MANILA, Philippines – As government forces battle terrorists in the central Mindanao province of Maguindanao, thousands of people are forced to leave their homes and stay in flimsy makeshift booths in coconut groves and other open spaces.
"Na-trauma na sila sa pagsabog ng kanyon at saka pagputok ng IED (They're traumatized by the blast of cannons and IED explosions)," a Moro community leader from Barangay Libutan told Rappler on Tuesday, December 10. He asked to be kept anonymous for fear of riling up local leaders whom he said might be displeased that he publicized the information.
Since fighting broke out between the military and terrorists from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the pro-Islamic State (ISIS) Dawlah Islamiyah Torayfie Group (DITG) on December 3, more than 2,000 families have fled to Libutan in Mamasapano municipality from barangays Tina and Bialong in Shariff Aguak municipality, and Pusao in Shariff Saydona Mustapha municipality, the community leader said.
Many of the evacuees have built booths from tree branches and drapes, while others, thinking they will be displaced for a long time, have started building cottages.
Photo sourced by Rappler
Bayan Alumadan, a husband and father from Barangay Tina, said families like his have had to leave behind farmyards and livestock – their only sources of livelihood.
"Sana po ay mapansin ng gobyerno itong nangyari sa amin. Dahil sa matinding kahirapan ay hindi po namin alam kung ano'ng aming gagawin," Alumadan said. (I hope the government takes notice of what has happened to us. We are very poor and we do not know what to do.)
Some of the evacuees risk visiting their homes to retrieve some of their belongings or pick a few vegetables from their farm plots, in order to survive.
The height of the battle with the terrorists is over, but clearing operations were still underway as of Tuesday, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) spokesperson Major Arvin Encinas told Rappler.
On December 3, AFP Westmincom reported that troops from the Philippine Army's 33rd Infantry Battalion and 5th Special Forces Battalion "pounded BIFF rebels" in Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak, and recovered heavy explosives such as a rocket-propelled grenade, grenade launchers, rifles, warhead mortars, and other improvised explosive devices (IED).
Photo sourced by Rappler
"Military forces pursue the enemies of the state in a very deliberate manner to drive the terrorists out of their strongholds," Westmincom chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana said, adding that government forces are determined to rid central Mindanao of terrorism and violence.
The BIFF and DITG are among several terror groups that continue to threaten Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines. While the two groups mostly operate in central Mindanao, the Abu Sayyaf Group, another ISIS affiliate, continues to operate in Sulu and, sporadically, in Basilan.
On Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he would no longer seek to extend the enforcement of martial law in Mindanao beyond December 31, when it expires after more than 2 years since it was imposed at the height of the siege of Marawi City in May 2017.
Security officials said the threat of violence in the region has scaled down, and they would be able to pursue terror groups even without martial law. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.