BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews / 11 March) – A total of 126 families from a remote village here fled their homes to avoid clashes between government soldiers and New People’s Army rebels that started last March 6.
Residents from sitios Patagon, Dugyaman and Cadhaan in Barangay Anticala, 13 kms northeast from downtown, evacuated to Tagkiling Tribal Elementary School also in Anticala after explosions echoed throughout their communities as government troops from the 3rd Special Forces (SF) Battalion of the Philippine Army stormed the area allegedly after spotting a large movement of NPA rebels.
Arselito Mandag Jr., known as Datu Tomotowas II, one of the Manobo tribal leaders in Sitio Patagon and Dugyaman, said the explosions from the firefight frightened the people and forced them to evacuate.
“We heard the first explosions and the sound of successive gunfire around 3:00 in the afternoon and it lasted 15 minutes. We all got very worried and frightened, especially the children and the old people in our community. Some immediately packed their things and left,” said Datu Tomotowas.
Datu Tomotowas pointed out that the next round of gunfire pushed everyone to leave.
“At 5 p.m., another round of firefight erupted. It was more explosive than the earlier encounter and lasted almost an hour. We then left our homes and relocated here in Tagkiling,” he said.
Jersen Masabu, president of the purok covering both Dugyaman and Patagon, said he was able to warn the people of the danger that was about to happen.
“A day before, we noticed 200 armed men who we believe to be NPA rebels passed by some of the villages. Then soldiers appeared, so I alerted several families that something might happen,” said Masabu.
“It was a very frightening experience. We were afraid for the children who were still in school and about to return home. We all headed to the school for fear that we might get hit in the crossfire,” he added.
Maliza Salahay, 13, was on her way home from school when the firefight erupted.
“While walking with some of the children from our school, we suddenly heard gunfire and explosions. Someone told us not to proceed and go back to school. We were very frightened from the sound we heard. We immediately went back to school and waited for our parents to arrive,” she said.
Lt. Col. Potenciano Gamba, commanding officer of the 3rd Special Forces Battalion, explained that the combat operation was needed after they received reports of armed NPA members sighted in the area.
“We received reports from the villagers that there was presence of NPA in the area. So we sent our troops. After the ensuing gun battle we discovered a big camp that can accommodate 100 people in the forested area in Sitio Patagon,” he said.
Gampa said they have been anticipating an offensive action from the NPA.
“For the past few weeks we had heightened our alert, especially right after the NPA attack in Manolo Fortich in Bukidnon. We also received reports that the group might intensify their harassments since March 29, their founding anniversary, is fast approaching. We are now clearing the area and the people should not be alarmed since the real fighting is far from the crowded community center,” he said.
Butuan City Mayor Ferdinand Amante Jr. immediately called for a meeting with the city peace and order council last Thursday to discuss appropriate plans and action for the safety of the evacuates.
The Butuan City government started giving our relief goods to the evacuees in Tagkiling Tribal Elementary School last Friday. But the leaders in the evacuation area revealed that what they have been getting were not enough, especially when children and old people are starting to get sick. They hope medicines will be sent over along with health workers. (Erwin Mascariñas / MindaNews)