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AETA TRIBESMAN MOURNS PERVASIVE DESTRUCTION

Tears streamed down the leathery face of Saa as he huddled at a collapsed schoolhouse in this sand-covered farming town at the foot of the smoldering Mount Pinatubo volcano.

Saa, a member of the nomadic Aeta tribe that roamed the Philippines long before Spanish and American colonizers set foot on the islands, cries to whoever will listen about the disaster that has befallen his people since the June 9 eruption of the volcano.He lost his wife, Nada, and his son while escaping the wrath of the volcano and now ponders a future that looks uncertain for him and the dwindling tribe of 20,000 Aetas who have hunted game with bows and arrow and planted yam on the fertile mountain.

"I don't know what will happen to us, I only know that we have to go back and make our offering to Apo (God) Pinatubo to appease him," said Saa.

Saa says his people, some of whom still wear loincloths, over the years had slaughtered pigs and poured the blood in the steaming vents on the mountain in ritual sacrifices to their God.

But creeping poverty drove the Aetas, who resemble African pygmies, to forgo the sacrificial pig offerings and settle on chickens.

"Apo Pinatubo got mad," said Saa, clad in a hospital gown at the wrecked San Antonio Elementary school housing 1,800 other Aetas in Floridablanca, 50 miles north of Manila.

In a show of fury after a 611-year slumber, Mount Pinatubo belched ash, sand, rock fragments, boulders the size of houses and searing gas, killing at least 289 people by official count.

More than 200,000 people fled their homes, including more than 20,000 Americans. Ash clouds still tower over the 5,725-foot peak and tremors rattle surrounding areas.

Saa and his Aeta friends had eluded government troops who at gunpoint had ordered them to leave their homes even before the volcano exploded.

The Aetas took shelter in caves on the slopes of the volcano and it proved their undoing. Many Aeta dead are believed buried on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo and still have to be recovered.

Saa still vividly recalls the day he was caught in the worst convulsion on Pinatubo June 15, when the earth shook with a series of fairly strong earthquakes and a raging typhoon blew volcanic debris across the South China Sea.

He said as the mushroom cloud began blotting the sun he tried to shepherd his family to his cave but could no longer find them as darkness fell.

"Rocks as big as houses tumbled from the sky. Balls of fire were rolling down the mountain. They seemed to be running after me," said Saa.