MIDSAYAP, North Cotabato (MindaNews/24 September) – When a clash between government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) erupted less than a kilometer away from Barangay Tugal on Monday, Ustadz Abdulnasser Bandala and his fellow villagers were burying a teenage boy who died in a vehicular accident.
“We finished the burial before we evacuated,” said Bandala, who recalled it was around 7am when the firefight started.
“We had buried the boy and we were just praying when we heard gunfire. We noticed that bullets hit the roofs of the houses and the trees. But we had to finish the prayers first,” the 48-year old ustadz recounted.
His fellow villager Tenang Abas told Mindanews that they were preparing food for those who attended the burial when they heard the gunfire.
Abas, who is already in his 50s, added that they and all those who attended the burial hid behind the hilly portion on the western part of the village because bullets where whizzing along the tree line from the eastern part.
“It was already 1pm when we were able to eat the food we prepared because he had to seek cover. We could not come out because we might get hit,” the farmer, a father of 13, said.
Bandala said two Simba tanks arrived a few minutes later and positioned along the national highway leading to Datu Piang, Maguindanao.
He said they were allowed to evacuate by foot about two hours later, adding mostly women and children were the first to leave.
But Abas said they left Tugal around 4pm Monday because they were scared of being trapped in the crossfire.
Quoting the Provincial Social Welfare and Development Office (PSWDO), Gov. Emmylou Talino-Mendoza reported that some 2,000 families have been displaced and are now staying in six evacuation centers here.
Clashes between government forces and BIFF rebels erupted on Monday morning when the rebels launched simultaneous attacks on different military outposts.
MindaNews noticed that some evacuees, including Abas and Bandal, have started returning home Tuesday afternoon.
Both of them told MindaNews they decided to return home because their children were complaining that they could not sleep in the evacuation centers.
Abas and Bandala are relatives. They shared two carts pulled by carabaos in hauling their belongings when they evacuated and returned home.
They spent a night in Barangay Salunayan, at least eight kilometers away from Tugal.
But Bandala said they will not unload their belongings yet because they were not sure if there would be no more clashes on Tuesday night.
“Pakiramdaman lang muna kasi di natin sigurado kung hindi na magkaputukan, pero bukas ng umaga kung wala ng putukan, ibaba na namin aming mga gamit,” (We have to observe first because we’re not sure there would be no more firefight, but if there will be no more firefight tomorrow morning we’ll unload our things) he said.
They brought home their children but left behind their wives in Salunayan to avail of the food aid.
In Barangay Kapinpilan, 60 families from Tugal and Mudsing have taken refuge, said barangay health worker Bai Lyn Dagsa.
Among the evacuees was Menangkawi Timan. She told MindaNews she was unaware that two of her children fled with her brother to Barangay Glad.
“It was only upon arriving here that I noticed that my two children are not with me,” said the mother of six, adding they fled on foot.
By noontime, Timan said she received a call from her brother that her five- and six-year old sons were in Glad.
Mudsing is seven kilometers away from Glad and four kilometers away from Kapinpilan.
Many villagers along the national highway from Salunayan to Tugal already have their belongings packed and placed outside their houses.
The residents said they were just getting ready just in case the clashes would escalate.
But Capt. Antonio Bulao, spokesperson of the 602nd Infantry Brigade, said in a text message there were no more firefights as of 4pm Tuesday.
MindaNews spotted five truckloads of government troops on their way to Aleosan town escorted by a Simba and V-150 tanks. (Keith Bacongco/MindaNews)