SPECIAL REPORT: For Lumads in Diatagon, life has been a series of evacuations

LIANGA, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews /09 March) — The heavy presence of the military in Sitio Simowao, a Lumad community in the coastal town here since August 16, 2019 had instilled fear anew among Manobo residents that they might be caught in the crossfire between government forces and the New People’s Army (NPA), a sad ordeal they have had to suffer for decades.

The Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (Persevering Struggle for the Next Generation) or Mapasu, which has Manobo members in the 20 neighboring sitios in Barangay Diatagon, have been calling for a military pullout but their pleas have not been heeded.

Manobo residents recently fled their homes in sitios Simowao and Emerald in Diatagon, Lianga town in Surigao del Sur for fear of getting caught in the crossfire between government forces and the New People’s Army . CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

On February 28, 2020, 67 Manobo families in Sitio Emerald and the adjacent Sitio Simowao, fled their homes on February 28, fearing hostilities between the Army and the NPA might escalate a week after an explosion injured three persons, including a five-year old girl on February 21 in Sitio Emerald.

From the 1960s until the early part of the 1970s, these communities were logging concession areas of the American company, Lianga Bay Logging Company.

The military had made its presence felt in the Lumad communities in July 2018 triggering mass evacuations as government forces trained their guns in this part of Mindanao in pursuit of the NPA after the dreaded Maute group in Marawi was  vanquished in 2017.

Duterte had imposed martial law in all of Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities on May 23, 2017, Day 1 of the Marawi Siege.  Duterte declared Marawi “liberated from the terrorist influence” on October 17, 2017 and combat operations terminated by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on October 23.

With Marawi “liberated,” the Duterte shifted focus on the NPA.

On November 23, 2017, the President issued Proclamation 360 terminating the peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF) just as the government peace panel was on its way to Utrecht supposedly for another round of talks. The NDF represents the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA in the peace process with the government.

On December 5, 2017, Duterte signed Proclamation 374 designating the CPP-NPA as a terrorist group and a year later, on December 4, 2018, he issued Executive Order No. 70 “institutionalizing the whole-of-nation approach in attaining inclusive and sustainable peace, creating a National Task Force to end Local Communist Armed Conflict, and directing the adoption of a National Peace Framework.”

The EO institutionalized Duterte’s preference for “localized peace talks.”

Evacuees several times over

On July 16, 2018, some 2,000 residents in the neighboring sitios of Han-ayan, Km. 16,  Mike, Km. 14, Yadawan, Kabulohan, Magkahunaw, Emerald, Simowao, Manluy-a and Decoy fled their villages, fearing bombs would be dropped on their homes after they saw Army choppers hovering  around Sitio Han-ayan.

Aid workers from the NGO ACCORD which is working for the resiliency and development for young Manobo kids, and the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Tandag went to check and assess situation of the Lumad evacuees who are temporarily settled at sitio Simowao in Barangay Diatagon, Lianga, Surigao del Sur on November 28, 2017 but were barred entry. Photo by Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray

The displaced residents sought refuge at the Diatagon Barangay Gym where they stayed for 23 days and returned home when a written agreement was reached among provincial officials, Catholic church leaders, police and military officials and representatives from the affected communities.

The evacuees were the same people who sought refuge at the Provincial Sports Complex oval grounds in Tandag City where they built makeshift tents and stayed for a year from September 1, 2015 to September 1, 2016.

The Lumads in Sitio Km. 16, Sitio Han-ayan and other neighboring communities fled their homes on September 1, 2015, bringing the cadavers of Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev), and Dionel Campos, then chair of Mapasu, and Datu Bello Sinzo.

Campos and Sinzo were killed by heavily armed men in full combat uniform and with Armed Forces of the Philippines patches, who herded the male residents from Sitio Han-ayan to Sitio Km. 16, some 200 meters away, according to the recollection of Rommel Campos, 26, a resident of Han-ayan.

Campos was shot dead while lying on the ground while Sinzo was killed after the gunmen fired their guns indiscriminately in the air. The suspects were later identified as members of Magahat-Bagani paramilitary group led by Datu Calpet Egua.

Samarca, who was left alone at the Alcadev school compound, was found dead, his hands and feet tied with a rope and his throat slit.

Alcadev is a secondary school with a specialized curriculum that is culturally appropriate and focused on different agricultural and livelihood skills. Basic health, teaching literacy and numeracy and community development work skills are also incorporated in the eight subjects while the learners’ intellectual capacities are also enhanced.

