CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 17 June) – Internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Higaonon tribe trooped to the provincial capitol of Misamis Oriental Thursday morning and staged a protest rally to urge the provincial government to facilitate talks with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division and end their two-week long displacement from their community.
“We evacuated from our homes last June 5 after another military operation in our communities…. The worst part is that this is the fourth time that we have been displaced from our homes,” said Nenita Hilugon, secretary general of Tagtabolon, a Higaonon tribal organization.
She said the evacuees number about 200 coming from 46 families from Sitio Camansi and Sitio Tapol, Barangay Banglay in Lagonglong town.
Hilugon pointed out that they have no problems with soldiers passing the area but it is a huge risk having soldiers stay in their community.
“At first [the soldiers] said they were just conducting a community activity but we got alarmed when they said they were going to stay for several weeks,” she said.
Hilugon said they then packed their belongings, fearing they may be caught in the crossfire.
“Turned out we were right since just moments after we left our homes, we heard bursts of gunfire and explosions coming from where the soldier were,” she said.
Hilugon and other IDPs, sometimes referred to as “bakwits,” acknowledge and did not deny that members of the New People’s Army (NPA) pass by their community every now and then but pointed out that the NPA guerillas respected the community’s demand by not staying near the homes of the people.
Datu Reynaldo “Mahuhukom” Ayuma, tribal leader, explained why the community has been afraid of the presence of soldiers.
“When they operate in our community, they would just accuse anyone of being members of the NPA. Last year, I was accused and harassed while I was tending in my farm. I was interrogated and asked where my firearms were. They accused me of being a member of the NPA,” Ayuma lamented.
He said that after leaving their homes last June 5, they came back later together with several non-governmental organizations, only to find out his home was ransacked, its locks broken, the things inside in disarray.
“Is this what they meant when they say they want to bring peace and development to our community? That they will take away our problems and help us? They are not helping us, they are making it worse for us to live in peace,” said Ayuma.
He expressed his hopes that the leadership of the Army will listen and talk with them.
“I hope that the Army, especially the leaders in the 58th Infantry Battalion, will be kind enough to leave us alone, give us peace in our community. I have nothing against them passing by. But for them to stay within our tribal community and putting up a detachment, I fear it would only endanger us all,” said the tribal leader.
Ayuma added that the dry spell brought by the El Niño phenomenon has made their lives worse.
“This situation has only made our problems worse, especially after the recent drought that destroyed much of our crops,” seconded Hilugon.
She said they began to plant only recently as the rains came. “But after we left our homes due to the military operation, I’m afraid that most of our crops have already died in our absence,” Hilugon added.
Angeles Kabanlas, a farmer, narrated the experience of her two sons and husband when the gunfire and explosions erupted.
She said they have a farm in the area, which is their only source of livelihood. As they were planting bananas, corn and string beans, they heard an explosion around 3 p.m.
“My two sons ran towards our horse to secure it, but they were shocked when soldiers chased them and aimed their guns at them,” Kabanlas narrated.
She said her sons aged 18 and 16, as well as her husband, were so frightened as they are not used to someone pointing a gun at them. “I hope that these soldiers when they operate in the mountains, they would not aim their gun at just anybody. They should not just accuse anyone of being NPA rebels just because they doubt our presence in our own lands,” she said.
Kabanlas it was the same in the 1980s, and hinted that maybe how the soldiers treat the poor people in the mountains caused many to join the NPA.
“Why are they doing this to us? We are civilians, we are farmers. The people in the urban communities and cities will not have enough food to eat without us farmers. No matter how you try to justify, twist the situation, we are there to farm and tend to our livelihood in the mountains,” she pointed out.
Capt. Joe Patrick Martinez, spokesperson of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, explained that the military operation was due to reports coming from the neighbors of those who evacuated. “Our soldiers would not be there if we don’t have legitimate and valid reasons,” he added, stressing they were only doing their mandated duty of suppressing insurgency.
“We are not picking on one community. They make it sound like it is only their area. We are operating in several communities, not only in Sitio Camansi, but other nearby communities as well,” Martinez said.
He cited the recent encounter against the NPA in a mountain village in Talisayan town, whose mountain range connects to the mountains of Lagonglong.
The displaced Higaonons waited at the provincial capitol for the dialogue with the Army and the governor, but the group claimed the Army did not make it to the planned dialogue Friday morning.
The Army, on the other hand, said they did not go to the capitol simply because they were not informed about the talks.