KITANGO, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 26 May) – Teenager Bai Tidulang Kembeg could not hold her tears as she narrated the mournful day that was supposed to be a festive gathering of relatives in her village of Sitio Amai Zailon on Sunday, the feast of Eid’l Fit’r, which marks the end of the Ramadan.
As officials from the Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence (READi) under the Ministry of the Interior and Local Government of the Bangsamoro Region arrived at the site for inspection and met with village people on Monday, her mother Tata and Aunt Aida came out of their houses and joined the meeting.
“Nananahimik kami. Walang rebelde dito. Bakit ganun na lang kami inapak-apakan. Tao po kami, hindi kami rebelde. Mga Muslim kami, hindi kami mga terorista” (We’re living quietly here. There are no rebels here. Why are we being stepped upon? We’re human beings, not rebels. We’re Muslims, not terrorists), Bai Tidulang expressed her anguish.
Her mother got a minor wound in the finger but her aunt could barely walk because of a shrapnel that hit her leg. Fifteen people were wounded and two children were killed when mortars started to explode one by one in the village around 4 p.m. that day. Villagers claimed it was the military who conducted the shelling.
“Nananawagan kami sa gobyerno na itigil na ang gulong ito” (We’re calling on government to stop this madness), said Bai Tidulang, adding that a youth, she witnessed all that is happening in their village.
But there’s nothing more painful to Said Tambak, a radio operator and cameraman of Datu Saudi Ampatuan town, whose two daughters were killed in the shelling – Aslamiya, 10, and Asnaida, 7.
His wife Noraisa, still recuperating at the Cotabato Regional and Medical Center after suffering sharpnel wounds in the back, is still not aware they lost two of their seven children. Yet another of their children, five-year-old Norsaik, has minor wounds in the legs.
During a dialogue with Bangsamoro officials and Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace panel representatives, Tambak could just clinch his fists, begging assurance for justice.
“Hinihiling ko ang hustisya sa pamilya ko. Gusto ko lumabas ang totoo. Sana magawan ng paraan ang nangyari sa pamilya ko. Gusto ko makamit ang hustisya” (I want justice for my family. I want the truth. I hope they can do something about this), Tambak said, holding back tears.
The girls were watching television when a mortar shell hit their house. The others who were injured were outside celebrating Eid’l Fit’r.
Residents claimed that four mortar shells landed in Sitio Amai Zailon in Barangay Kitango. Aside from the Tambak house, yet another house was hit. Two other bombs exploded nearby.
At the village, there are small craters where propellers of mortar shells, believed to be 81mm, are visible. BARMM officials kept these for evidence for the upcoming investigation.
The military denied the mortar shells came from their troops.
Lt. Colonel Edgardo Vilchez Jr., speaking for the Army’s Joint Task Force Central (JTFC), said prior to the incident they monitored a gathering of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the village.
The attack, he said, could be perpetrated by another BIFF faction blamed for an earlier shooting incident, where three people were killed, in the nearby town of Datu Salibo.
Vilchez said there are BIFFs in Kitango. As a way to protect themselves from military attack, the BIFFs reportedly planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around the village’s perimeters, which they plan to explode should soldiers come. “After that, explosions happened,” he added.
Velchez pointed out that there was no military operation at the time of the explosions on Sunday afternoon. “There was no clearance to conduct mortar shelling. We have rules of engagement to follow,” he said.
In a statement, the BARMM leadership has called on the Commission on Human Rights, as well as the military and the police, to conduct investigation to give justice to the victims.
“The idea is to conduct parallel investigation and then let’s see what actually happened. From there we will proceed what action to be taken,” said lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, Bangsamoro spokesperson.
Major Gen. Diosdado Carreon, commander of the 6th Infantry Division and JTFC head, said the Army is conducting a separate probe.
Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito G. Galvez Jr., in a statement, called for an impartial investigation on the explosions at Kitango.
“We are saddened by what transpired on Sunday. We would like to assure our Moro brothers and sisters that we shall leave no stone unturned as we seek justice for the victims,” he said.
“I would like to appeal to the residents who have been affected by the ongoing armed conflict, as well as the leadership of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, for calmness and sobriety as authorities conduct an investigation on the incident,” he added.
Seven of the 15 injured victims, including minors, remain in hospitals in Cotabato City and in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.
On Monday, BARMM officials and the READi extended cash assistance and assured victims that the hospital billing will be shouldered by the region as recommended by Chief Minister Ahod Balawag Ebrahim to give full assistance to the victims.
The Ministry of Health, with the help of regional Islamic advisers, extended psychosocial therapy and spiritual assistance to victims.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has filed a formal complaint on this issue at the peace panel. (Ferdinandh Cabrera / MindaNews)