The displaced residents were initially counted at 1,000 when they reached the center of Barangay Diatagon, but swelled to 3,000 when they reached Tandag City, coming from the 26 communities and seven villages in the towns of Surigao del Sur.

Military detachment in civilian populace

Fear gripped residents of Sitio Kilometer 9 and Sitio Simowao in August 2019 when composite units of Army soldiers set up a military detachment within the civilian populace, some even encroaching in the homes of residents, tying their hammocks on wooden house posts, to sleep.

The Army justified their encampment as implementation of EO 70.

Sandy Sanchez, 44, Mapasu vice chair, a resident of neighboring Sitio Emerald said Simowao residents began to worry on the militarization in their community after the killing of Randel Gallego, 18 and Emil Tejero,31, in Hubo river in neighboring San Agustin town in January 2019, a month after EO 70 was issued.

Sanchez said two other farmers who were harvesting abaca in Km. 16, Sitio Han-ayan survived the shooting and returned home to Simowao to confirm that the perpetrators were Army soldiers.

Aside from the disruption of their daily routine and farming activities, Simowao residents complained of several human rights violations since the soldiers arrived.

These include interrogations about the whereabouts of other family members, showing school children posters of wanted personalities of the NPA and giving them mobile phones with cameras in exchange for serving as military assets.

‘Taktikang bakwit’

Lt. Krisjuper Andreo Punsalan, the civil-military officer of the 3rd Special Forces Battalion, said Sitio Simowao is one of the most affected by activities of NPA, claiming the Lumads are being used by the NPA as human shields to evade government forces through staged evacuations that he labelled as “taktikang bakwit” (evacuation tactic).

Punsalan accused Mapasu of orchestrating evacuations to gain sympathy and financial assistance from international funding organizations.

The February 28, 2020 mass evacuation in Sitio Emerald, according to Lt. Col. Joey Baybayan, commanding officer of the 3rd SF Battalion, is part of the NPA’s “taktkang bakwit.”

Baybayan said the firing of an M-203 grenade launcher on February 21, which injured three persons in Sitio Emerald, was a “conspiracy of the NPA and Mapasu to harass the community and lay the blame on soldiers who set up detachments in the Lumad hinterland communities to trigger the NPA’s ‘Taktikang Bakwit’.”

“The alleged harassment plan of Mapasu and the NPAs as revealed by the informant materialized,” he said.

Mapasu officials denied the allegations.

July 2018 agreement

Mapasu pointed to a July 30, 2018 agreement signed by provincial officials, Lumad leaders, priests, police and military officials where the Army promised it will no longer set up detachments within Lumad communities.

It also stipulated that soldiers are not allowed to live in civilian homes and community centers.

The signatories were Vice Gov. Manuel O. Alameda Sr.,, provincial administrator Efren E. Rivas, Jr.,  Monsignor Isidro H. Irizari, representing the Diocese of Tandag,  Fr. Fortunato Estillore of the Diocese of Tandag Indigenous Peoples Apostolate; Monsignor Jaime Panares, representative of the Diocese of Tandag; and community representatives Sarry Campos  and Enriquez Guellen of Sitio Km. 16, Ednalyn T. Binongkasan of Sitio Km. 9, Sandy E. Sanchez, of Sitio Emerald, Severino Magadan of Sitio Km. 9, Col. Maurito L. Licudine, deputy brigade commander of the 401st Brigade, Police Senior Supt. Francisco Dungo, Jr, Police Provincial Director and Lt. Col. Jaime Datuin, battalion commander of the 75th Infantry Battalion initially agreed to sign but declined at the last minute. According to Maricres Pagaran, office in charge of Alcadev, a military asset in civilian clotehs was seen whispering to Datuin apparently advising him not to sign the document.

The document was signed at the town hall of San Agustin to appease the displaced Lumads who were poised to walk all the way to  the Sports Oval at the Provincial Capitol in Tandag City, about 87 kilometers away.

Because of this agreement, the evacuees, including children and the elderly,  started returning to their villages after breakfast, carrying their belongings and farm animals.

Because of this agreement, the evacuees, including children and the elderly,  started returning to their villages after breakfast, carrying their belongings and farm animals.

