The situation in North Cotabato and Maguindanao has deteriorated since renewed fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) broke out in Aleosan and Midsayap, North Cotabato last Aug. 8.
The Arroyo administration would have the public believe that the renewed skirmishes in North Cotabato broke out following the Supreme Court’s issuance of a temporary restraining order on the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) between the Philippine government and the MILF, which was scheduled on Aug. 5.
But based on a radio news report, there had been an encounter in Sitio Maligaya, Brgy. Malamote in Kabacan as early as June 30. This was followed by another firefight the next day in Sitio Tubak, Brgy. Pagangan in Aleosan, in which forces belonging to the MILF’s 105th Brigade under Kato clashed with AFP troops.
Before these incidents, there was already massive military deployment to North Cotabato, purportedly to secure the province for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections on Aug. 11.
These clashes led civilians to evacuate to Brgy. Bagolibas in Aleosan and Brgys. Bualan and Nalapaan in Pikit.
Later in July, some of the houses in Brgy. Bual were burned by armed men while a number of farm animals in Brgy. Bagolibas were stolen.
More massive house burnings took place on Aug. 2, in which a total of 84 homes were razed to the ground. Fifty-one of these were in Brgy Bagolibas, 26 were in Sitio Puypuyon, Brgy. Dualing, and seven were in Sitio Taguan, Brgy. San Mateo – all in Aleosan. The government claimed these torchings were perpetrated by MILF fighters led by Kato.
Military offensives intensified following the Aug. 8 implementation of Oplan Ultimatum and military positionings in Pikit, Aleosan, and Midsayap; as well as the dissolution of the government peace panel in the negotiations with the MILF.
Aerial bombings were used with great frequency in North Cotabato. In a statement, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) said that never before have they conducted air strikes as intense as what is now being done in the province.
While the government claims that these offensives are directed against Kato and his group, civilians have not been spared from the effects of the military’s attacks; in fact, civilians have been among the targets. They have suffered various human rights abuses, ranging from violations of the right to life to violations of economic, social and cultural rights.
The AFP’s offensives have led to mass evacuations. In the evacuation centers, the displaced persons suffer from inadequate facilities. Most of them have set up tents in whatever public place available. With heavy rains and flooding now common at this time of year, many child evacuees are sick with cough, cold, fever, and diarrhea. A number of evacuees have died of disease. There is also the trauma experienced by the evacuees, particularly the children.
The sufferings of the evacuees are compounded by the fact that even the “evacuation centers” are not spared from attacks by the military.
The local government units (LGUs) have virtually lost control of the situation as it is now the military which lords it over the areas affected by the fighting. Barangay officials seeking to help the evacuees are being threatened by the AFP.
Meanwhile, Solicitor-General Agnes Devenadera has said in a press interview that her office cannot sue the soldiers involved in the aerial bombings.
While fighting in North Cotabato continues, the armed confrontations are also spreading toward Maguindanao, leading to more and more displacement of civilians. There is an increasing number of evacuees in Maguinanao province.
In Datu Piang, Maguindanao alone, based on data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), there are 9,800 family heads with a total of 50,012 dependents as of Oct. 2.
The continuously growing number of evacuees paints a picture of what is now a humanitarian crisis. To say that government support for the evacuees is insufficient is an understatement. LGUs are forced to rely on assistance from various non-government organizations (NGOs) and local and international aid agencies.
Many of the evacuees have been away from their homes for as long as three months, and three months is already a long time for languishing in evacuation centers. But from all indications, their sufferings are not going to end soon. Some local officials believe that if the offensives do not stop, families be in evacuation centers well into the new year.
NATIONAL INTERFAITH HUMANITARIAN MISSION
On Oct. 22-23, various groups conducted a National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission (NIHM) to Pikit, North Cotabato and Datu Piang, Maguindanao. The NIHM conducted human rights documentation, psycho-social and medical treatment, and relief operations for evacuees in these two municipalities.
The NIHM was composed of human rights groups, relief workers, church-based groups, doctors, nurses, students, business groups, human rights advocates, peace advocates and various cause-oriented groups.
- Human Rights Documentation
The NIHM documented, through direct testimonies from victims and witnesses, cases of forced evacuation, indiscriminate bombings, strafing, torture, destruction of property and livelihood, divestment of property, harassment, illegal arrest and detention and possible extra-judicial killing of a civilian.
