COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/12 August) — Clashes between a breakaway Moro rebel group and the military along the Cotabato-Isulan highway have forced at least 39,000 people to leave their homes in Maguindanao, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council said Saturday.
The NDRRMC said the fighting has also caused the suspension of classes in 16 schools, affecting some 10,000 students and 260 teachers.
Unidentified men also torched 22 houses in barangays Meta, Iganagampong and Maitumaig in Datu Unsay town, one of the hardest hit in the clashes between government troops and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
BIFF gunmen had tried to capture the highway and set off bombs since Sunday last week in a rampage that had left five soldiers and policemen dead and three others wounded, according to the NDRRMC.
The clashes also caused trauma among residents, even those who are no strangers to evacuation having been displaced in the past.
“These clashes are scarier than the earlier conflicts we experienced in the past. The BIFF is different. They are more fanatic,” Kagawad Roder Apenida of Barangay Saniag, Ampatuan town, said.
Apenida said the barking of dogs was the first indication that the rebels had descended on their barangay at about 4am last Monday.
He said the rebels moved silently, knocking on the doors of their houses, and asking all the men to gather at the village center near the flagpole.
He said all of them complied and went to the village center where they found more gunmen. He said all of the men were gathered by 6am.
“One of the rebels produced a copy of the Holy Book of Koran and started lecturing us why they came to the village,” Apenida, a Teduray, narrated.
“We were not scared at first because they assured us that we will not be harmed. That it was not their way to harm innocent civilians,” he added.
He said he even befriended one of the rebels, a short fellow who carried an M1 Garand rifle and a small Koran.
But Moro women whose husbands also joined the other men at the village center sensed something that alarmed them.
“I realized that there was something wrong because all of our men were gathered at the village center. This did not happen when our village was also attacked by other rebels,” Norlana Simpal said.
Simpal said her fears came true when she saw several gunmen entered the five sari-sari stores in their village and took out all of the Tanduay bottles they could find.
She said the rebels brought all of the bottles and in front of the men, shattered them to pieces.
“They told the men drinking Tanduay is not permitted in their group,” she said.
Not contented, the rebels went around the village and tore down a billiard hall and a videoke bar. Like they did to the Tanduay bottles, they destroyed the billiard balls and the videoke machine, Simpal said.
“They used bolos to hack the billiard balls and used axes to destroy the video machines,” she narrated.
She added the rebels then took all the mobile phones owned by her neighbors.
The seizure of the mobile phones and the sight of the rebels destroying the rum bottles, billiard balls and videoke machine sent a chilling effect among the residents.
Apenida said they realized that the rebels were not telling the truth and they could be harmed.
“They said they will not take anything from us but they took away our phones and destroyed our things,” he said.
He said the rebels then asked them not to leave and all of the residents stayed until 4pm.
In the afternoon, Apenida said he went to the leader of the rebels and told them that the villagers were in danger of being caught in a crossfire if soldiers would come and try to recapture Saniag.
“I was surprised that the rebel leader allowed us to leave after conferring with somebody on the radio,” he said, adding they arrived at the town center of Ampatuan at about 6pm after walking four kilometers.
Simpal, who has been an evacuee since the 90s when she was still a child, said last Monday’s evacuation was very tiring for her.
“I am already a mother of four. I am not young anymore. My children all help carry our possession and we have to walk all the way because we do not have a carabao,” she said.
“I was hoping that my children will not experience fleeing for safety every time there will be clashes. But they already tasted the kind of life I have last Monday,” she said. (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)