Bakwits spend 10th Ramadan in evacuation center

PAGALUNGAN, Maguindanao (MindaNews/05 September) – Around 150 evacuees who have not returned home since the “all-out war” waged by then President Joseph Estrada, have been observing Ramadan at the evacuation center of Barangay Layog for ten years now.

The evacuees are from the marshy villages of this town and from the neighboring town of
Pikit in North Cotabato.

Nasria Idsa, 28, said it is now their 10th year of fasting at the evacuation center  without sufficient food on their table as they break the fast every 5 p.m.

“Back home, we could prepare any native delicacy for the break,” she said.

Like Idsa, fellow evacuee Zaida Abubakar from Barangay Balibit in Pikit, has been observing Ramadan at the evacuation center.

Abubakar, 39, said food is still scarce and they can only afford to prepare vegetables. “Minsan puro na lang gulay at konting kanin. Minsan wala na talagang kanin dahil sa hirap ng buhay dito sa bakwitan” (Sometimes, it’s just vegetable and some rice. Sometimes we don’t get to eat at all here in the evacuation center).

Both of them recalled that fasting in 2000 had just begun when the military aircraft started the bombardment.

Idsa recounted that they hurriedly packed their belongings and fled for fear they will be trapped in the crossfire or hit by bombs.

“It was hard because we were having our fasting. Our stomachs were empty when we fled,” she said.

The marshy villages of Pagalungan and Pikit were among of the targets of heavy aerial and artillery shelling when former President Joseph Estrada waged an “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2000.

Layog is just one of the evacuation camps in this town during the war in 2000, where tens of thousands of displaced civilians temporarily stayed.

At the height of the war, the evacuation center was filled with makeshift tents while some squeezed themselves in shanties of their relatives.

Today, the evacuees have already built shanties while some were given core shelters by the government and humanitarian organizations.

Fear of rido

Although it is already relatively peaceful back in their respective villages, fear still reigned among these displaced villagers due to family feud or rido.

Idsa said that they still prefer to stay in the evacuation camp because encounters could happen between the warring families.

“We are afraid that we will be trapped in the crossfire and then we will evacuate again and again,” she stressed.

But Abubakar admitted that their husbands are still going back to their villages for fishing at the Ligawasan Marsh.

She added that some of the evacuees have already established “sari-sari” (mini convenience) stores to meet their daily needs.

“Some are working as laborers in the nearby farms while some are selling fresh or dried fish at the market in Pikit and Pagalungan,” said Abubakar.

“Hindi pa kami makakabalik doon dahil sa wala naman kaming bahay na babalikan, karamihan ay nasira dahil sa bomba at kanyon” (We cannot return there because we have no more homes to return to, most of them destroyed by bombs and cannons), she added.

Idsa said she was still single when they evacuated. But sometime in 2001, she got married to a fellow evacuee from their village.

Today, she has two children, a nine year old girl and a four-year old boy.

Abubakar bared she had four children when they arrived at the evacuation center. She gave birth to her fifth child in 2006. Now she has two other grandchildren born in the evacuation camp.

Her father, however, died in the evacuation center at the age of 53 in 2006 due to illness.

Idsa’s 70-year old grandfather also died at the evacuation center in 2007.

A local Moro datu told MindaNews that his family owned the land where the evacuation center is located.

“We allowed them to stay here for years already since my family understands that they have no other place to go,” the datu, who requested not to be named, said in an interview.

He added that some of the evacuees who did not return to their respective villages settled in nearby barangays because their houses were destroyed during the war in 2000 and 2003.

The datu also recalled that both in 2000 and 2003 war, the evacuation center was really filled with evacuees. “Mahirap pumasok sa loob ng evacuation center dahil sa nagsiksikan talaga sila ditto” (It was so difficult to enter here because they were so crowded).

Hundreds of families also evacuated to Layog during the war in 2003, when the military launched an assault against MILF positions in the interior villages of Pikit and Pagalungan on the eve of Eid’l Adha, the Islamic feast of the Holy Sacrifice.

The military initially said they were running after the Pentagon kidnap gang but later admitted that it was actually targeting MILF rebels in the area. (Keith Bacongco / MindaNews)