At around 9 a.m. on Oct. 21, while harvesting coconuts with his sons from their farm in Sitio Pamalian, Brgy. Dapiawan, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, Esmael Adam noticed several soldiers on a road leading to their sitio. He sent Walid to tell his wife to leave for the nearest evacuation center along with their other children. He also asked the other son to take the carabao to a safe place. The soldiers started firing before the wife and the five children she took along could run to a safe distance. (Their two oldest children were already staying at the evacuation center at that time.) They traveled across the river by holding on to the banks until they reached the Balubugan Dike in Brgy. Pagatin, Mamasapano. One of the children was almost hit by a bullet during their escape. They proceeded to the Mahad Buayan evacuation center, also in Brgy. Dapiawan. After a few hours, one of the sons arrived at the same evacuation center, pale and stuttering. When asked where his father was, he said Esmael had gone back to the house to check on them. Two days went by without Esmael showing up at the evacuation center. On Oct. 23, the wife received information that neighbors had seen Esmael being tortured and killed by soldiers. They have been barred by soldiers from claiming his body. The relatives tried to recover Esmael’s body so that they can bury him decently but the soldiers refused them access to the area.
On Oct. 15, at midnight, soldiers knocked violently on the door of a house in Brgy. Nalapaan, Pikit which had been serving as an evacuation center. They threatened to strafe the house if the occupants failed to open the door within five minutes. The owner of the house opened the door, whereupon the soldiers, who were carrying bolos, ordered the occupants to lie on the floor face down and beat them up, even stepping on the heads of some of them. The women and children were separated from the men and locked up in a room. The soldiers asked the civilians whether there was anyone upstairs, to which they received a negative answer. They then dragged Salasal’s wife upstairs, where they found Rakman Suleik hiding in the ceiling. They ordered him to come down, dragged downstairs and kicked him as he descended, causing him to fall. His son, 17-year-old Samsudin, was beaten up. The mother of the house owner pleaded to the soldiers not to hurt the civilians, whereupon they inserted a flashlight into her mouth. The soldiers took the Suleiks away and continued beating them up near another evacuation center, where their hands were tied with a rope. After a while, they were brought to the municipal police office in Aleosan, where Rakman learned for the first time that there was a case against him. He is still detained and there is no information on whether or not he has been slapped with any charges. His 17-year old son, Samsudin, was released on October 18.
On Sept. 8, at around 9-10 a.m., Mohalidin Mandi and his neighbors, including a number of children, were evacuating from Brgy. Tee, Datu Piang, Maguindanao as a fighter plane was indiscriminately dropping bombs in the area. They were in two boats, with one boat carrying the children. Because of the children’s seating arrangement, the boat that was carrying them ran the risk of capsizing, so they stopped for a while and alighted to switch places. The plane dropped a bomb near the children, killing six of them and injuring four others. Mandi’s wife – who was five months pregnant – and father-in-law were also hit and killed, while his son Jamalubin was among the wounded. As he was carrying the bodies to the street, soldiers threatened to kill him and only pleas from civilians prevented the soldiers from doing so. After he had gathered the children’s bodies, he made his way back to the river to carry the remains of his wife and father-in-law. The soldiers gave him 30 minutes to do so, after which they would shoot him. He was only able to get his wife’s body; he left behind that of his father-in-law out of fear that he would be shot. His father-in-law’s body was gathered only in the afternoon of the next day.
These are just a few of the incidents of human rights violations documented by the NIHM in Pikit, North Cotabato and Datu Piang, Maguindanao. There have been deaths due to strafing and aerial bombing. Those who have been “fortunate” to survive these attacks have suffered threats and intimidation, torture, abductions, illegal searches and arrests, as well as divestment and destruction of property.
None of the victims of house-burnings who were interviewed by the human rights documentation teams pointed to the MILF as the perpetrators.
- Psycho-social Treatment
As a result of the military’s offensives, many children among the evacuees are suffering from trauma – manifested among other things in restlessness and the disruption of sleeping patterns.
The children were asked to share their experiences through drawings, sharing, and role-playing. Most of the drawings were of fighter planes dropping bombs on houses. The children 7-9 years old shared a common observation that the presence of soldiers means “there will be war,” while those 10-12 years of age expressed a common fear of guns and are afraid of going back to their communities.
