KABACAN, North Cotabato — Nearly two weeks after they returned home from a month-long stay in the evacuation centers, residents of Barangay Nangaan are still coping with the difficulties of resuming their interrupted lives.
Maisalam Dilangalen, a septuagenarian, walks a kilometer from the center of Barangay Nagaan to her farm, to collect leftover grains of rice.
From there she walks to an area nearby where two charred posts, no higher than a foot, stand.
“These,” she points to MindaNews, “are the remaining posts of our house. The rest of it were razed to the ground.”
Dilangalen’s family and two other families lived in that house made of light materials.
Today, they are staying in a makeshift shelter at the village center. “We do not mind living away from our farm as long as we are safe. We will not build a new house until peace is stable,” she adds.
In mid-January, Dilangalen recalled, they were preparing to plant corn in one portion of their farm and in another, were preparing to plant sugarcane.
But fighting erupted in the mountainous portions of the village on January 9, forcing them to flee their homes with only the clothes on their back.
“The corn seeds were supposed to be planted in our farm. We were just waiting for the tractor to finish plowing the nearby sugarcane field,” she said.
To meet their daily needs,Dilangalen said her husband is tilling a small farm in Barangay Tunggol in Datu Montawal town in Maguindanao, some 20 kilometers away.
Some 9,000 residents fled their village during the armed hostilities triggered by a land conflict between clans and which later dragged theMoro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) into the conflict.
Nangaan itself, located some 15 kilometers from the town proper, is occupied by MNLF members under the command of Sebangan Kutawato State Revolutionary Committee chair Datu Dima Ambel.
Nangaan is a village of MNLF families under Commander Matog Lumambas while neighboring Simone is occupied by families under MILF under Commander Kineg Inalang.
Under Army watch
Since they returned from the evacuation centers two weeks ago, government soldiers have been escorting farmers to their farms particularly along the boundary of neighboring Simone, 2Lt. Arvin Magsino of the 40th Infantry Battalion, one of the platoon leaders of the composite Army unit assigned in Nangaan, said.
“Our job here is to ensure that there will be no fighting on both sides. So we escort them every morning to avoid fighting because they would really see each other in their farms, particularly near the boundary,” he said.
“Although they do not carry firearms we don’t know what they have in mind since many houses were burned on this side.”
He said the land conflict is internal to both parties and negotiations are ongoing to resolve the issue.
A soldier who requested not to be named said armed MNLF members had been ordered to vacate the village pending the outcome of the ongoing negotiations.
“Bawal sila dito ngayon, kahit na ang commander nila, hindi muna pinapayagan na pumunta dito” (They’re not allowed here, even their commander, they are not allowed to come here), he said.
Aside from 40th IB, the composite team of about 20 soldiers is composed of elements from the 7th IB and 38th IB. They are accompanied by two Simba tanks stationed at the village center.
Eid Kabalu, MILF spokesperson, had earlier said that part of the negotiation is to declare Nangaan and Simone as “free zones,” which means both armed groups should withdraw their forces.
Who burned the houses?
Across the road adjacent to Dilangalen’s house, two other houses were also burned, leaving nothing but charred posts and the frame of a structure that used to house goats and chickens.
Like Dilangalen, Samboto Palau, 50, walks to his farm every morning to work on the farm beside the remnants of his burnt house.
Palau and his family are also temporarily staying with their relatives in the village center.
“Wala namang iba na may gawa nito kundi ang kabila” (No one can do it but the other side), he said.
Palau was apparently referring to members of the MILF.
In an earlier interview, Al-Amer Bangsamoro, MILF provincial director for the committee on information, denied responsibility for the burning.
“There were houses burned but it is because of the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and rifle grenade fires,” Bangsamoro said after receiving reports that the displaced villagers blamed the MILF for burning the houses. He said the fire was “due to heavy firefight, bullets were coming from different directions.”
But Dilangalen and Palau said they could not understand why some houses were not burned while other houses, like theirs, were razed to the ground.
“We don’t know why they did this to us, why some of the houses here remained intact. We don’t know where to get money to rebuild our house. But for now, we will not think about it,” said Palau.
Two other families also lived with the Palaus in his house made of light materials.
Several foxholes and trenches were still evident beside the burned houses. But residents could not say if these were dug by MILF or MNLF members who positioned near the houses.
Some 300 meters from the houses of Dilangalen and Palau, only a meter-wide portion of a wall in Norodin Kusain’s house remains.
Kusain, who is in his mid-40s and a father of six, recalled they left their house on February 4 as ordered by the local MNLF commander.
“Pinaalis kami kasi malapit na ang mga tropa sa kabila at nagkaputukan na rin sa unahan” (We were told to leave because the troops from the other side were approaching and there was already fighting nearby).
Bantay Ceasefire, a grassroots-based ceasefire monitor, documented 64 houses burned at the height of the fighting. Bantay Ceasfire entered that area on February 13.
But Nangaan village chief Datucali Lumambas claimed 120 houses were burned. He said they have not received any word from the local government regarding the rehabilitation of the houses.
Lumambas added that Nangaan was a ghost barangay when all 650 families fled during the month-long fighting.
The last group of families fled the village evening of February 9 when the MILF launched its final assault against MNLF positions in the village.
Lumambas said 400 families had returned to the village as of February 25 while the rest remained in evacuation centers in nearby villages.
Classes in the elementary and high schools here were disrupted when the fighting broke out on January 9.
Although the teachers reported to school on February 14, only a few students have been attending classes.
“We are still afraid that fighting will happen again. Until there is no assurance that there will be no more war, some of us will not go back here,” an elderly woman said while winnowing rice outside her house, a hundred meters from the military outpost. (Keith Bacongco / MindaNews)