Interfaith Mission Deplores All-out War, Humanitarian Crisis in N. Cotabato, Maguindanao


Even as the Arroyo government publicly declares it is for peace in Mindanao, a National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission conducted in North Cotabato and Maguindanao from Oct. 22-24, 2008 concluded that: “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.” Even evacuation centers are not spared from the military offensives, the mission said, resulting in the deterioration of the situation reaching the proportion of a humanitarian crisis.

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
Bulatlat

Even as the Arroyo government publicly declares that it is for peace in Mindanao, a National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission conducted in North Cotabato and Maguindanao from Oct. 21-24, 2008 concluded that the military offensives purportedly meant to merely pursue Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander Ameril Ombra Kato and his group appear to be part of an all-out war.

The two provinces are among the foci of renewed fighting between government troops and the MILF.

“The situation in these provinces is deteriorating continuously, and it has now reached the proportions of a humanitarian crisis,” said Joel Virador, national vice chairman and former representative of Bayan Muna (People First).

The NIHM*, spearheaded by Kalinaw Mindanao, went to Pikit, North Cotabato and Datu Piang, Maguindanao.

The two municipalities have become hosts to persons displaced by the armed conflict in the two provinces. Based on Oct. 2 data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), in Datu Piang alone there are 9,800 family heads with 50,012 dependents.

Skirmishes

There had been encounters between government troops and the MILF as early as June 30 in Sitio (sub-village) Maligaya, Barangay (village) Malamote in Kabacan, North Cotabato.

The next day, another skirmish took place in Sitio Tubak, Brgy. Pagangan in Aleosan, North Cotabato. The MILF fighters who figured in this firefight were identified as belonging to the 105th Brigade, led by Commander Ameril Ombra Kato.

The weeks before these incidents saw massive military deployment to North Cotabato, supposedly to secure the province for the Aug. 11 elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

These encounters drove community residents to evacuate to Brgy. Bagolibas in Aleosan and Brgys. Bual and Nalapaan in Pikit.

Later that same month, armed men burned some houses in Brgy. Bual and stole a number of farm animals in Brgy. Bagolibas.

On Aug. 2, some 84 houses in Aleosan were razed to the ground. The government claimed that these burnings were perpetrated by MILF fighters led by Kato.

On Aug. 8, four days after 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 government and the MILF, the military implemented Oplan Ultimatum and additional troops were positioned in Pikit, Aleosan, and Midsayap. This, and the dissolution of the government panel in the peace negotiations with the MILF, served as prelude to the intensification of the fighting in North Cotabato.

While clashes continue in North Cotabato, the fighting has also spread to nearby Maguindanao.

Military operations have led residents of affected areas to flee to evacuation centers.

Humanitarian mission

In a statement released to the media in an Oct. 24 press conference in Cotabato City, the NIHM participants described the evacuees’ situation thus:

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.

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, the NIHM conducted human rights documentation, psycho-social and medical treatment, and relief operations for evacuees in Pikit and Datu Piang.

The NIHM documented various human rights abuses by the military in the two provinces. Violations included a raid in an evacuation center in Aleosan, North Cotabato. Evacuees interviewed by the NIHM in Pikit and Datu Piang narrated accounts of deaths due to strafing and aerial bombing, as well as threats and intimidation, torture, abductions, illegal searches and arrests, as well as divestment and destruction of property.

Among the prominent human rights violations documented by the NIHM was an Oct. 15 raid on a house, which had served as an evacuation center in Aleosan. The occupants were beaten up by the raiders, who were identified as elements of the Philippine Army’s 40th Infantry Battalion. Two of the occupants, Rakman Suleik and his son Samsudin, were taken away and brought to the Aleosan Municipal Police Office, where Rakman learned that there was a case against him. Samsudin, who delivered a testimony before the entire NIHM on Oct. 23, insisted that the soldiers who took his father did not show any warrant of arrest. Rakman is still in detention and there is no clear information on whether or not he has been charged with any offense.

“They had already evacuated (to escape the military’s atrocities), but even the evacuation center was not spared,” said Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) secretary-general Marie Hilao-Enriquez.

Meanwhile, the NIHM also assigned teams to conduct psycho-social treatment for the child evacuees. The psycho-social teams served a total of 214 children, and found manifestations of trauma in them, including restlessness and disruption of sleeping patterns. In the psycho-social activities, the children were asked to relate their experience regarding the conflict through sharing, drawings, and role-playing. The psycho-social teams noted that in their sessions, the children commonly expressed either fear or hatred of soldiers. Their drawings usually showed fighter planes dropping bombs on houses, the psycho-social teams disclosed.

The medical teams, who served a total of 192 patients, for its part noted that many of the patients were complaining of ailments that could be attributed to the conditions in the evacuation centers, such as ever, dizziness, headaches, skin and respiratory infections, and diarrhea.

The NIHM also conducted relief operations on Oct. 22, benefiting some 766 evacuees in Brgy. Batulawan, Pikit and Brgys. Tee and Poblacion in Datu Piang.

“All-out war”

The NIHM participants compared the situation in North Cotabato and Maguindanao to what happened during the all-out wars declared by the Estrada and Arroyo governments in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Said the participants in their statement:

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 onto 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.

The interfaith mission recommended the cessation of military operations in the two provinces. “This is the easiest way by which the evacuees could return to their homes and rebuild their lives,” said Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance) secretary-general Renato Reyes, Jr.

Aside from this, the mssion also recommended that the issues related to the conflict be addressed in the proper forum, particularly the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), a joint ceasefire monitoring body composed of representatives from both the government and the MILF. They also called for an independent investigation into human rights abuses perpetrated since the renewed fighting broke out, indemnification and rehabilitation assistance for the victims of the war, and the resumption of peace negotiations between the government and the MILF. (Bulatlat)

*The organizations that participated in the NIHM are Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Bayan Muna, Gabriela Women’s Party, GABRIELA, Karapatan, Kawagib-Moro Human Rights Organization, 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, AlphaSigma Phi-CCSPC (Cotabato City State Polytechnic College) Chapter, The Torch Publication-CCSPC, Moro Youth Religious Organization, Assumption College of Davao-Social Work 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, and Holy Cross of Davao College-Social Work Students.

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One Response to “Interfaith Mission Deplores All-out War, Humanitarian Crisis in N. Cotabato, Maguindanao”

  1. mary anne butay Says:

    I just hope that the Aquino administration would immediately address to these killings and terrorists acts for a safer philippines. I fear for my children and relatives. These might happen anytime ,anywhere and to anyone.

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