COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Given a choice, Hazuiar wants her children learning lessons in school than lining up for relief goods in an evacuation center.
But today, her daughter Norhayna has missed another day of school, her son Rashid is not at the learning center in their village, and both are carrying relief goods as she lines up to get some medicine for her youngest child.
These days, choice is not something Hazuiar and her children, along with 125,000 other evacuees have. At least 15 towns in Maguindanao have been affected by the military’s intensive operation, and people have been fleeing their homes to avoid getting caught in the firefight.
The number of evacuees has risen steadily since the military began its operation in pursuit of members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). What was initially intended to be a three-day operation has now lasted more than 20 days, although the military has said it will end soon.
As of March 19, based on figures released by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team (ARMM-HEART), the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has reached 125,302.
However, the firefighting which have prompted evacuations is not just from a single encounter.
The ongoing military operations began on February 25 – exactly a month after the Mamasapano encounter when AFP chief Gen Gregorio Pio Catapang, Jr ordered an all-out offensive against the BIFF.
The Western Mindanao Command was instructed to coordinate with the Philippine National Police in a joint operation against the BIFF.
Catapang issued the order amidst clashes between combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and BIFF, at least 3 of which are reported to be caused by disputes over contol of parts of the Liguasan delta along the Maguindanao-North Cotabato boundary.
The AFP initially began their operations in hopes of deescalating the tension in the area, according to Catapang in an interview last February 17.
Norhayna has not gone to school for more than 10 days, she said. The school year is about to end but classes have been suspended indefinitely due to the firefights.
When asked how she felt about the class suspension, she said, “I no longer know what will happen to my studies. Maybe we’d resume classes after the firefight, but right now I have no idea what will happen.”
According to the latest data from ARMM-HEART’s education cluster, at least 63 schools have been affected by the conflict with 22 abandoned due to evacuations. A number of them have resorted to class suspensions as the school year draws to a close.
In an earlier interview during a region-wide sportsfest held last February, Kulayan has warned about the adverse effects of firefighting. According to him, thousands of students might be affected by the ongoing conflict should it spread to more municipalities in the province.
Hazuiar and her children left their home in Barangay Dasikil and moved 3 villages westward to Barangay Libutan, Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The health of her children has been compromised since they evacuated, according to her.
“The weather has been hot the past few days, at least until that one night when it rained for a short while,” she said as she fell in line with her youngest for a free medical check-up courtesy of the regional Department of Health.
Norhayna joined her mother shortly, after claiming relief goods brought by ARMM-HEART for evacuees in the area.
When asked if her family has made any attempt to come home, Hazuiar said, “no, we don’t dare come back. We can’t do anything against a bazooka.”
“We can’t really do anything but wait,” Norhayna said as she fell in line with her mother. “We always wait. – Rappler.com
Ayrie Ching works with the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Bureau of Public Information in Cotabato.
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