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‘Lumad’ caught in crossfire

/ 06:00 AM September 21, 2014
MEMBERS of Ata-Manobo tribe wait for food packs being distributed by the local government of Kapalong town in Davao del Norte province. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

MEMBERS of Ata-Manobo tribe wait for food packs being distributed by the local government of Kapalong town in Davao del Norte province. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

With just bolos and antiquated rifles in their arsenal, 30-year-old Rolly Sahay and dozens of Ata-Manobo men in the forests of Gupitan were bold enough to openly express anger against the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

The belligerence could be seen as a call to arms against a much powerful guerrilla army, but Sahay said he and other members of Alamara were ready to fight.

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“In fact, we’ve been fighting a war in the mountains against the intruders for a long time already,” the father of four said.

Long regarded by human rights groups as a tribal militia being used by the military in tribal communities against communist guerrillas, Alamara has been tagged by the NPA as a bandit group responsible for atrocities and abuses against perceived rebel sympathizers, “lumad” and non-lumad alike.

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Tribal vigilantes

Tribal leaders supporting Alamara have accused the NPA of using progressive groups to sow discord in communities like in Gupitan, Kapalong’s biggest village that shares borders with Bukidnon province and which also has a sizable tribal population.

Isidro Indao, spokesperson of lumad organization Pasaka, accused the military of manipulating the indigenous population into creating vigilante groups, like Alamara, in its counterinsurgency operations and funding, arming and giving orders to the tribesmen.

Pasaka, the lumad confederation, said Alamara was formed in 2002 by Col. Felipe Berroya in Davao City who headed an Army brigade operating in the hinterlands of Davao City and Davao del Norte province under the military’s counterinsurgency campaign, Oplan Alsa-Lumad, to “shield lumad villages against the NPA.”

Karapatan Southern Mindanao has documented a total of 87 cases of human rights abuses against lumad communities in the Davao region in 2002.

Lumad leaders said they were caught in the fighting between government troops and the NPA, and abuses committed by the rebels were forcing them to fight alongside soldiers.

Datu Benito Mantayona, indigenous peoples (IP) representative in the Gupitan village council, said the NPA was forcing many tribesmen to join its ranks.

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“And what would they give in return? Only death and suffering to the families of our brothers,” Mantayona said.

Violence looms

“Our brothers who were deceived by the NPA only die for nothing. I had five relatives who joined the group and we found out that they had become [members of the] NPA only when we dug their bodies from shallow graves deep in the forest,” Mantayona said.

Rights group Karapatan and other tribal organizations have expressed concern over the alleged arming of lumad in Gupitan as violence loomed over communities affected by the fighting, which has been going on there since July.

Residents have fled 10 sub-villages in Gupitan for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

Mayor Edgardo Timbol denied allegations by rights groups that he was the main backer of Alamara and that human rights abuses were being committed by the tribal militia against the tribal population.

Aris Francisco, spokesperson of the NPA ComVal-North Davao South Agusan subregional command, in a statement warned Timbol against helping Alamara, saying this was “intensifying the suffering and misery of lumad and peasants.”

“As a warlord, Mayor Timbol used the notorious tribal leader Laris Mansaloon and Alamara as his own private army that is responsible for protecting his various economic and political interests…. Mansaloon and the Alamara bandits are the armed component of Mayor Timbol’s electoral machinery and illegal logging business,” Francisco said.

HORSES are familiar modes of transportation in Gupitan, a village in Kapalong, Davao del Norte province, that has become a battleground of government soldiers and communist guerrillas. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

HORSES are familiar modes of transportation in Gupitan, a village in Kapalong, Davao del Norte province, that has become a battleground of government soldiers and communist guerrillas. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

No beggars

The mayor just laughed off the NPA’s claim.

“I don’t have the capacity to tap the lumad for a so-called private army. I don’t need a private army,” Timbol said in a recent press conference in Kapalong.

He said there was no truth to reports of “hamletting” and government troops preventing people from leaving and entering Gupitan village. He said the residents of Gupitan simply didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire.

Kapalong’s biggest village has a registered population of 13,000.

Gaspar Balinggao, municipal disaster action officer, said the local government had sent doctors, nurses, social workers and other government workers to Gupitan.

“We brought government services to the village so the people would no longer have to leave for other areas and beg for help,” Timbol said. “We don’t want our constituents to be herded to Davao City and become beggars there.”

Arturo Davao, IP representative to the town council, said he was worried for his people.

“Their corn and upland rice are ready for harvest, but they’re too afraid to go out to the fields,” he said.

He added that an elementary school in Kapatagan had been closed.

He accused the NPA of terrorizing tribal chiefs, saying many of the village leaders had fled, too.

Manifesto

Timbol said the tribal chiefs in Gupitan had signed a manifesto addressed to “outsiders” to stay away from the village or face “tribal retribution.”

The mayor said it was not a declaration of tribal war, though, but just a warning to anyone who would dare disrespect the tribe’s culture.

He reiterated that the tribal militia Alamara was not his private army but “is already part of their culture, existing even before settlers like us had set foot in Kapalong.”

“I don’t need [Alamara] to be my private army. We have our military that can provide security,” the mayor said.

Timbol also belied claims he was using the militia to protect large mining companies and logging firms in Gupitan because a local ordinance had declared the 60,000-hectare village a critical watershed area.

Mansaloon, leader of the 100-strong Alamara, said outsiders, like the NPA, had forced the tribe to shut its doors to “langyaw” (foreigners).

He said groups like the NPA and left-leaning nongovernment organizations wanted to drive a wedge between the lumad, dividing and conquering them.

Defenders

“We’re upset. This has to stop,” said Mansaloon, wearing his tribe’s clothes with a bolo tied to his waist.

Sahay, the militiaman, said NPA abuses forced tribesmen to arm themselves.

He said he joined Alamara after the NPA forced his 70-year-old mother to carry a sack of rice to a guerrilla camp.

“We’re just trying to defend our lands, our culture,” Sahay said.

Balinggao said the local government had set aside P1.3 million after declaring Gupitan to be in a state of imminent danger last month to make way for the transport of food to residents.

Balinggao said 4,865 food packs had been distributed and the aid would continue “until the situation there normalizes.”

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