2019 dialogue

In a dialogue with the military on August 18, 2019, Sanchez said he was disheartened to hear Lt. Col. Baybayan say the Lumads should “move on” and just cooperate with the Army to achieve peace and progress.

In a statement issued on August 28, 2019, Mapasu cited several incidents of killings whenever soldiers encamp in their communities. Most of the victims were community leaders, among them Jessie Bacasmas in 2005 in Simowao and Henry Alameda in 2014 in Sitio Cabalawan, Barangay San Isidro; and Samarca, Campos and Sinzo, on September 1, 2015.

Children comprise the majority of evacuees from the upland areas of Barangay Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur. July 20, 2018. MindaNews photo by GG BUENO

The human rights group, Karapatan, reported that an undetermined number of troops from  the 2nd Scout Ranger Batallion, were on foot patrol in Upper Oregon, Logdeck, San Isidro, Lianga. on October 14, 2014. Around 17 of those troops, including members of Datu Calpit Egua’s paramilitary group, went to the neighboring Sitio Cabalawan, it said.

Karapatan said Alameda had just finished breakfast when three armed men carrying M14 and M16 rifles baraged into his house and forcibly dragged him to the forested area. But when they passed by the waiting shed near his house, Alameda held on to one of the posts, a move that irked one of the soldiers who shot him twice on the chest while another shot him on the head.

Alameda’s  wife and children witnessed the killing.

A similar situation happened in the 2015 killing of Samarca, Campos and Sinzo. While Samarca was killed inside a room, Campos and Sinzo were killed in front of terrified students, the victims’ families and residents in Sitio Han-ayan and Sitio Km. 16.

Murder charges were filed against the suspects Calpet Egua, Bobby Tejero, Leo Tejero, Margarito Layno, a certain Acebedo and 32 others in 2016.

Evacuation, Senate probe

The September 2015 killings led to the mass evacuation of about 3,000 Lumads to the Provincial Sports Complex in Tandag City,  and a Senate probe in early October that year, where Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III and Aquilino Pimentel III, echoed the call of Lumads, church and local government leaders to arrest, disarm and disband the “Magahat-Bagani” paramilitary group that had been repeatedly accused of sowing terror in several towns in Surigao del Sur and whose disbandment had also been repeatedly sought.

Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III (in black) and Aquilino Pimentel (right), at the Senate Probe on Lumad killings held in Tandag City on October 1 and 2, 2015. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

At the end of the Senate probe, then Bishop of Tandag Nereo Odchimar said he wanted answers to critical questions about the “apparent unholy alliance between the military and the paramilitary which the military vehemently denies.” 

Odchimar, now Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese,  had earlier told the Senate probe that he was “baffled” why, despite the military’s denials of an alliance, Marcial Belandres, one of the leaders of the paramilitary  group and principal suspect in the October 2014 killing of  Manobo teacher Henry Alameda and Aldren Dumaguit, was among three persons presented as Datus in a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City  on September 15.

The evacuees stayed for a year in Tandag and returned to their villages on September 1, 2016, after they were assured by Col. Isidro Purisima, then commander of the 75th Infantry Battalion, that they will no longer set up military detachments near the communities.

Harvest time

But another mass evacuation at the center of Barangay Diatagon occurred in July 2018 due to the increased presence of several Army units in  Simowao, Han-ayan and seven other sitios.

The mass evacuation came at a time when farmers were just recovering from the year-long displacement of 2015-2016, and harvest in their farms was abundant.

In  December 2018, Lumad farmers, motorcycle drivers, students and teachers of Tribal Filipino Program in Surigao del Sur (Trifpss) and Alcadev complained they were subjected to harassments. The military, they alleged, imposed food blockade in the checkpoint operated by the 75th Infantry Battallion  in Sitio Neptune, Barangay Diatagon, according to a press statement of Kahugpungan sa mga Lumadnong Organisasyon sa Caraga (Kasalo Caraga),

Kasalo Caraga reported residents passing the checkpoint were forced to write their names on a logbook and their pictures taken. Rice and other products that Lumads brought to sell in the retail stores were held on suspicion the goods were for the NPA.

Kasalo further noted the military conducted bombings and strafing twice in the mountainous areas and farms of Sitio Decoy and Sitio Panukmoan in Barangay Diatagon on December 31, 2018 and January 8, 2019, forcing residents to evacuate seven times.

