‘Lumad’ villages caught in crossfire | Inquirer News

‘Lumad’ villages caught in crossfire

/ 12:27 AM October 13, 2013

A LUMAD woman from the Manobo-Matigsalog tribe and her child rest inside the Compostela municipal gym. At least 67 families, or some 300 persons, from the upland community of Side 4, Mangayon village in Compostela town in Compostela Valley fled following clashes between government troops and communist rebels there last Oct. 4. FRINSTON LIM

Clutching his 4-month-old daughter and blowing air on the baby’s nape to soothe her, Rey Bug-ot wondered what would be left of his farm when he returns to his village.

“She’s used to the cool weather back in our village,” said the 38-year-old Bug-ot, now humming a tune between his teeth.


From time to time, he would sit on one of the bleachers of the municipal gymnasium, then stand, holding the fidgety baby, then sit again. Around them are hundreds of Manobo-Matigsalog neighbors from the upland community of Side 4 in Compostela’s Mangayon village—finding their respective places, sleeping, sprawling or just sitting and doing nothing on the dusty wooden bleachers.

Many children while away the time running around the entire place or watching a group of teenage boys play basketball at the concrete gym court.


Déjà vu

In normal times, Bug-ot would have already been sweating it out in his field, doing a farmer’s chore on a plot on the sides of hills at Side 4 planted with palay and some root crops. But that Saturday (Oct. 5), just an hour before lunchtime, he and other men of his village were idling at the gym after they were forced to flee the day before.

The evacuees said they were terrified as soldiers suddenly went to their village three days earlier and right away made clear their intention to stay. The tribal folk accused the military men, numbering about 70 and heavily armed, of living with residents and camping at the village school, transforming the concrete and wooden house of learning into a virtual garrison.

It was a sort of déjà vu as the same “lumad” (indigenous) community fled in 2008 when government troops and communist rebels clashed several times in the hinterlands bordering Mangayon and Ngan villages.

“The soldiers stayed in the civilians’ homes despite their protests,” said Francis Morales of the nongovernment organization (NGO) Balsa Mindanao.

“Residents were being used as human shields,” Morales charged.

The military denied hiding behind civilians. The soldiers came only to help the village after its residents reported the “threatening presence of armed men believed to be New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas there,” said Capt. Raul Villegas, spokesperson of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division (ID) based in Mawab, Compostela Valley.


Soldiers acting bossy

Villegas said the military and the local government unit provided vehicles to help transport fleeing residents as troops were sent in to pursue the suspected NPA insurgents. About 300 from the Manobo-Matigsalog tribe were eventually evacuated, the military spokesperson said.

“The displaced residents reported (the presence of NPA rebels) in their community and our troops engaged the guerrillas, numbering seven to 10 gunmen at the vicinity of the village past 10 a.m. No one was hurt during the brief fire fight,” Villegas said, adding that pursuit operations were continuing.

But for the residents, it was a different story.

Jovelyn Miron, a Manobo-Matigsalog woman with a 10-year-old daughter, said children were traumatized due to the soldiers’ presence in her community.

“We had appealed to them to stay away from the community. But what did they do instead? They went from house to house, bringing their long weapons. They even stayed at the school, scaring away the children who were attending classes,” Miron said in Cebuano.

Soldiers were also acting “bossy” even though they did not threaten or harm anyone, she said.

“Some soldiers even ordered my pregnant sister to boil water for them so they could have coffee,” Miron said, adding the government troops arrived in Side 4 on Wednesday.

Antimining stance

For a community still reeling from the devastation wrought by last year’s catastrophic Typhoon “Pablo,” the fear of being caught in a crossfire between soldiers and the rebels was equally traumatic.

Morales said the military’s push into the upland and heavily forested communities in Compostela, such as Side 4, was a prelude to a massive militarization to pave the way for the entry of a large mining company there.

In April 2011, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) approved an application of Agusan Petroleum, a mining company said to be owned by San Miguel Corp.’s Ramon Ang, to conduct exploration in over 10,000 hectares of areas in Compostela said to be rich with gold and other mineral deposits.

Morales said the lumad residents and even small-scale miners in Mangayon, Ngan and other upland villages affected by the mining operations had vehemently opposed the company’s “encroachment” into their communities.

Pedro Arnado, president of farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) in Compostela Valley, said soldiers were committing various forms of human rights violations in communities affected by the mining project in an attempt to coerce people against opposing the large-scale mining project.

“Soldiers were there not to run after the New People’s Army but to protect the mining company from the farmers and lumad opposing its entry to their communities,” Arnado said. The military has denied KMP’s claims.

