Houses burn, thousands flee as MNLF, MILF clash in Kabacan

KABACAN, North Cotabato (MindaNews/10 February) — From the top of a hill, Sittie Tagigaya saw the houses in her village, Barangay Nangaan in Kabacan town, burn as the sound of the gun battle echoed along the Pulangi River last Wednesday.

“The smoke was thick across the sky. It was very terrifying,” Tagigaya narrated.

When they reached the road, Tagigaya said every house they passed were either afire or abandoned as the residents had fled the fighting between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Tagigaya fled with four of her daughters and grandchildren. They had a small cart dragged by an exhausted carabao and a small wheelbarrow where they placed five small plastic sacks of clothes.

“We would drop to the ground every time we heard gunshots. I cannot remember how many times we clung to the ground. We were too scared to get up,” she told MindaNews.

It took Tagigaya and her children more than six hours to cover five kilometers to reach the next village, Barangay Buluan, where they would be safe. They had to sleep on the ground under a coconut grove Wednesday night because it was too dangerous to travel at night.

“We slept on the ground because we did not have mats. I rolled my hands on the arms of my granddaughter, four-year-old Bai Cho, so the child could sleep. There were too many mosquitoes and occasionally, the sound of gunfire could be heard,” Tagigaya said.

“I doubt if she was able to sleep at all,” she added.

Tagigaya was clutching an empty cooking pot when MindaNews found her and her children walking on the dusty road to Barangay Salapungan this morning.

“We’re very hungry. We haven’t eaten any food since yesterday,” she said.

Honey Joy Cabellon of the Kabacan social services department said some 9,000 residents from barangays Nangaan, Simone and Tampid have fled since the fighting between the two armed groups started last month.

“Barangays Nangaan and Simone are ghost towns. They are empty. There is no one there but combatants,” Cabellon said.

She said a fresh round of fighting last Wednesday forced the evacuation of at least 50 percent of the residents of Tampid to nearby Matalam.

She said the combatants have prevented the entry of relief workers in the two villages of Nangaan and Simone, adding relief workers have to use an alternative route from Matalam to reach Tampid.

“We cannot even confirm the reports of the houses that were burned in barangay Nangaan last Wednesday night,” she said.

Al-Amer Bangsamoro, MILF provincial director for the committee on information denied that their forces resorted to burning when they entered Barangay Nangaan, a known stronghold of their rival, the MNLF.

“It is not true. The MILF is a revolutionary force and will never resort to that,” he said.

Bangsamoro said the houses may have been set on fire from exploding shells and B40 rocket grenades in the thick of battle last Wednesday.

Mike Mamento of the Bantay Ceasefire said he saw at least 10 houses burned to the ground when they went to Nangaan last Wednesday.

He belied reports that a mosque was also torched.

“It was a small hut made of cogon beside a madrasah that was burned. It was not a mosque,” he said.

According to Bangsamoro, the fighting started when armed men occupied a mountain near a settlement of Manobo Muslims in Barangay Simone.

Feeling threatened, Bangsamoro said, the Manobos attacked and took the mountain. But as soon as the Manobos were busy with the assault, MNLF forces attacked barangay Simone, he added.

This triggered an escalation of hostilities that have not stopped despite efforts by the leaders of the MNLF and MILF to patch up the warring groups.

The local governments of North Cotabato and Kabacan have taken the lead in defusing the violence.

The fighting has resulted in the death of a four-year-old boy. The victim was hit by stray bullets and died at the evacuation center in Carmen town last month. (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)

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