Dreams die young in Talaingod, Davao del Norte
Bahandilin Manayab was wiping sweat and grime off her face as she trekked through thick foliage and rocky dirt roads. She, her family and at least 170 of her neighbors in Sitio Lasakan, Barangay Palma Gil, in the town of Talaingod in Davao del Norte province were fleeing from massive military operations against communist guerrillas.
Clinging to Manayab’s chest through a piece of cloth called “salulo” was her 12-day-old baby, Biboy, who was then suffering from cough and fever.
“I breast-fed him while we were hiking. But he continued crying. His voice was faint. He suddenly stopped crying and he exhaled a long but soft breath. Biboy died on my chest,” Manayab said, recalling what happened on April 2.
Manayab, a mother of eight children, could do nothing but cry.
“We could not make any noise because the soldiers might hear us,” she said.
Manayab’s husband, Brando, immediately took the baby and, using his bare hands and a bolo, dug a shallow grave and buried his son.
“We continued walking while I silently wept,” she added.
At least 309 Talaingod Manobo families fled their homes and are now staying in a church compound in Davao City after a series of clashes between government forces and communist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas, and alleged human rights abuses committed by soldiers in the area.
Fleeing in the dark
Datu Doloman Dausay, spokesperson of the tribal organization Salugpongan Ta ’Tanu Igkanugon, said the displaced families were from the tribal villages of Palma Gil and Dagohoy.
With no flashlights or torches, the residents fled discreetly while the government soldiers were sleeping. The stars and the moon served as their navigational guide.
They had to do that because the government forces deployed to the communities were allegedly prohibiting the residents from leaving the area, Dausay explained.
Datu Gumbil Mansimuy, also a member of Salugpongan Ta ’Tanu Igkanugon, said the residents of Sitio Nalubas and Sitio Bagang were already starving because they were prevented from going to their farms to gather food.
“It was not that easy for us because we had to leave discreetly at night and we were really afraid that the military [soldiers] who were sleeping might wake up and arrest, or even kill, us. But we had no choice. We would die of hunger and be subjected to more violations if we stayed,” Mansimuy said.
Some of those who were able to slip past the cordon, Mansimuy said, went as far as Bukidnon province just to look for food while others decided to hide in the forests of Pantaron Range.
Dausay said they decided to leave their homes after two helicopters and four warplanes dropped bombs near their communities on March 20.
“We strongly condemn the aerial bombing perpetrated by the military in the ancestral land of the Manobo,” Dausay said.
Dausay also narrated that several incidents also transpired before the alleged aerial bombing.
On March 19, teacher Roylan Licayan, purok leader Tungig Mansimuy-at, 13 students and three parents were walking to Sitio Palungan from Sitio Nalubas to get chickens and gather root crops for the school’s graduation when 15 soldiers accosted them, Dausay said.
“They were interrogated separately and held for one hour. Their photos were also taken,” Dausay said.
Dausay said a woman, identified as Ubonay Botod Manlaon, was also held and used as a guide by soldiers.
“She was taken by the military for one week and was forced to guide them in their counterinsurgency operations. She eventually escaped from the custody of the military,” Dausay said.
The soldiers allegedly tied Manlaon at nighttime. There were even times when they took off her clothes and molested her, the tribal leader added.
The residents also accused the military of torching several houses and defecating on their kettles and pots.
Capt. Rafael Marcelino, spokesperson of the military’s 1003rd Brigade, however, tells a different version of recent events in Talaingod.
Marcelino denied the accusations, saying the evacuation happened because the tribal people were scared of the atrocities committed by communist guerrillas in the area.
“After Typhoon ‘Pablo’ struck the region, NPA rebels transferred to the area and claimed that it as their territory,” Marcelino said.
Marcelino added that the rebels ordered the “lumad” to plant corn and sweet potato and build a corn mill.
“Eventually, the rebels stayed there without any plans of leaving. And when the corn mill was finished, the NPA asked them to pay every time the lumad had to mill their products,” Marcelino said.
Marcelino said the ongoing military operation was the government’s immediate response to the needs of the tribe to be freed from the alleged exploitative activities of the NPA.
Marcelino asserted that government forces would not stop until the NPA was defeated.
“We will not stop. They (NPA rebels) should surrender or else they will be neutralized,” Marcelino said.
The other way around
The datus and the displaced residents, however, said the government soldiers were the ones causing trouble.
“They have threatened the whole village that if one of the soldiers dies, they will kill five Manobo villagers,” Dausay said.
“They attributed to the NPA all the developments, such as a hose for the water system, school buildings and even our community corn mill in our villages. They always accuse the lumad of being members of the NPA every time they see developments in our communities,” he added.
Manayab only smirked when she heard about the accusations.
“The military is lying. We evacuated because of them. In fact, we cannot deny the reality that NPA rebels regularly pass by our area, but they have not harmed us,” Manayab said.
Dausay said the Manobo tribe had suffered a long history of human rights violations including harassment, destruction of farms and killings.
“But we have not achieved justice. No one among the perpetrators has been punished,” Dausay said.
Before the evacuation, the residents have expressed their opposition to the military “occupation.”
A group of women trooped to the military detachment, carrying with them their farm tools to demand the pullout of the soldiers.
Salugpongan said their opposition to logging and mining in Pantaron Range “must have prompted the military to intensify their operation in the area.”
“We strongly demand the immediate pullout of the military from our ancestral lands. Respect the peace in our communities, as we continue with the development of our community-based schools and communal farms, in exercise of our self-determination as lumad,” Dausay said.
Help from America
Pastor Sandie Richards, of the First United Methodist Church of Los Angeles, who was able to visit the Manobo community in a humanitarian mission along with other church leaders and volunteers from the United States in 2012, said she was worried for the welfare of the evacuees and for those who were still in the communities.
“I was very disturbed to hear about the bombing and increased military presence. The Manobo people simply want to farm, raise their families and send their children to school,” Richards said in an online interview.
Richard’s group had provided the funds for the construction of the corn mill.
“But in the newspapers, the military claimed that the corn mill came from the NPA,” Richards added.
Richards called on the military to “leave and allow the Talaingod Manobo people to continue to work and live in peace.”
But for now, the displaced residents have to endure subhuman conditions and the lack of food and medicines while staying in temporary shelters until their communities are declared safe.
Pain is clearly etched on the sunburnt face of Manayab but she said they would continue to struggle for peace and progress in their community.
But she will never forget what the soldiers did to her community and her family.
“Even if we are poor, I have big dreams for my children. When Biboy was born, I wished that he would become a doctor so that he could help our tribe. But that dream is gone now. What I have now is the passion and rage to fight and resist,” she said.
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