MANILA, Philippines - She saw them stab her brother to death. But she could not remember their faces. Everything that happened on that fateful day in Marawi City seems a blur now, except for a grim reminder: her second-degree burns.
Estrella Diaz, 14, survived the attack on professor Othello Cobal and his student assistant Erwin Diaz at an Internet café in the Mindanao State University's (MSU) main campus in Marawi on October 25. Erwin Diaz was Estrella's brother, the family's sole breadwinner.
Those who were in the vicinity that fateful day were lucky enough to escape the wrath of the 3 men who barged into Cobal’s Mindnolia Internet Café and set the building on fire.
But Estrella Diaz almost died. She's been through two surgeries to treat her second-degree burns. With the death of her brother Erwin, Estrella can only rely on donations for her treatment.
Lanao del Sur provincial police director Romeo Magsalos said Estrella has given her testimony but she couldn’t recall any of the suspects' faces.
“She saw the perpetrators but she cannot recall, cannot identify. It's the first time she saw the three suspects. We just took her testimony. We're still looking at different angles,” he said.
One of the angles being explored is that the perpetrators belonged to the same group that previously burned down a karaoke bar in downtown Marawi City. The building that hosted the Internet café also had a karaoke bar on the second floor.
There are other witnesses but they have refused to come out, according to Assemblywoman Samira Gutoc-Tomawis.
“Witnesses don't want to provide a sketch on the suspects. Without the sketch, there’s no way the public would know who they are,” she said.
Although willing to provide information on the current situation in MSU, sources on the ground have refused to be quoted for fear of endangering their families and further alienating their peers.
Online, however, people express their outrage without fear.
The page, Taga MSU-Main Campus jud ka kung? (You are from MSU-Main Campus if?), which used to be a fun page where students and alumni post anecdotes about the university, has been filled with posts from people calling on authorities to take action.
Another page, Justice for Sir Othello, was created to call for justice for the late well-loved professor.
“It’s arson and murder on a very respected individual who's not from the place but who's trying to help the place. It's like a condemnation from both the outside community of alumni and from within,” Tomawis said.
After all, Cobal and Diaz were just the latest victims of a spate of violence on campus. It was the 7th fire to hit the university in a month.
In August 2011, alleged members of a criminal syndicate ambushed a group of Army soldiers patrolling in the vicinity of MSU, killing 3 troops and wounding 10 others. At least 20 students were hurt in the crossfire.
“When the August 8 ambush happened, which killed 3 soliders. I was telling the crowd, if this happened to soldiers, what more with students? It’s an example of how unsafe it could be,” Tomawis said.
The military said then that they were trying to arrest a suspected drug dealer in the area. Illegal drugs has been Marawi's biggest problem, according to authorities.
On Thursday, November 8, in fact, a cadaver was found early morning just outside the campus, Tomawis said.
Tomawis believes rage should also be felt on the ground, so that Cobal and other victims do not become mere statistics.
“Students should be more vigilant. I’d like to see a rally. They should demand more accountability from the authorities,” she said.
But Tomawis is also the first to say that it would take more than just individual actions to reform MSU. A concerted community effort is required, she said.
Shortly after the incident, Tomawis led a dialogue among sectors involved in keeping the campus safe, including the Lanao del Sur Provincial Police Office, MSU Peacekeeping Force, MSU officials, local officials in Marawi, and representatives from the government of Lanao.
The meeting led to the creation of a multi-sectoral organization called Multi-Sectoral Cooperation for Peace, which passed a resolution formally declaring MSU a Zone of Peace.
The Regional Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao on Thursday, November 9, adopted the resolution. Magsalos said the proponents want to have the system implemented before the end of the year.
The Zone of Peace concept already exists in several places in Mindanao, where arms and goons cannot enter communities, Tomawis said. Support systems within the community is strong such that residents text each other to prevent strangers from coming in.
Protecting each other
“It will work through very strong community associations, not just policy by the authorities,” Tomawis said.
Magsalos said he is proposing that all uniformed personnel, army, the police and MSU’s peacekeeping forces should not be seen brandishing firearms in the area.
“We will start by sparing the students and residents from seeing firearms of all calibers,” he said.
“We also propose that local executives, such as mayors, who are living within the campus, to cooperate, especially with escorts, to keep their arms inside their cars,” he said.
MSU, like the University of the Philippines-Diliman, also has residential areas occupied by non-members of the university. Despite security issues, students from Mindanao, and even from as far as Palawan, enroll in MSU because it offers one of the cheapest tuition in the country at P50 per unit.
Tomawis said that among the proposals include the establishment of entry and exit points, and the creation of a composite force between MSU's peacekeeping body and the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Lanao del Sur.
MSU’s security team has its own charter and the police cannot just enter without permission, Magsalos said, but MSU President Macapado Muslim has already given indication that both parties can now work together.
“I spoke personally to the president himself. We are volunteering that if there's a way we can be of help if you will just allow,” Magsalos said.
A local police team is now inside the MSU campus under Joint Task Force Mindanao.
“In the past, it wasn’t that open,” Magsalos said.
Copies of the resolution to declare MSU a zone of peace will be transmitted to the MSU System President and Board of Regents, the provincial and city governments, the Commission on Higher Education, and the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process, a Philippine Information Agency report said.
On Monday, November 5, Lanao del Sur Rep Pangalian Balindong delivered a privilege speech in the House of Representatives calling for a congressional inquiry into the incident.
Balindon said that “from a serenely beautiful and quiet campus,” MSU has turned into “a haven for criminal activity,” where the carrying of firearms is “prevalent,” and "drug dealing and drug use are rampant."
Shabu, he said, is reportedly "available in some sari-sari stores inside the campus."
"To add insult to injury, distinguished colleagues, is the fact that to this day, there have been no apprehensions and not even a single suspect has been hauled to the police precinct for investigation or officially charged in any court. The murderers, rapists, arsonists, kidnappers, drug peddlers and drug lords continue to roam the campus with impunity," he said. –Rappler.com