DAVAO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – As thousands celebrated the signing of the final peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), members of the Manobo tribe in a Davao del Norte town fled hostilities between government forces and communist guerrillas.
Bringing with them only what they can carry in their arms, at least 309 families with children and elderly members hiked for more than 4 hours in the dark, through thick foliage and rocky trails in the town of Talaingod in Davao del Norte.
Datu Doloman Dausay, spokesperson of tribal organization Salugpongan Ta 'Tanu Igkanugon, said the displaced families are from the tribal villages of Palma Gil and Dagohoy.
Dausay said the residents had to leave their communities while government forces were asleep since the soldiers deployed to their area allegedly prohibited them from doing so.
Datu Gumbil Mansimuy, another member of the tribal organization, said residents of Sitio Nalubas and Sitio Bagang were already starving because they were being prevented from going to their farm to gather food.
The displaced residents are now in Davao City to seek refuge explaining that the city is a neutral ground for them. Suffering from fever, a 12-day-old baby boy died on Wednesday while his family was attempting to find safer grounds.
"It was not that easy for us when we left because we have to leave at night discreetly and we were really afraid that the military who were sleeping might wake up and then arrest or even kill us. But we had no choice. We will die of hunger and be subject to more violations if we stay," Mansimuy said.
He said some of those who were able to slip past the military cordon went as far as Bukidnon just to look for food while others decided to hide in the forests of the Pantaron Range.
Dausay explained that they decided to leave their homes after 2 helicopters and 4 fighter planes allegedly dropped bombs near their communities on March 20, as part of military operations against the New People's Army (NPA).
“We strongly condemn the aerial bombing perpetrated by the military inside the ancestral land of the Manobo. This is a huge violation to our right to live peacefully and to be free from any threat to our lives,” Dausay said.
Dausay narrated several incidents that transpired before the alleged aerial bombing.
On March 19, a group composed mostly of students was walking towards Sitio Palungan from Sitio Nalubas to get chickens and gather root crops for a school graduation when 15 soldiers confronted them. The 13 students were accompanied by 3 parents Roylan Licayan, a teacher, and purok leader Tungig Mansimuy-at.
“They were accosted by 15 elements of the military. They were interrogated separately and held for 1 hour. Their photos were also taken,” Datu Dausay said.
Dausay said that from Sitio Palungan, the group was “forcibly escorted” by 7 military personnel back to Sitio Nalubas.
“Along the way they again met 30 military personnel and were again interrogated. They were released after an hour,” the tribal leader added.
In another incident, Dausay said a woman identified as Ubonay Botod Manlaon was walking along a dirt road from Sitio Bagang to Sitio Bagasan, bearing rice seeds for planting, when she was allegedly accosted, and later detained and molested, by soldiers.
“She was taken by the military for one week and was forced to guide them in their counter-insurgency operations. She eventually escaped from the custody of the military,” Dausay said.
The tribal leader alleged that the soldiers hogtied Manlaon at night. There were even times that they stripped her naked and molested her, he claimed.
Dausay also alleged that military operations in their area had damaged several rice paddies. Many livestock such as chickens have also gone missing.
The military denied the allegations. Captain Raphael Marcelino, spokesperson of the military’s 1003rdBrigade, told a different version of the recent events in Talaingod.
Marcelino explained that the evacuation happened because the tribal people were scared of the alleged atrocities of communist rebels in the area.
“After Typhoon Pablo struck the region, the New People’s Army transferred to the area and claimed that it is their territory. While staying there, the rebels initially said that they would help the Lumads,” Marcelino said.
He said the rebels ordered the Lumads to plant corn and sweet potato, and to build a corn mill.
“Eventually, the rebels stayed there without any plans of leaving. And when the corn mill was finished, the NPA asked them to pay every time the Lumads have to mill their products,” Marcelino said.
He said the ongoing military operation is the government’s immediate response to free the Lumads from the alleged exploitative activities of the NPA.
The military said a huge number of communist rebels were assembled in the area, particularly during the celebration of the NPA 45th anniversary on March 30.
Marcelino asserted that government forces would continue their operations until the NPA is defeated, in accordance with the projection of the Armed Forces that the communist movement will be crushed within 5 years.
Sources said the ongoing operation may last for 6 months, and would involve several large-sized military units specially trained on counter-insurgency.
However, the tribal leaders and the displaced residents maintained that they fear the military.
“They have threatened the whole village that if one of the military soldiers dies then they will kill 5 Manobo villagers," Dausay said.
He added: "The developments they have seen in our villages such as the water system, school buildings and even our community corn mill were all attributed to NPA. The Lumads are always accused as members of the NPA every time they see development in our communities.”
Dausay said the Manobo tribe has suffered a long history of human rights violations by the military, including harassment, destruction of farms, and killings.
“But until this day, we have not achieved justice and no one among the perpetrators were punished,” Dausay said.
Salugpongan asserted that the tribe’s opposition to the Integrated Forestry Management Agreement (IFMA) logging project, corporate mining in Pantaron Range, and their strong stance for a total log ban in their territory “must have prompted the military to intensify their operation in the area.”
“We strongly demand to the President, concerned government agencies to immediately pull out these military elements from our ancestral lands. Respect the peace in our communities, as we continue with the development of our community based schools and communal farms, in exercise of our self-determination as Lumads," Dausay said.
Resume talks with NDF
Numerous groups have repeatedly called upon the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Philippine government to resume the stalled talks, and for civilians to be spared from the ongoing hostilities.
In a forum in Davao City on March 25, 1BAP Representative and former government peace negotiator Silvestre Bello III said all parties involved in the armed conflict must strictly abide with the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed by the government peace panel and representatives of the NDF.
Bello, a speaker at the forum held in celebration of the anniversary of the CARHRIHL, condemned the use of landmines by the NPA and the use of artillery and aerial bombardment by government forces.
"It is clear in CARHRIHL that whatever device the use of landmine is prohibited. The use of artillery and aerial bombardments are also prohibited and the AFP should observe this most especially in areas that have great number of civilians. They should see to it that civilians are not affected," said Bello.
He said that the purpose of CARHRIHL is to humanize war and that the sanctity of these agreement must be respected by all parties involved in the conflict.
Bello, however, remained optimistic that the peace negotiation with the communist rebels would resume.
"It should be resumed despite the ups and downs of the process," Bello said. – Rappler.com
(Editor's Note: In a previous version of this story, we mistakenly said Capt Marcelino is from the military's 1002nd Brigade. He is actually from the 1003rd Brigade. This has been corrected.)