In a statement on March 8, 2019, Kasalo Caraga said the bombings were confirmed by Maj. Rodulfo S. Cordero, Jr., civil-military operations officer of the 401st Brigade.

The incidents displaced 170 families or 920 persons from seven communities in Diatagon.

Mapasu noted that farm productivity since the evacuees’ return in 2016, when the community was relatively peaceful, had actually increased, a development they  were most happy with. The presence of soldiers, it said, disrupted the residents’ lives anew.

Lianga councilor Samuel Dollano said the Lumad communities were, indeed, reaping a bountiful harvest of root crops, vegetables and corn which they supplied to the markets of Diatagon and Lianga.

“All Out Peace Policy”

Dollano, through a municipal council resolution, authored the “All Out Peace Policy” on February 7,  2017, a copy of which was forwarded to Malacanang.

Salient points of the resolution were the need to rehabilitate farming activities, self-reliance to develop communal farming which was proven to be effective with the Bayanihan spirit, satisfy first their needs in the community before they would sell their produce to the market and sustain their practice in the rational use and care for the environment.

“This can be done if there is an atmosphere of peace as a result of peace agreements and ceasefire,” Dollano said.

Bishop Modesto Villasanta of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) in Surigao del Sur, questioned the Army officials’ insistence to encamp in the Lumad communities when they had previous successful military operations without setting up detachments in the hinterland villages.

“The Lumads want peaceful existence where they can move freely and live productively in their communities,” Villasanta said.

He recalled last year’s July 2018 mass evacuation where the military regulated the entry of relief goods for the displaced residents and prohibited the distribution of drinking water without coordinating with the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Villasanta recalled that a checkpoint was set up  near the gym to check on the relief goods from the NGOs and the Catholic church.

Father Marlon Lacal, parish priest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur, complained that the relief goods he personally brought were blocked by soldiers at the checkpoint who told him the DSWD staff will distribute it to the evacuees in the gym.

October 2019 dialogue

On October 21, 2019, Bayan Muna Representatives Carlos Isagani Zarate and Eufemia Cullamat came for another dialogue on the demand of Simowao residents for the military to pull out of their community.

Surigao del Sur Gov. Alexander Pimentel,  Lianga Mayor Novelita Sarmen and top military officials attended the event but civilian officials were hesitant to heed the Lumads’ call, fearing repercussions from President Duterte.

Pimentel was quoted in a press release issued by the Army’s 3rd Special Forces as saying: “With all due respect, I must tell you frankly, only President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), can order the Army personnel to move anytime and anywhere when needed. They have a mission to fulfill in line with the Whole of Nation approach to end the local communist armed conflict that is very crucial to our national security.”

Sarmen in an interview on December 3, 2019 said the military did not bring trouble to Simowao. “Wa may kasamok sa military. Gani, sila may nag-ayo sa karsada ug nagtukod og basketball court alang sa paliga. Ganahan gani mga tawo kay nay padula” (The military does not cause trouble in the area. In fact, they fixed the road and constructed a basketball court for a tournament).

She dismissed complaints about the encampment as “fake news.’

Sarmen explained her concurrence with the military’s presence in the area. “I cannot say no because this is the mandate of EO70,” she added.

A disgusted Zarate lambasted the “whole-of-nation approach as if this will solve the insurgency problem.”

“Despite the objection from the residents, the military insisted as if the solution to the root causes of rebellion can be done in the setting up of basketball court and other band-aid solutions,” Zarate told this reporter.

Cullamat, a Lumad herself, said the military does not deserve to stay in the Lumad community. “If we talk of peace, the residents there were living peacefully until the military came and stayed,” she said.

The military violated the law, she said, by using the residents’ houses as their sleeping quarters, such as hanging their hammocks under the resident’s houses or just outside.

She explained the Lumads in Surigao del Sur are not against any development project as long as this will be implemented by the local government, not the military, and it would not compromise their ancestral domain.

Sanchez, the Mapasu Vice Chair from Sitio Emerald, said soldiers of the 3rd Special Forces Battalion manning the checkpoints within the perimeter of the community have never prohibited them from tending to their farms. He said most of the farms planted to upland rice, corn, vegetables and root crops are located at least three kilometers away.

But Sanchez said they can no longer till their farms because soldiers frequently go on foot patrol.

He said he and other farmers are afraid they’d be caught in a crossfire if rebels chance upon the soldiers. (Chris V. Panganiban / MindaNews)