By JEF TUPAS, Davao City
Since then, former residents of the village he headed in Agusan del Sur province have evacuated en masse. They are fleeing clashes between government troops and communist rebels, the latest hostilities in a long-running insurgency centered on eastern Mindanao.
“It was a bad sign of more deaths to come, so we left,” Nini Sayasaya told ucanews.com.
Sayasaya was among 1,200 others from her area who escaped to a crowded evacuation center in the village of Balit, near San Luis town. When she left, however, she didn’t foresee that death would follow them.
On February 12, Sayasaya’s two-year-old son, Prenton, died. He had suffered from a fever for at least a month before then.
“We did not have the money to buy medicine or bring him to the hospital,” Sayasaya told ucanews.com.
She said at least four others from her group have also died this month: a three-year-old boy, a four-year-old boy, as well as an 18-year-old mother and her stillborn baby.
Amid ongoing military operations against communist rebels in the area, children from displaced indigenous communities continue to suffer.
“The Banwaons are in danger,” said Jun Santiago, a Redemptorist brother who heads the social apostolate of the congregation in the area. “The situation in the evacuation center is really bad.”
He said at least 50 people have fallen sick because of poor living conditions. The displaced villagers sleep on the ground in simple huts made of grass and plastic sheets.
Armed clashes have intensified in recent months, with communist rebels launching attacks against military targets. But many who work with indigenous communities say the government’s strategies have actually alienated the local population.
The government’s Community Organizing for Peace and Development (COPD) program, which aims to convince villagers to stop extending support and resources to communist insurgents, is part of the government’s anti-insurgency program.
Rights groups, however, say COPD has become one of the main causes of human rights abuses. COPD operations include occupying community centers and public structures such as village health centers, community schools and houses, directly placing innocent civilians in harm’s way, activists say.
Santiago said soldiers have occupied highland villages and have actively tried to recruit men to fight for the government as part of the COPD.
Instead, the communities decided to flee, believing they would be more secure away from government troops.
However, Major General Eduardo Año, commander of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division, denied soldiers are in villages to terrorize communities.
“There is no truth to the allegations that soldiers are occupying civilian villages,” he said.
Congressman Lawrence Lemuel Fortun of the Caraga region said he would look into reports of rights abuses in the area. But, he warned, villagers will continue to be caught in the crossfire until there were genuine peace talks between the government and the communist New People’s Army rebels.
“Peace is the only way to address the issue,” he said. “We have to address the roots of the armed conflict.”
Between 2008 and 2012, as many as 44,000 people were displaced in eastern Mindanao alone, according to a 2013 report from the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
According to the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines, up to 50 indigenous people have been killed by military and paramilitary groups since 2010 when President Benigno Aquino came to power and launched the anti-insurgency program.
Dolphin Ogan, secretary general of Kalumaran, a group representing indigenous peoples, blamed the program for the displacement of tribal communities. He said tribesmen who resist the presence of soldiers in their villages have become “primary targets” for military and paramilitary groups.
“The military are not only staying in houses in the community but they have also confiscated schools to use as barracks,” Ogan said, referring to November 2014 reports from rights groups that the military was using classrooms in at least five schools in southern Mindanao as bases for counter-insurgency operations. Military spokespeople have disputed such claims.