4,000 spend New Year in evacuation camps in Maguindanao, S. Kudarat

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 2 Jan) – More than 4,000 evacuees from villages in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat greeted the New Year inside gymnasiums that serve as evacuation camps after fleeing their homes since Christmas amid threats of more attacks from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

A resident of Barangay Kauran, Ampatuan town in Maguindanao who requested not to be named said most men in their village were armed during New Year’s Day, fearing threats from the BIFF.

Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu (right) and 6th Infantry Division Commanding General Edmundo Pangilinan distribute relief goods to evacuees at the Kauran Gymnasium in the municipality of Ampatuan in Maguindanao on Wednesday (30 Dec 2015). The gym hosts 700 families who left their homes since Christmas for fear of attacks by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). MindaNews photo by Ferdinandh Cabrera

The BIFF launched simultaneous attacks just before New Year’s Day on detachments of the Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade in nearby in Shariff Aguak, Shariff Saydona and Datu Piang towns.

The BIFF also attacked a week earlier, killing six farmers during Christmas. They were still mourning their loss as the New Year came.

Around 702 families, mostly Ilonggo settlers and Teduray tribesfolk, have sought refuge at the Kauran gym.

Relief assistance

Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu visited the gym before New Year and distributed relief goods.

He also handed burial assistance to families of slain farmers amounting to P10,000 and a sack of rice. He arranged educational assistance for the children of those killed who were breadwinners of their respective families.

Mangudadatu said he wanted the children to avail of the province’s MagPeace scholarship program, which covers expenses for high school and college scholars.

The governor was emotional and teary-eyed when he met with widows and children in a short visit at the wake.

His brothers – Assemblyman Khadaffy, Mayor Freddie and businessman Jong – also extended financial assistance and joined him in the visit.

In Esperanza town in Sultan Kudarat, the local government unit has so far evacuated in the past days a total of 225 families, or more than 1,000 individuals, providing them shelter and safety in the local gymnasium.

Mayor Helen Latog said these residents live near the border of Maguindanao province that are also vulnerable to the attacks of BIFF.

Three residents from Esperanza were killed last Christmas at the height of the BIFF’s rampage.

Latog said the evacuees now stay at the gymnasium, but go to their farmlands in the morning to oversee their rice fields.

Mangudadatu, in his visit at the evacuation camps, said when he saw the pictures of those killed, these reminded him of what happened to his family in 2009 also in Ampatuan municipality. His first wife Genalyn, his two sister and relatives were among those killed in the Nov. 23 massacre wherein 58 people died, 32 of them media workers. The Ampatuan clan has been accused as responsible for the carnage.

He described the killers as “beasts,” asking, “How could they sleep at peace with what they did?”

In his speech in front of hundreds of families gathered inside the Kauran Gymnasium, Mangudadatu condemned the brutality brought by the BIFF.

He stressed that the issue is not a conflict between Moros and Christians settlers but purely the banditry and terrorism of the BIFF.

“The lands owned by the Ilonggos were bought by the owners in good faith. They have tittles. There is no land conflict here when I investigated. These BIFF rogues just wanted to sow terror,” the governor pointed out.

Appeal to MILF, to civilians

Mangudadatu has called the attention of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) hierarchy to help government stop the BIFF’s vicious attacks.

“I am appealing to the MILF leadership. They should help the government in running after the rogue elements,” the governor said, adding that the rebel group should help attain peace in all communities in the Bangsamoro.

But Jabib Guaibar, the MILF’s Local Monitoring Team representative in North Cotabato, said their hands are tied. “We have no mandate or authority to run after them (BIFF) unless we are now part of the government,” he said.

BIFF is a breakaway group from the MILF which did not join in the peace process. It rejects the MILF’s Bangsamoro Basic Law quest and instead opted to push of an independent Islamic State in Mindanao.

Mangudadatu appealed to the residents to refrain from further igniting the conflict by avenging the killing of their relatives.

“Let justice prevail. We are one with you in running after these people and filing charges against them. I am also a victim like you, but we did not put justice in our own hands. Instead we let the due course of justice to work”, appealed the governor.

Deploying more troops

The 6th Infantry Division has pledged to deploy more troops in areas where farmers are usually attacked by the BIFF.

The farmers’ main problem now is how to till their farms and harvest their produce.

Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan, in a meeting with local government officials in Mlang in North Cotabato, Ampatuan in Maguindanao, and Esperanza in Sultan Kudarat, recommended the deployment of additional troops in conflict zones.

“There is no letup in running against these demon BIFF rebels. We will provide more troops to areas where civilians are prone to attacks,” he said.