PIKIT, North Cotabato(MindaNews/25 August) – Most villagers in a refugee camp here are no longer strangers to evacuation.
They have “mastered” the art of evacuation even if tensions are still brewing, knowing where to go for temporary shelter to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
Barangay Batulawan here has become a popular refugee center for displaced villagers, as the amenities of evacuation centers built during the previous wars remain standing and ready to be used.
But if the evacuees would have their way, they want to settle peacefully in their villages since life in the evacuation centers are really difficult.
Musanip Patadon, a 45-year old farmer from Sitio Tubak, Barangay Pagangan in Aleosan, told Mindanews that he has been experiencing evacuation since
he was young.
Patadon, a father of nine, has accepted their fate of having to live a life on the run, recalling that he has been evacuating since he was a kid due to the conflict.
But he could not forget the years 1989, 1997, 2000, 2003 and 2008, the last four characterized by major wars between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The worst experience was in 2008, Patadon recalled, because they were trapped in their village when the firefight erupted.
“That time, it was our fiesta. Some rebels were there. Soldiers caught up with them so clashes ensued,” he recounted in Filipino at the evacuation center in Barangay Batulawan.
In 2008, Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato, then commander of the MILF’s 105th Base Command, launched attacks following the aborted signing of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the government and the MILF in August in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He broke away from the MILF in 2010 and formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
The clashes in 2008 triggered massive evacuation in the provinces of North Cotabato and Maguindanao At least 500,000 people have reportedly been displaced due to the hostilities.
Patadon, a farmer, griped that is very exhausting to evacuate.
“But we can’t do anything; our lives are at stake here. This is already a part of our life,” he said.
Patadon said that if he is offered P10,000 to evacuate, he would not “bakwit” if not for the family’s safety.
“Bakwit” has been the popular term used to describe the evacuees, or internally displaced persons.
Home and back
Butch Pandian, a farmer from Sitio Sawa in Barangay Dalengaoen here, told Mindanews that they have just returned home on August 17, after two weeks in the evacuation center.
Early this month, BIFF forces launched attacks against military installations in nearby Maguindanao province, which led to the closure of the highway connecting Isulan in Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City.
Like two weeks ago, the evacuees fled because of the reported sightings of BIFF members in the mountainous portion of Dalengaoen.
On Tuesday, the 39-year old farmer told Mindanews they hauled again their belongings, chickens and four cows in fear of getting trapped.
“My relatives helped me because I cannot bring the animals here all by myself. And we arrived here already later at night,” Pandian said.
He stressed that they have to evacuate again even if they still have to unpack their belongings after returning home last August 17.
As of last Thursday afternoon, Manchita Capilitan, focal person of the Provincial Social Welfare and Development, said the number of evacuees rose to 900 families in this town alone.
Most of the evacuees were from barangays Nalapaan and Bualan in this town and Pagangan in nearby Aleosan.
Pikit Mayor Sumulong Sultan earlier told Mindanews that the reported presence of the BIFF forces in the remote barangays of his town had triggered the evacuation.
Sultan said that the rebels might have retreated to his town following the capture of their camp in Datu Unsay, Maguindanao recently.
Aleosan Mayor Loreto Cabaya also shared the same views, but said the BIFF members may have just passed some barangays in his town as they retreated.
Batulawan evacuation camp
Even during their previous evacuations, Patadon, the 45-year old farmer and father of nine children, and his fellow villagers from Sitio Tubak and other barangays in Aleosan would seek refuge in Barangay Batulawan.
Naut Tutin, in her 50s, told Mindanews that they are already used to evacuating in Batulawan because many of their neighbors also sought refuge there.
Patadon and the woman farmer shared kind words for the people of Batulawan for accommodating them in times of evacuation.
Patadon said nobody told them where to evacuate: “We know where to run. We go here because we are taken cared by both Muslims and Christians.”
Sitio Tubak in Aleosan town is around 10 kilometers to Pikit town.
While it is closer to evacuate in the town proper of Aleosan, Patadon stressed they feel safe and comfortable in Batulawan than in their hometown.
He admitted that he has some apprehensions with some of the Christians in Aleosan. Patadon raised suspicions that some residents in Aleosan could still be angry with Kato and his followers for the 2008 clashes.
Sarah Pandian, the wife of Butch Pandian from Barangay Dalengaoen, narrated that they also stayed in Batulawan during the war in 2008.
Sarah said that they opted to stay in Batulawan because of the existing amenities like the comfort room and the water pump.
Patadon recalled that they started to walk from Sitio Tubak at around 1:30 p.m. on August 21, arriving in Barangay Dalinagaoen at around 10:30 p.m. Village officials here, along with residents, offered them food.
Patadon said they were offered rice and fishes to give them energy to reach Barangay Batulawan.
Upon reaching Batulawan about an hour later, Barangay Kagawad Cabayan Malidas offered another round of food to them.
Malidas said that she understands how miserable it is to evacuate since they have been hosting evacuees during the previous wars.
“When those from Sitio Tubak arrived in the evening, the children were really starving. We pity them so we give them food,” the village official told MindaNews.
Malidas disclosed that some evacuees were still on the road Tuesday midnight. Some prompted to stay at the former evacuation center along the national highway before going here, she added.
The village official said the evacuees already knew where to go because they know that Batulawan has been hosting them in the past.
“The worst was in 2000, evacuation centers were everywhere in Pikit,” she recalled.
Some of the amenities like the comfort rooms and the water pumps donated by the humanitarian agencies then can still be utilized by the evacuees, said Malidas.
Some evacuees stayed with their relatives.
“But even if they are housed-based evacuees, we still ensure that they will receive food aid,” she stressed.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Hao, commanding officer of the Army’s 7th Infantry Battalion, confirmed on Thursday the presence of BIFF rebels in some parts of this town.
Hao said they have monitored the movement of the BIFF in the last three days following the capture of Camp Omar in Datu Unsay, Maguindanao.
He added that they are conducting patrols to prevent the rebels from moving closer to the national highway and launch any attack on military outposts.
The military official declined to give the number of the retreating BIFF members as well as their exact location. (Keith Bacongco/MindaNews)