DATU SAUDI AMPATUAN, Maguindanao (MindaNews/22 March) – Three generations of families of sisters Cartiquia Cartin and Saria Namawog are among 125,302 residents who fled their villages in Maguindanao following the “all-out offensive” waged by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) nearly a month ago.
Cartiquia, who claims to be 90, and her sister Saria who estimates she is 80, sit on a mound of gravel by the gate of the Dapiawan Central Elementary School — a “Zone of Peace” according to the tarpaulin hanging nearby — hoping their ordeal would end soon and they can return home.
The sisters are no strangers to evacuations. “Madakel” (Many), they said. In fact, they have evacuated so many times in their lifetime that they can no longer remember how many times they had to flee their villages because of armed clashes.
“Panahon pa sa Hapon” (Japanese time), Cartiquia, a resident of Barangay Elian, said. Unlike her contemporaries elsewhere in the country whose knowledge of war is “Panahon sa Hapon” in the 1940s, it has been a never-ending series of evacuations for her and her siblings, later sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters, due to armed conflict.
A number of their children and grandchildren are within the same school compound.
Cartiquia, who has 13 children from four marriages, complains she is too old to evacuate. Saria, who married once and has 12 children, echoes her sister’s statement.
Speaking in Maguindanao but translated to Filipino by their fellow evacuees, the sisters said they are praying peace would come soon so they and their grandchildren can go home.
For them, peace means “wala nang bakwit” (no more evacuations).
As of 6 p.m. of March 19, the ARMM-HEART (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao-Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team) recorded a total of 25,067 families or 125,302 persons from 14 towns have been displaced by the “all-out offensive” announced by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang on February 25 and launched two days later with artillery and air strike support against the BIFF. The offensive came a month after the January 25 law enforcement operation undertaken solely by the Phil;;ine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) to get Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin hir alias Marwan. Marwan was killed but sow ere 44 SAF members, 18 MILF guerrillas and five civlians.
15 of 36 towns affected
Datu Saudi Ampatuan hosts the most number of evacuees (“bakwits” or internally displaced persons) at 3,459 families or 17,295 persons followed by Shariff Aguak town’s 2,576 families (13,870 persons); Shariiff Saydona Mustapha’s 2,670 (13,350 persons); Mamasapano’s 2,637 (13,185 persons); Datu Salibo’s 2,576 (12,880 persons); Talayan’s 2,358 (11,790 persons); Talitay’s 2,218 (11,090 persons); Datu Unsay’s 1,808 (9,040 persons); Datu Anggal Midtimbang’s 1,791 (8,955); Guindulungan’s 1,160 (5,800 persons); Rajah Buayan’s 555 (2,775); Datu Piang’s 553 (2,765); Datu Abdullah Sangki’s 319 (1,595 persons); Datu Odin Sinsuat (host) with 110 (550 persons); and Datu Hoffer’s 79 (362 persons).
Maguindanao has 36 towns.
According to Issue 8 of the IDP Protection Assessment Report dated March 18, a total of 123,537 persons from 15 municipalities were displaced as a result of the military action against the BIFF. Of this number, 3,137 persons had returned home.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHRC) in the Philippines co-chairs the Protection Cluster Philippines with the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The Protection Cluster Philippines comes out with the IDP Protection Assessment Reports.
The recent report said this year’s mass evacuation is “the biggest displacement since the 2008 MOA-AD debacle.”
The government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) of 2008 was initialed and set for signing on August 5, 2008 but the Supreme Court issued afternoon of August 4 a temporary restraining order barring the government peace panel from signing the MOA-AD.
The MILF, which signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the government on March 27 last year, temporarily moved back its armed members from the areas where the military was operating, as coordinated by their respective Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities.
“According to reports, people are fleeing because of fear of being hit during AFP ground operations and air strikes. Some IDPs are having difficulty finding refuge in host barangays if they are perceived to have affilitation with the BIFF,” the IDP Protection Assessment Report noted.
