Panabo evacuees return home; banana growers, workers lose income

On Thursday noon, a pregnant 23-year old Norilyn Jacaba boarded one of the dump trucks from the Panabo Central Elementary School gymnasium in the poblacion 14 kilometers away, to return here, only to board another vehicle to the hospital in the poblacion, as she started to labor.

She told MindaNews she was due to deliver her baby this month, her first, but Wednesday’s flight from home due to fright has caused her so much pain.

A total of 319 villagers spent the night in the school, said Dennis Devilleres, executive director of the Panabo City Disaster Coordinating Council.

Most of the evacuees were neophytes at fleeing:  they were not able to bring anything but the clothes on their back.

“First time nangyari sa amin ito,” (This is the first time these happened here), Manay barangay councilman Ronnie Daquio told MindaNews, referring to the air strike and the evacuations. Aside from the evacuees in the poblacion, several families also sought refuge in the Catholic chapel, the Iglesia ni Kristo church, the barangay hall and a packing plant, Daquio said.

Military officials on Wednesday said the military operations in Manay and Kasilak were part of the pursuit operations against the NPA guerrillas who raided the Davao Prison and Penal Farm shortly before 2 a.m. on Easter Sunday.

Daquio said the neighboring Barangay Kasilak has long been known as a rebel-influenced area, but not Manay. The two barangays are separated only by the Lasang River, he said.

Prison superintendent Catalino Malinao said the NPA took three prison guards with them when they left the compound on Easter Sunday but “they were immediately released upon reaching Barangay Kasilak in Panabo.”

The soldiers arrived in Manay three days after the penal farm raid.

Daquio and the other villagers said they did not hear an exchange of gunfire prior to the air strike, contrary to military reports. An MG-520 attack helicopter and two planes the villagers describe as “Tora-tora” immediately started firing after circling the banana plantation below, at around 9:30 a.m.

Eight craters, the biggest of which were three to four feet in diameter and one foot deep were seen near the Ayco house in Purok 7, an area surrounded by banana plants. The nearest crater was four to five meters from the house. Another crater was seen a few meters away.

Devilleres and Daquio, both government officials, said the military did not inform them there would be operations in the area.

Lt. Col. Alex Ambal, chief of the 73rd Infantry Battalion, said they did not coordinate with local officials because “we opted for a surprise air strike.”

He told reporters what happened Wednesday as a “normal military operation where there is an abnormal presence of a large armed group” that hadsince “scattered in different directions.”

He said the air strike preceded the exchange of gunfire with the NPA but the latter, he claimed, used the villagers as human shield. Villagers denied having been held hostage or having seen NPA guerrillas in the area.

Ambal said Manay residents were supporting  the  NPA “wittingly or unwittingly.”

Soldiers also entered the compound of Raul and Anita Mahipus in Purok Siete even as the owners were not around, just the helper. Anita said the soldiers, around 30 of them, entered the compound and even their room, and destroyed a portion of the ceiling used by electricians for entry.

Anita said the soldiers repeatedly said there were reports the couple was hosting the NPA’s Leoncio Pitao aka Kumander Parago, an allegation the Mahipus couple denied.

Ambal told MindaNews the soldiers were armed with a search warrant but the Mahipus couple said no such warrant was shown.

Ambal also said the Mahipus couple may not have been hosting Parago but “forced.”  He said the villagers who claimed they saw no NPA in the area may have been advised by the NPA to tell a lie.

No rebel was killed or wounded in the air strike. But hundreds of banana plantation workers were unable to earn their P200 daily wage Wednesday and Thursday and contract growers lost thousands of pesos.

Engr. Bernardino Saavedra, who owns a 2.5 hectare banana plantation said 80 bunches of bananas harvested last Wednesday but which failed to reach the plant because workers scampered for safety, are no longer acceptable. He estimates the loss at P 20,000.

The failure to inject fungicides and insecticides because workers were afraid to return to work Thursday, meant another estimated P20,000 loss, he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)