After killings, Manobo families abandon villages
DAVAO CITY, Philippines—Imelda Belandres’ father has just died and she was praying during his wake on Monday night when heavily armed soldiers entered her village in Diatagon, Lianga in Surigao del Sur province.
“The soldiers … were looking for a chairman. We politely replied that there are many chairpersons here like those of the purok, sitio and other organizations,” Belandres, a Manobo resident of Sitio Han-ayan, said in a phone interview.
When they started looking for the datu, a relative, the family said no one can talk to him right now because he was in grief and that his privacy must be respected as is the custom of the tribe, the woman narrated. “They agreed and encamped 5 meters away,” she said.
Tension escalated when more soldiers, who introduced themselves as members of the Army’s 36th and 75th Infantry Battalions (IBs), and the Magahat-Bagani paramilitary group, massed up in the village around 4 a.m. on Tuesday.
“This group was more agitated and scary. They went inside the houses without requesting permission from residents and went through our belongings. The soldiers then ordered everyone to gather near our father’s wake,” Belandres said.
While they were being herded by the armed men, screams were heard from students who had just entered the compound of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev), to tell its director, Emerito Samarca, about the commotion outside.
The body of Samarca was found, hogtied and with a single stab wound, inside one of the classrooms. He was last seen being taken away by Magahat members on Monday after he ordered all of the teachers to leave amid a threat of being massacred by a ragtag gang of bandits.
The day before, armed men burned a cooperative building adjacent to Alcadev, a privately operated but government-regulated learning institution that provides basic and technical education to lumad (indigenous) children in communities rarely reached by government services. The school won the National Literacy Award in 2001 and 2005 and was a finalist in 2014.
“When we heard the students screaming, we tried to run to their direction, but the armed men stopped us,” Belandres said. The intruders ordered the residents to abandon the place.
“They ordered us to walk towards Kilometer 16 and we have to follow because they were armed. We were scared that they will kill us,” Belandres said. On the dirt road, they were surrounded by the soldiers and militias.
“When we reached Kilometer 16, they told us not to move an inch or we will be killed. One of the soldiers introduced himself as a certain Bebot Bigante Brital of the 75th IB and he lectured us that we should not complain about mining companies coming in our lands because they will give us money,” Belandres said.
She said the soldiers accused them of being members of the communist New People’s Army and that they were the reason the companies cannot operate in the area.
“Many of the residents tried to argue explaining that we were civilians. While this was happening, they suddenly grabbed Dionel Campos and his cousin Bello Sinzo. It happened too fast. They opened fire not far from us. It was very close to our feet. So we dove for cover. After the firing stopped, we saw the dead bodies. There were blood, flesh and human brain on the ground. They killed them,” Belandres said.
Campos was the chair of the Maluhutayong Pakigbisog Alansa sa Sumusunod. He was very vocal in his advocacy for the protection of ancestral lands and in calling for an end to human rights abuses.
At least 10 sitios in the village of Diatagon are now deserted. Some 2,000 residents are staying in an evacuation center in Tandag City after walking for hours.
On Wednesday, Gov. Johnny Pimentel convened representatives of the local government unit, police and civil society groups for a dialogue to arrest the situation. Bishop Modesto Villasanta of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines said Pimentel had wanted charges to be filed against members of the Magahat-Bagani force but that they should be named.
Karapatan, a militant human rights group, said the charges should not be limited to the paramilitary group as it accused the military of orchestrating the operation. The military denied the accusations and vowed full support of the investigation and efforts to stabilize the situation.
In a statement, Col. Isidro Purisima, commander of 402nd IB, said more troops had already been deployed “to closely coordinate and assist the PNP (Philippine National Police) in the investigation of the burning and killing incidents” and to “go after the perpetrators.”
“We shall not let these criminals roam around and threaten the peace-loving people of Surigao del Sur. We will let them face the crimes they’ve committed,” Purisima said.
Maj. Gen. Oscar Lactao, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said the incidents had affected the peace programs of the provincial government. “We condemn the crime committed by this armed group. It is very unfortunate that this situation happened considering that the government is already gaining grounds on its peace advocacies in these conflict-affected areas,” he said.
“Governor Pimentel and Mayor (Roy) Sarmen are already on top of this incident and have taken measures to stabilize the situation. We will support and participate in the conduct of this fact-finding mission and the ongoing investigation by the PNP to give justice to the victims of this crime,” Lactao added.
Eliza Pangilinan, secretary general of Karapatan-Caraga, said the statements of the military were meant to save face over its “tactical blunder” in the area.
“The Magahat-Bagani group was with the military during the incident. And it was the military who created, armed, trained and funded this group. Will the military go after its own men?” Pangilinan asked. The group has about 20 members armed with automatic firearms.
Karapatan said the militia unit started recruiting members as the military implemented its “Internal Peace and Security Plan Bayanihan.”
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