It also said that three weeks into the offensives, “there is no clear and consistent information provided to IDPs as to what areas are safe to move to or return to collect belongings and food, including accessing their livelihood which is essential for their survival” particularly since the harvest season in Maguindanao is in March and April.
Suspension of military operations
Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu told reporters after the Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC) meeting in the Army’s 6th Infantry Division camp in Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat on Thursday that the municipal POCs would meet before the PPOC meeting next week to discuss the proposal to suspend military operations for at least three days to allow schools hosting evacuees to hold graduation rites.
At the Dapiawan elementary school, the schedule for Kinder graduation is on March 26 while the Grade 6 graduation is on March 28.
Saria’s 18-year old granddaughter, Armia, is graduating from Grade 6. Her brothers Mohammedin 10, and Mohaleddin, 12, are finishing Grades 1 and 2, respectively.
The children’s mother, Aisa Abdul, one of Saria’s daughters, explains her children took long in starting or finishing Elementary because of the frequent evacuations from armed conflict.
The IDP Protection Assessment Report also pointed to the “growing concern over the duration and scope of the ongoing military offensives, causing anxiety, distress, exhaustion and confusion amongst the IDPs.”
It said the military is present in “communities, in houses, madrasahs and other government structures such as schools, and barangay halls including in some distribution sites even after the fighting has transferred to other areas.”
It added that there are now areas identified as “no go areas” for civilians.
“In Barangay Penditen, Datu Salibo, six men were held by military from morning until late afternoon. There are reports of strafing or indiscriminate firing in some areas where people try to return to their houses/farms and persons detained as suspected BIFF members, including a school teacher,” the report said.
The BIFF, which broke away from the MILF in the aftermath of the botched MOA-AD signing, was founded around March 2010, three months after Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato tendered his resignation as commander of the 105th Base Command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).
In a MindaNews interview in April 2011, Kato said he would not stand in the way of the peace negotiations. “I am for peace negotiations but not peace negotiations forever.”
“In Maguindanaon, he said, “We do not need negotiations. We need results. Even if we do not negotiate, if we see this is also what we hope for, okay, automatic, we will agree. We will agree).
Kato, however, suffered a stroke in November 2011 and has not been heard from since.
On Sunday, March 15, authorities arrested Ustadz Mohammad Ali Tambako, former BIFF vice chair, and four of his men, in General Santos City.
Tambako, who was tagged as the founder of a supposed BIFF splinter group, Justice for Islam Movement (JIM), and his four companions were nabbed aboard a tricycle along the national highway in Barangay Calumpang at past 9 p.m. Sunday following a tip-off from residents.
The four other suspects were identified as Mesharie Gayak, Datukan Sabiwang, Ali Ludisma and Abusama Guiamel.
On Monday, police operatives recovered several bomb-making materials in a raid on a house in Dona Soledad Subdivision in Barangay Labangal that was previously rented by Tambako
Col. Roland Villanueva, commander of the Army’s 1002nd Brigade, thanked residents of General Santos “for providing the law enforcers — the security officers – this vital information.”
Tambako and his companions, who yielded three handguns and three hand grenades, were immediately flown to Manila before noon on Monday, March 16.
At least 140 BIFF killed?
Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, chief of the Public Affairs Office of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division in Camp Siongco, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao said that as of morning of March 22, “estimated number of dead BIFF is 140 plus with only five body counts, and about 40 wounded” while on the side of soldiers, the number of killed remained at six but the number of wounded has risen from 23 on March 11 to 33.
“Tuloy pa din all out-offensive. (The all-out offensive continues). Until June pa ito,” Petinglay said.
“However, the all-out offensive has three phases: first phase is clearing – flushing out the BIFF from their encampments and lairs and making them incapable of fighting; second is hold and consolidate – troops will be left to man areas in previous BIFF encampments so the BIFF cannot return there; and third is development phase – developmental projects will come into the areas for the residents there. As of now, we are still entering the hold and consolidate phase. It is within this phase when residents can return to their homes,” she said.