MANILA (MindaNews / 12 July) — Remember the Mandi Family? Six members of this family died in 2008 when an Air Force plane fired a rocket on the tiny row boat they were on as they were frantically making their way to the safety of the evacuation site on the highway. This happened in broad daylight. Killed were the father and five of his children. His wife and son survived as they were on another boat loaded with their food and meager belongings.
Among the dead children was their youngest, Aisha, who was only 2 years old, and their eldest who was pregnant with her first child. She was married less than a year before her death, her surviving husband was inconsolable. The hole on her neck caused by the shrapnel from the rocket was as big as a fist.
Right after the incident, the authorities issued a statement claiming they had just neutralized six members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a rebel group fighting for self-rule and frequently accused of terrorist activities by the military. So, there you have it, poor little Aisha, her pregnant sister, their father and other siblings were all terrorists. To think Aisha’s body length was not even the length of a full size M-14 or M-16 assault rifle.
But who are these “terrorists” and what are the circumstances surrounding their tragic deaths?
When the ceasefire collapsed in 2008, much of the military’s offensive was in the areas within the Liguasan Marsh, the country’s largest wetland spanning tens of thousands of hectares and extending through three provinces in Central Mindanao. The fighting was so widespread and intense that in 2008, the Philippines produced the most number of internally displaced persons among all violent conflicts around the world and they were there for everyone to see, along the roads and highways straddling the marsh.
But the wetland is home to tens of thousands of Maguindanon Moros and the Mandi family is among them. They are one of many poor families living off the marsh. On normal days, they engage in subsistence fishing and, when the dry season exposes tiny patches of land, in subsistence farming as well. This is how they survive.
But when there is a government offensive which is not uncommon, people make for the safety of the highway. Civilians residing further inside the marsh are usually the first to evacuate while those closer to the highways, like the Mandis, generally feel safer from government offensives so they usually evacuate later. Being close to the highway means being close to military positions and the military will not bomb areas close to them, or so they think.
But it turns out the Mandis were mistaken in this belief for in that tragic morning in September 2008, they woke up to rockets from a plane exploding around them.
The Mandi spouses immediately rounded up their children and loaded themselves onto two canoes, along with whatever food and meager belongings they had. They would need these to survive at the evacuation camp. The mother and their 13 year old son and their food and belongings were on one boat. The father and the rest of the children boarded the other.
They then began to paddle their way to safety. It was now literally a race for their lives – a race between their tiny canoes and the war plane above. They were hoping that once they reach the highway, several hundred meters away, the plane will stop shooting at them, and they will be safe. You can almost see the panic on their faces.
Tragically, they did not make it.
Not far from their home and just a few hundred meters before reaching the highway, in full view and to the horror of civilian evacuees watching on a bridge along the highway, the plane fired at the boats until one was hit – the boat carrying the father and most of the children. Those who were on the bridge, as soon as they realized the plane was firing at a boat carrying civilians, begged the soldiers in the detachment next to the bridge to radio whoever it is that need to know the banca is full of non-combatants. Instead, they heard one of the soldiers say “tirahin mo na yan” as they too watched with glee the plane shoot at the boats.
And “tira” the plane did and that is how this particular Mandi family lost most of its members, save for two. This is how a “terrorist” family met their end.
How do I know this? Back in 2008, I was the local adviser to the world’s largest NGO providing emergency medical assistance, a Nobel Peace Prize winning organization. During that stint, I witnessed the ugliness of war and how the lives of civilians caught in it are treated with such low regard.
Now, if this and other incidents happened without the expanded powers given by the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) to security forces, imagine what awaits Moros now that the law has been signed.
I hope Moros who join the jemaah at their local mosques spend some time to contemplate on this and my other posts on the topic of why Moros are apprehensive about the ATL.
(Zainudin Malang is a lawyer from Mindanao who spent years on deployment in acute emergencies in East Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he was the founding head of a human rights and civilian protection organization in Mindanao and was one of the five members of the peace process monitoring body)