MIDSAYAP, North Cotabato (MindaNews/25 September) – Residents of barangays Bual Norte, Palongoguen and portions of Malingao in this town were trying to restore some normalcy in their lives two days after skirmishes between government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) forced hundreds of families to flee.
The fighting displaced at least 2,000 families, turning Malingao and Palonguguen into “ghost villages.”
But on Tuesday, farmers in Bual Norte could be seen either applying fertilizer on rice plants or reinforcing the paddies as MindaNews drove along the narrow dirt road beside the irrigation canal lined by some coconut trees.
Classes have resumed in the elementary school in the same barangay and even in nearby schools that served as evacuation centers.
Bual Norte, a rice-producing area and home to the government-owned Philippine Rice Research Institute, is four kilometers away from the town proper.
This morning in Palongugen some men were sitting outside an old small house that sits beside the road. An Armalite rifle lay on top of a table before them.
Renato de Arroz, a former two-term village chief of Palongugen, sipped a cup of coffee as he welcomed the MindaNews team and offered seats. The other men kept working in their farm.
Asked when the people return home, de Arroz replied: “They are here at daytime and go back to the evacuation center before dark.”
He said this has been a “normal” practice among villagers particularly after skirmishes.
“But I advised the farmers to work in their farm by group. While some are working, the others would keep an eye in case the rebels come back,” he said in Ilongo.
He added they are not letting their guard down even if the rebels have already retreated following the clearing operations on Tuesday.
CVOs on alert
About 15 minutes later, a band of armed men passed by on board motorcycles. Some were wearing camouflage uniforms while others were in short pants but with bandoliers of ammunition strapped around their bodies.
“They are the CVOs (Civilian Volunteer Organization) here. We are still on alert because we are just two kilometers away from the marsh,” de Arroz said, referring to the Ligawasan Marsh.
He said the rebels retreated to the marsh after the clashes bringing with them the 14 hostages who were released on Tuesday.
The marshy area is this town’s boundary with Libungan (also part of North Cotabato) and Northern Kabuntalan town of Maguindanao.
De Arroz said the CVOs were going around to check the damaged houses as well as to patrol the area to secure the working farmers.
Malingao meanwhile has been cleared of BIFF rebels as of Tuesday afternoon, and no more gunfights were reported on Wednesday morning.
From the road, a tent could be seen beside a hut underneath a camachile tree. It wasn’t one of those tents that are usually used to shelter ducks because, like the hut, it was fortified with sandbags with a hole that served as a gun port for the CVOs.
Less than 100 meters away from the outpost, some men were loading some belongings into a farm trailer. “We are transporting our belongings,” said a farmer in his mid-40s with an orange shirt tied around his head.
About 400 meters away from the outpost, the band of CVOs stopped and inspected an irrigation dam.
They pointed to some bloodstains believed to be left behind by the rebels. “They were positioned here during the firefight,” one of them said while picking up some empty shells of 5.56mm and 7.62mm rounds.
The CVO member, who saw action on Monday, explained that the BIFF rebels hid behind the concrete walls during the firefight. Others hid in the houses and in the ditches.
The CVOs requested not to show their faces while MindaNews was taking pictures for security reasons.
A house reportedly burned by the retreating rebels came into view as the CVOs and MindaNews drove further along the irrigation canal.
De Arroz had earlier told us about the razed house. He said it had been abandoned for three months already because its owner, an elderly woman, moved to Eperanza town in Sultan Kudarat.
About 200 hundred meters further, the CVOs stopped and one of them alerted the group that a group of men had disembarked from a banca at the fishport which lies over half a kilometer away. They told us to drive back to the outpost because they would check who those men were.
“This was their entry and exit point whenever they came here to harass the farmers,” a CVO said referring to the dirt road from the marshy area leading to the outpost.
By then, the farm trailer loaded with belongings had already left the house near the outpost. Its owner said the rebels ransacked his house and destroyed some furniture.
He said the rebels positioned in his house when they harassed the outpost on Monday. “I recovered a lot of empty shells of an M60 machine gun and M14 rifle on the floor.”
“We have not stayed here since May because I’m afraid we would get caught in the crossfire when they would attack the outpost,” the farmer who refused to be named said.
He said his family is now staying with their relatives near the barangay hall.
As the MindaNews team was about to leave, he took out his Carbine and placed it on the table. “I’ll stay here to keep an eye on my house,” he told the CVOs who had arrived by then.
Not the first time
It’s not the first time that the village and neighboring areas were attacked by Moro rebels. Clashes had occurred in these areas for years.
Following the clashes on Monday, de Arroz said many of his fellow villagers have not yet returned home.
He said they could not be sure how long they would remain on alert. “I’m not sure when my fellow villagers can return home. It depends on the situation here.”
Jeanette Umatong, a widow from Palongugen, recalled that she was working with three other farmers in her farm when the rebels arrived.
Umatong said they rushed to the barangay hall before the firefight erupted. “Mud was still all over our bodies when we evacuated. And it was lunch time already when we were able to wash up,” she said in an interview.
For now, she is staying with her relatives in Bual Norte and not yet sure when she could return home.
She said the burned house belonged to her aunt, who is in her 70s. “She was almost killed during the harassment last May, she was lucky to have fallen on the ditch.”
On Wednesay morning, Capt. Antonio Bulao, spokesperson of the 602nd Brigade, said in a text message that there were no fresh firefights in the area.
De Arroz said Monday’s attack was not the first this year.
“Early this year, they also attacked us. I think this is already the third time for this year,” he said.
He recalled that the worst attack was in 2002, saying many houses were destroyed and many of their farm animals were taken by the rebels.
“They attacked us twice that year. I don’t know what they want from us. The can send us a message and tell us what they want and maybe we can talk about it.” (Keith Bacongco/MindaNews)