Roads to evacuation site in Surigao Sur blocked, journalists required to get ‘clearance’ from MPOC

A Lumad evacuee from Barangay Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur and her baby at the provincial sports complex in Tandag City on Oct. 1, 2015. MindaNews file photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

DIATAGON, Lianga, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/20 July) – Soldiers of the 75th Infantry Battalion have blocked all four entry points from the national highway to the covered court of this barangay where some 1,600 upland residents sought refuge after fleeing their homes on Monday, July 16.

On Thursday, the soldiers placed themselves at the street corners, checked all incoming vehicles and asked people who passed by where they were going.

When the MindaNews team tried to pass through one of the entry points the soldiers stopped them, saying no journalists could proceed to the evacuation center without a “clearance” from the technical working group of the Municipal Peace and Order Council.

They told the team to go to the municipal hall and get a permit from the technical working group, whose members include the military.

When MindaNews asked if it’s the military that’s in control of handling the evacuation, the soldiers retorted they were just following orders.

However, there was no member of the technical working group at the municipal hall on Thursday. Both the mayor and vice mayor were out of town while Municipal Social Welfare and Development chief Melita Incenso had gone to the evacuation center.

MindaNews sent two text messages to Incenso asking for her assistance. She did not reply. She also did not answer three calls on her mobile number.

The barangay chair of Diatagon was at the evacuation center, too, on Thursday.

MindaNews again tried to negotiate with the soldiers to be allowed to proceed to the evacuation center where Incenso was, to no avail. They would not answer why MindaNews was being barred but a huge TV network was allowed to enter two days earlier.

Joselito Gemao, a member of Diatagon’s barangay council, tried to intervene by asking the soldiers that he would accompany MindaNews to the evacuation center. The soldiers still refused.

Asked if the barangay council of Diatagon could not assert its voice as the local civilian authority, Gemao just shook his head and smiled.

He said he had to decline giving his views on the latest evacuation in their barangay “kay maipit ako sa duha ka side” (because I’d be torn between the two sides).

He said he understood why the military was treating journalists that way. “They think that the media is being unfair to them…Many things against them have come out on social media,” he said in the vernacular.

“They (local government and military) have a table outside the covered court where those who want to interview the evacuees should approach for permission,” he added.

But Gemao, a first-term barangay councilor, opined that denying the media easy access to the evacuees would only make the military appear bad.

“Total, national issue na man ni kay naa na man sa internet (Anyway, this is already a national issue since it’s in the internet),” he added.

An officer of a nongovernment organization in the province said it was only on Thursday that the military started tightening their watch over those who wanted to interview the evacuees.

“Gi-pressure na sila sa military,” he said of MSWD’s Incenso’s refusal to answer the texts and calls from MindaNews. “That’s why I have opted not to post [on Facebook] anything about the evacuation as I might be misinterpreted.”

The evacuees fled their homes in some sitios of Diatagon and neighboring villages to protest the presence of a detachment of the 75th IB in their place. They vowed not to return unless the outpost was dismantled and the military left, Gemao said.

“They’re so organized. When I went to the covered court to witness their program during the anniversary of ALCADEV one of their marshals told me not to enter. But somebody who recognized me as a barangay kagawad apologized and told that marshal to let me in,” he said.

“It was so hot in there. I sweated profusely,” he added. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)