Classes stop, residents flee due to alleged military harassment

The presence of soldiers in barangay Manluy-a in Diatagon and their alleged menacing behavior also forced residents to evacuate starting November 21.

"It was November 21 when parents decided to evacuate the place and refused to send their children to school anymore," Jona Merza, a 16 year-old student at the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural Development (ALCADEV) High School, recounted.

She said that on that day their parents rushed to the school, pulled out their children from their classes and evacuated the area immediately.

"The alternative learning schools are known internationally. This institution provides a big help especially to our indigenous peoples since it will teach them to 'learn by doing and earn at the same time'. This model was adapted by DepEd (Department of Education) but was destroyed in the military intervention," Templa said.

Merza as well as fellow evacuees Elvie Prado and Imelda Belandres recalled that the military came on the first week of November bringing with them artillery pieces and other weaponry. The military told the people they were there to observe.

"Our datu (chieftain) asked them to keep a distance from our community because we are still traumatized by the beating, kidnapping and harassment of our fellow residents back in 2005," Belandres said.

Prado, a volunteer teacher at the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao Sur (TRIFPSS Inc.) assigned in Manluy-a, lamented that her students could no longer concentrate because of the presence of the military in their classrooms and in their campus.

"The army used our school without permission. They even sleep in our classrooms. On November 14, our class didn't start immediately because when we got into our room it was full of dirt from the soil and mud on their boots. We asked one army official to tell his constituents to help keep our rooms clean. But he only told us to be patient to them since they do not  come often," she said.

She added that after two weeks the parents would no longer allow their children to come to school out of fear.

"I have 24 students in my class, but within one week, only six or seven of them attended my class. My students could not concentrate with the military walking here and there every now and then. Sometimes, they even paraded their guns in front of my pupils," she said.

Honey Mae Suazo of Kabiba Children's Alliance had interviewed victims of military operations in Surigao del Sur. She said children are socially, emotionally and psychologically vulnerable to this kind of situation.

"The children were very traumatized by the intensified militarization in the area. How could children not be traumatized when even a 6 year-old child was told to hold a gun while the military were fetching water?" Suazo said.

She said that even until now, the military is still in a state of denial that they did these things.

She accused the 58th IB of committing all sorts of human rights violation against these children.

"They (the 58th IB) violated the rights of these children because they made the school as their area for encampment. They have violated the children's rights to protection and development by disrupting their classes and causing them unrest," she said.

The Indigenous Peoples Human Rights (IPHR) Watch meanwhile said it has documented other cases of human rights violations.

Karen Muñasque of IPHR told reporters that they have documented 11 cases of human rights violation which include dismantling of armaments in front of children and putting these under the houses of some residents without asking permission.

In a solidarity program held on December 7 in Diatagon Gym, Surigao del Sur children were asked to make a Christmas card containing their wishes for the
Yuletide season. Some of those cards will be sent to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo so that she may hear the children's plea.

Most of the children dreamt of returning to their homes, farms, and schools. The residents also demanded that the President pull out the military in their area to enable them to continue living normally.

"We hope to go back to our homes to live a normal life. We left our livestock and source of living when we evacuated, we hope they (the military) didn't touch it," Merza said.

Karapatan-Caraga is finalizing its data on human rights violations to be submitted to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and which will be used as a basis for filing a possible lawsuit against the 58th IB. (Cherry Concon/MindaNews)