In the Line of Fire
The Philippine military has been using the Lumads in a village in Compostela Valley Province as human shields as it pursues its campaign against the communist New People’s Army.
By Marilou M. Aguirre
NABOC, the Philippines -- From Davao City, one has to travel for three hours to reach Monkayo town, Compostela Valley province. Five kilometers from there, a small village called Naboc sits right at the foot of Mount Diwata.
The Lumads (indigenous peoples) in Naboc are from the tribes of Ata Manobo and Ata Matigsalog who depend on farming. With neither electricity nor potable water, the least they aspire for is food on their table and peace in their community.
They used to enjoy normal lives in their humble
haven -- until some 50 soldiers from the 28th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) arrived in mid-August.
“We were frightened when they came to our place,” said Nang Lolita , a resident who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear. “We even stopped our classes because they were staying inside the school premises.”
Nang Lolita, a Lumad, is one of the three teachers in the daycare center, which is a project of a nongovernment organization. The center serves as the only school for the 60-household barrio. She taught both children and women how to read, write and count. She spoke to journalists and members of a recent fact-finding mission to this village.
Fearing for the children, Nang Lolita opted to suspend the classes while the soldiers were in their community. “We did not hold classes because we were afraid that an encounter might happen while the children were here, God forbid,” she said.
The Lumads feared that they might get caught in the crossfire in the conflict between the military soldiers and the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which has a strong presence in the province.
The soldiers did not just stay at the daycare center. “They were everywhere. Some stayed at the lowland, others at the big houses,” Nang Lolita said. “They went from one house to another and took what they called was a census. They asked for the residents’ names. They also took pictures of the residents.”
During the soldiers’ stay, a man who identified himself as Sgt. Gener called for a town meeting. The peasants, who could hardly read, did not recognize the soldiers since the latter did not wear namecloths during their military operations.
In the meeting, the soldiers said they would issue safe-conduct passes to the residents for security purpose. The pass was meant to protect the bearer; any one who has it means he had been cleared of any involvement with the NPA, the soldiers said.
The soldiers also asked about the presence of the NPA in the area. They also asked the extent of the Lumads’ involvement in the underground movement.
“They will call you an ‘NPA supporter’ even if you only give either water or food,” recalled Nang Lolita. They were told not to support the Communists. Nang Lolita said that, with their dire conditions, it was impossible for the villagers to support or give food to the communist rebels.
During the meeting, one of the residents told the soldiers that “we cannot just ignore them (NPA). What if they asked for water, for instance? Of course we will give them water.” Nang Lolita said that water is the most that they can offer the communist rebels.
The soldiers said those who give water or food to the NPA are already involved in the underground movement. They also said that there were residents in the area who were holding certain positions in the NPA. When asked by a certain male resident if they had a list of the said NPA members, the soldiers said they could not just show the list.
It was not clear to the Lumads why the soldiers had to photograph them or issue them the safe-conduct pass. Nang Lolita and her husband did not submit to the soldiers’ orders, believing that it was unreasonable.
But those who feared for their own and their families’ lives said they had no choice but to submit to the soldiers’ demands.
According to the report of the human rights’ group Karapatan, residents of Mangayon, Compostela, Compostela Valley Province, suffered the same fate as the Naboc residents.
But the Mangayon residents had it worse because some 50 residents were ordered by the soldiers from the 28th IB to report to the Barangay Health Center, which had been the soldiers’ temporary camp. The soldiers took their names, investigated them and took pictures of them holding a placard that read “I am an NPA supporter.”
Karapatan said the incident was a clear violation of the rights of the civilians wherein they were forced to surrender, which is an act of coercion. The group added that the residents in Mangayon suffered trauma.
The rights’ group also recorded a number of human rights violations perpetrated by the elements of the 67th IB and 60th IB in the different areas of Compostela Valley Province. Among the violations recorded were fake or forced surrender, grave threats, physical assault, torture and political repression.
The 28th IB is one of the AFP units that adopted the Re-engineered Special Operations Team (RSOT) in line with the government’s counter-insurgency program. In RSOT, soldiers occupy public facilities and use these as camps for their operations. They also deposit weapons and ammunitions in populated areas.
Though the Lumads in Naboc said that the soldiers did not inflict physical harm on them, their mere presence caused the villagers apprehension and terror. They were in constant fear that the AFP soldiers might come across Communist rebels and they, the Lumads, might become “human shields.”
The Philippine government has intensified its campaign against the CPP-NPA after it was branded as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States government. After the collapse of the peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the CPP’s political wing, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), military operations in the hinterlands intensified.
But the government’s counter-insurgency program has taken its toll on the poor civilians, even those who only fight for their ancestral lands. According to the residents in Naboc, their tribal leader, Datu Dyanggo, was put in the most wanted list of the AFP for defending such right.
They believe that the soldiers are continuously harassing them to allow
multinational companies to get into there ancestral lands for large-scale mining operations and banana expansion project.
The military has always maintained that the New People’s Army is the one terrorizing villagers in the hinterlands of Southern Mindanao. It has also accused villagers in the past of protecting the communists, particularly during military operations. (With reports from Grace Uddin and Barry Ohaylan/davaotoday.com)