School absences rise after clashes
MATALAM, North Cotabato—When classes at the Kidama Elementary School here resumed on Monday and Tuesday, teachers noticed at least 200 chairs were empty.
They were those of Muslim pupils who had been displaced by clashes between rival Moro rebel groups on New Year’s Eve.
At the resumption of classes, only 51 pupils, all Christians, were present, according to school officials.
Mary Ann Belmonte, school principal, said an investigation made by teachers revealed that the absent pupils were Muslims who had fled their homes and have been staying in an evacuation center.
The children stopped going to school after their uniforms and school materials were burned together with their houses at the height of clashes between members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The absence of the pupils worried Belmonte.
“While we understand the plight of these children, we cannot afford to see them suffer more and compromise their schooling,” she said.
The teachers knew they had to do something and did.
“We offered to help so that they can buy school uniforms, among others,” Belmonte said, adding “this is to convince the pupils to go back to school.”
The teachers pitched in to buy uniforms and materials for the Muslim pupils, even if the funds had to come from their own pockets.
The teachers talked with the children’s parents to relay one message—that education is more important than anything.
The teachers told the parents not to keep their children from school just because the pupils didn’t have uniforms. They told the parents not to worry about school needs.
“Parents should not worry about the food since we have feeding programs courtesy of Department of Education,” said Belmonte.
Belmonte, however, admitted that the teachers, who are earning gross incomes of only up to P20,000 a month and have families of their own, could not do it alone.
She made an appeal for donations, in cash or kind, to keep the Muslim pupils in school.
The children, along with their families, were driven out of their homes when MILF and MNLF members, who belong to the Mangadta and Amapalatan clans, clashed over a land dispute.
Efforts to bring the two warring groups to the negotiating table are gaining ground, according to police.
“We are gaining headway,” said Chief Insp. Sunny Leoncito, Matalam town police chief.
Leoncito said leaders of the warring families assured him the village is now safe and that there would be no more violence.
“That’s what they told me but the displaced families refused to return home for now,” Leoncito said.
Von al-Haq, spokesperson of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, said several emissaries from the MILF central committee had been sent to Barangay Kidama.
“This is not an organizational fight,” he said in a phone interview.
Capt. Joan Petinglay, 6th Infantry Division spokesperson, said the 602nd brigade has sent soldiers to serve as a peacekeeping force in the villages. Edwin Fernandez and Williamor Magbanua, Inquirer Mindanao