Failed dialogue

Mayor Lema Bolo, who, together with Compostela policemen, visited the evacuation center on Oct. 5 and distributed cups of rice porridge, said the local government unit would provide assistance to the evacuees “until they  decide to return to their homes.”

“We would also mediate a dialogue between them and the military,” Bolo said. “We want this to be resolved as soon as possible.”

But as of Oct. 8, the evacuees are still at the Compostela gym, and an earlier dialogue by the military and the residents had apparently failed.

Colonel Angelito de Leon, commander of the Army’s 1001st Infantry Brigade which has operational control over soldiers operating in Compostela, accused NGOs, particularly Balsa Mindanao, of preventing people from returning to their community, “by misleading them that the continued presence of soldiers there has put their lives in danger.”

Lieutenant Vilma Mojado, civil-military officer of the brigade, said Balsa Mindanao even threatened a community leader, identified as one Julito Diarog, in Side 4, against attending Sunday’s dialogue.

“It even came to the extent where Mayor Bolo herself and other members of the municipal peace and order council (MPOC) went to fetch Diarog from the community so he could join the MPOC meeting,” Mijado said. She said Diarog failed to attend.

Military officials said soldiers would remain in Side 4 even as the situation had slowly deteriorated for the evacuees, with the local government already convening a local crisis management committee.

The provincial chapter of the Philippine  Red Cross (PRC) visited the evacuees, pledging immediate assistance, such as foodstuffs and household utensils.

Leo Koh, PRC Compostela Valley head, said he was hoping that the situation would improve, and for the evacuees to return to their community as soon as possible.

“What we want is for them not to stay here at the evacuation center much longer. As you can see, the conditions here are not that easy and we want to preserve their human dignity,” the Red Cross official said. He added that he was hoping humanitarian law would be respected by the military and the NPA.

Harassment on teachers

The teachers of Side 4’s community learning center Salugpongan Ta’Ta Igkanugon, a primary school run by NGOs, also complained of military harassment and being profiled as “a school of the NPA.”

Imelda Colas, a preschool teacher, said the soldiers had forced evacuees to ride in three military trucks on their way to the town proper.

“You can’t force people to ride in those trucks if they don’t want to. I can’t force them either,” Colas recalled telling a female Army officer who allegedly tried to herd the evacuees the soldiers had “blocked” in Sitio Bongkilaton, an hour’s trek away from the poblacion. Side 4 is four hours away by foot from the town center.

Colas said it was unfair for the military to tag her workplace “a school for the NPA.”

“How come it’s a school for the NPA when those rebels do not even want to go to school in the first place? We’re teaching the children K to 12 subjects and good values, and not for them to become NPA,” she said. Colas handles 43 children ages 3 to 5 years old.

Peaceful life

The teacher said she understood the military’s job in going after rebels, but “the military should have also understood that our task is to teach the children, and not for us to become military informants.”

“One of the soldiers even told me if I knew that an NPA hut was found just hundreds of meters from the school. I told him, ‘How should I know? I don’t roam the forests beyond the community,’” she recounted.

Children panicked as soldiers began arriving at Side 4 on Oct. 2, said Delia Tagupa, another Salugpungan teacher.

Tagupa said the children’s behavior was understandable “as it was the first time for the kids to see armed men in the community.”

Of course, there were also sightings of NPA rebels “as the place is a hinterland and surrounded by forests, but the rebels just pass by and do not stay for long periods,” Tagupa said.

She said she and other members of the community “had appealed to the soldiers’ officer, a certain Lieutenant Marasigan of the Special Forces that they may pass by but could not stay in the community.”

The 10th ID and the Compostela Valley police said Army units in the area during the fire fight and civilian evacuation on Oct. 4 included soldiers belonging to the 25th Infantry Battalion and the Reconnaissance Company from the 1001st ID.

“When the officer said they’d still wait for advice from their superiors, the residents decided to pack up and leave than be caught in the middle in case of an encounter,” Tagupa said.


Bug-ot, a father of five children of whom the eldest is a Grade 2 pupil at the community school, said he and his 26-year-old wife Anna grabbed the children and frantically trekked to the poblacion.

Bug-ot said he feared for the safety of his family.

“We’re very scared for the children. We did not evacuate during Typhoon Pablo and we survived, but a fire fight is another story. You cannot just dodge bullets,” Bug-ot said. “If we stayed and the shooting (between the Army and the rebels) happened in the middle of our community, we might not survive this time,” he said.

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