.
Ysidoro has requested the agriculture department to provide seedlings to the cultists to help them start a "new life." "We don't want to neglect them," he said. At least two deep wells have also been installed in the area. Meanwhile, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Antonio Cerilles warned the cultists against occupying the tunnels due to possible landslides that heavy rains could trigger.
Cerilles cited findings by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau that the tunnels are situated on the western side of the Leyte segment of the Philippine Fault.
Adding that the bedrock inside the tunnels is "moderately fractured and relatively soft," the bureau advised the cultists to relocate elsewhere because their houses sit on top of the tunnels.