HIMAMAYLAN CITY Philippines – Nine-month-pregnant Genijade Caseres should be preparing her home in Sitio Campayas, Barangay Carabalan for the arrival of her fourth child.
But like thousands of residents of upland villages in this southern Negros Occidental component city, 75 kilometers from Bacolod City, Caseres and her family scampered from their home as loud gunfire on October 6 marked the first of seven clashes in a week.
A few hours later, Caseres and her three children found themselves at a stranger’s house.
On the same day, at the End Time Message Church in Barangay Caradioan, some eight kilometers from Barangay Carabalan, Helen Diaz-Romano received a frantic call for help from a relative.
Diaz-Romano, her husband pastor and other members of the church quickly dispatched two Isuzu Canters, or open bed mini trucks, to fetch kin from the troubled village.
Mary Hope Mahilum joined her driver husband in the rescue mission.
They found their way blocked by the soldiers from the 94th Infantry Battalion some distance away from Sitio Campayas. Troops warned them that going any farther could be dangerous.
After long minutes spent storming the heavens with prayers, Mary Hope saw a big crowd of people rushing through the trees and tall grasses.
Many were on their knees, keeping as close to the ground to avoid getting caught by crossfire.
The pregnant Caceres and her children were among those crawling through the foliage.
Mary Hope had expected at most two dozen relatives. She found more than a hundred panting, weeping people clambering on board the two vehicles. They turned no one away.
“Some of us were missing slippers, some had dropped their bags,” recalled Caceres of the collective sprint to safety.
In an interview with Rappler on Thursday, October 13, Caseres expressed a wish to go home.
“I might give birth this month to a baby boy due to nervousness,” she said in Hiligaynon in their church refuge in Barangay Caradioan.
Diaz-Romano took in 27 families or 125 individuals. Turning on all the church’s air conditioners for the evacuees caused their electric bill to balloon by P15,000 in seven days.
“God will provide,” the pastor’s wife said with good cheer.
To give everyone space, they rearranged the church pews to give each family their own little spot.
Amid the trauma, evacuees and hosts chipped in to celebrate the birthday of a nine-year-old girl, to make up for the missing lechon (roasted pig) promised by the child’s late father.
They’ll probably do the same if Caceres gives birth, but the mother of three hopes her new child would be gifted by a homecoming.
Clashes in at least three villages in Barangay Carabalan, which has a population of nearly 13,000 have killed two soldiers and top rebel leader Romeo Nanta, also known as Juanito Magbanua, commanding officer of the NPA Apolinario Gatmaitan Command and spokesperson for the Communist Party of the Philippines’ Negros-Cebu-Bohol-Siquijor regional party committee.
Six soldiers were also wounded in the fighting.
The 303rd Infantry Brigade, the military command on Negros island, the country’s fourth largest, said they would continue pursuing the guerrillas.
Across the border in Negros Oriental, the 62nd Infantry Battalion has also clashed with the NPA in the mountains of Guihulngan City twice in as many days since Wednesday, October 12.
While pursuit is ongoing in Himamaylan, the military has imposed a lockdown in Carabalan a bid to prevent rebels from slipping into the civilian population.
Evacuees have been told to stay away from their villages. A small number of folk remain trapped in homes and a daycare center in Sitios Sig-ang and Medel, where the heaviest fighting have occurred, said the human rights group Karapatan Negros.
Evacuation is taking its toll on residents.
Seven-three-year-old Oscar Quingco was emotional thinking of the farm and the animals he left behind, his only source of livelihood, he told Rappler.
Quingco said that in 40 years of residency in Sitio Campayas, this is the first time he has had to flee his home.
“But when we heard gunfire nearby, we knew we had to leave immediately,” he said.
His family left with nothing, not even their clothes.
“If we can, I want to go home. It’s always better to sleep in your own home…if you’re far from home, you worry about the home you left behind,” he said.
Clashes have displaced 3,826 families or 18,237 individuals as of Wednesday, October 12, according to the City Social Welfare and Development Office.
Most are in 14 evacuation sites, including the Cong. Agustin Gatuslao Memorial Center near the city center. Some are with relatives in safer communities in the city and neighboring Binalbagan town.
The Army has set up checkpoints to track the entry and exit of people, asking passersby to present identification papers.
Security is also tight at the evacuation center in the Himamaylan center, with journalists banned from going in, with coverage limited to a media box outside the building.
In the Carabalan center, barangay chairperson Mildred Titular told Rappler that 192 families or 451 individuals are staying at the open village gym in the upland area.
Evacuees have expressed concern over their safety as only tanods (civilian volunteers) are securing the area, she said.
A makeshift barricade around the barangay center would offer little protection if fighting reaches the area. But there’s little likelihood of that as the battles are kilometers away in the rugged forests that eventually snake into the Oriental side of the island.
Titular said evacuees are also suffering from heat of the uninsulated structure.
But local government and private aid agencies, she said, have been prompt in bringing assistance to the affected families.
CSWD chief Ever Grace Castro said many private initiatives have poured in to supplement government supplies. The Himamaylan city council also declared a state of calamity to free up nearly P2 million in funds for the evacuees.
But the temporarily homeless residents worry about the longer effects of the crisis on their livelihood.
Sitio Sig-ang leader Melvin Parcon expressed fear that prolonged absence from their farms would mean going hungry for months after they are allowed to return home.
“Indi na ka trespasser (This cannot sustain us),” he said of the work left undone in the farms.
Parcon said they initially mistook the first burst of gunfire as fireworks.
When the bursts continued, they knew the situation was getting serious, and he gathered all 90 families in their village to hurry to the barangay gym.
“Bisan indi kami kakaon mayo na sud-an, bisan uga lang. Basta tawhay and wala ka sang kulba, mas bentaha tani,” Parcon told Rappler. (Even if we do not have good food, even if we only eat dried fish, as long as there is peace and no fear, this is more okay).”
Vice Mayor Justin Gatuslao, who distributed food packs at the Barangay Carabalan gym, said the village is close to his heart because a late uncle was the first barangay captain there.
He said the evacuees’ primary concern is the livestock they left behind but that most are thankful for the swift response of the civilian government.
Gatuslao told Rappler the military on October 12 had mentioned several sitios where the situation has “normalized” but added, “it is not clear where the safe sitios are.”
Karapatan Negros on October 13 said the military held seven farmers for three days on suspicion that they were rebel supporters. Pablo Abela Jr., Lito Abela, Angelo Abela, Aplredo Abela, Homer Liansing, Angelo Alejo and Hendro Alejo were freed after a barangay official vouched that they are not members of the NPA, the human rights group said. The men are now in an evacuation area, awaiting results of their medical exam. – Rappler.com