The children feel fear and/or hatred toward soldiers.
The psycho-social activity served a total of 214 children, 131 of whom are in Pikit and 83 of whom are in Datu Piang. Nine of the children were identified for follow-up.
- Medical Treatment
The NIHM notes the dire conditions in the evacuation centers the strain this puts on the health of the evacuees.
The medical teams rendered free health services to 192 patients in both areas. Of these, 118 were in Datu Piang and 74 were in Pikit.
About 2/3 of the patients are female and majority of them are in their reproductive age (18-45 years old). Also, about 1/3 of the patients are children.
Various complaints were heard by the doctors during the consultation. In both areas, about 1/3 of the patients were complaining of cough and colds, headaches and fever. Most of the children were also complaining of cough and colds, fever and skin itchiness and infections while most of the adult patients were complaining of headaches, dizziness, difficulty of sleeping, and abdominal pains. Also, in both areas, children were suffering from toothaches and diarrhea.
During the consultations, about 1/3 of the total number of patients were diagnosed to have upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). Tension headache and insomnia were also noted in both areas.
In Pikit, some adult patients were diagnosed to have hypertension and arthritis while in Datu Piang, most of them were suffering from urinary tract infection and abdominal colic. Children in both areas were also having diarrhea and skin infections.
The National Interafaith Humanitarian Mission conducted a relief drive and many organizations and institutions responded and helped in the actual delivery of relief during the mission. Two relief teams were sent to both areas, serving a total of 1,749 evacuees. There were two waves of relief activities in Datu Piang: the first one, conducted in Pikit, Midsayap and Aleosan on September 29-30 had 766 beneficiaries, while the second wave, conducted in Brgy. Tee, and Poblacion in Datu Piang and Batulawan in Pikit on October 22 had 983 beneficiaries.
The military offensives in North Cotabato and Maguindanao are carried out under the pretext of pursuit operations against Kato and his group, but these in reality fall within the context of an all-out war. The policy of “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” (DDR) which is now being carried out by the government shuts the door to peace and leaves all-out war as the main option. The so-called pursuit operations and “surgical operations” being conducted in North Cotabato and Maguindanao are characterized by the excessive use of firepower mainly against the civilian populace.
No military personnel have been called to account for the atrocities against human rights. The military’s tactic has invariably been to divert the blame for atrocities on other groups.
The situation in the two provinces continues to deteriorate and has reached the proportions of a humanitarian crisis. As yet, there appears to be no end in sight to the miseries of those who have borne the brunt of the fighting.
In view of these, the NIHM thus puts forward the following recommendations:
- that the government immediately put a stop to military offensives and allow the evacuees to return home;
- that the issues being blamed as the reason for the escalating conflict be instead addressed in the proper forum, in particular the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH);
- that human rights violations be investigated and their perpetrators be made accountable; an independent probe can also be undertaken to fully take into account the wide range of human rights abuses that have so far taken place since renewed fighting broke out
- that the victims of human rights violations be indemnified and assisted in their rehabilitation; and
- that the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF be resumed.
The NIHM will publish a full report on its findings in North Cotabato and Maguindanao and submit these to relevant government agencies as well as international bodies.
Participating Organizations: Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Bayan Muna, Gabriela Women’s Party, Gabriela, Karapatan, Kawagib-Moro Human Rights, Suara Bangsamoro, Liga ng Kabataang Moro, Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao, Kalumaran, Health Action for Human Rights, Bangsamoro Medical Society, Ecumenical Mission for Peace and Development, National Council of Churches in the Philippines, Southeast Mindanao Ecumenical Council, Cotabato Regional Ecumenical Council, Children’s Rehabilitation Center-Southern Mindanao, Kabiba Alliance for Children’s Concern, Center for Women’s Resource, Alpha-Sigma Phi – CCSPC Chapter, The Torch Publication – CCSPC, Moro Youth Religious Organization, Assumption College of Davao-Social Worker Students, Notre Dame University Peace Center, Notre Dame University College Of Nursing, Notre Dame School of Dulawan, United Youth for Peace and Development, Lay Forum Philippines, United Methodist Church – Mindanao Philippines Annual Conference, Episcopal Diocese for Southern Philippines, United Church of Christ in the Philippines – Southern Mindanao District Conference, Holy Cross of Davao College– Social Work Students.