Foreign delegates in rights confab to probe military abuses

“I was cooking banana when soldiers came. They were in uniform and had long firearms. They talked to Papa and Mama. A few minutes after the soldiers left our house, I heard gunshots.” – 13-year-old victim

By RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Thirteen-year-old Elsie (not her real name) was wiping her tears as she was singing in front of Camp Aguinaldo, headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

“Kami po ay mga bakwet/ Mula sa probinsya/ Pilit na umalis…Doon po sa amin/ Sundalo ay malupit/ Sundalo’y walang galang…” (We are evacuees from the province who forcibly evacuated. In our town, the soldiers are ruthless. The soldiers are rude.) Elsie’s voice was almost drowned by the noise along Edsa. His older brother led the singing, using a mobile sound system. They were with their parents and their grandmother. Two other families from Catanauan, Quezon joined the picket protest, July 12.

Asked why she was crying, the girl said she remembered vividly the incident on May 31. “I was cooking banana when soldiers came. They were in uniform and had long firearms. They talked to Papa and Mama. A few minutes after the soldiers left our house, I heard gunshots,” she told Bulatlat.com in Filipino.

Elsie ran as fast as she could. “I could hear the gunfire. There were explosions. I was shivering from fear.

It lasted for a while. When we reached the stream, I could still hear gunshots. We just kept on running,” she recalled. With Elsie were her Mama and Papa and three siblings. Her older brother, aged 17, and her ten-year-old cousin were separated from them. It took one day before they were reunited.

Elsie’s mother, Vilma Arevalo, saw the soldiers belonging to the 74 Army aiming their guns at their direction.

Called to speak during the protest at Camp Aguinaldo, Rosalinda Osena, a neighbor of Elsie in sitio Pange, Ilayang village in Doongan, Catanauan, Quezon, began to cry even before she could utter any word.

Regaining her composure, Osena said in Filipino: “We could not go back to our homes.” “Because of the soldiers, our family got separated.”

Like the Arevalos, the Osenas sought cover during the gunfire. Members of the family ran toward different directions. It took one day before they were reunited.

While the program was going on at the Camp Aguinaldo, one soldier handed out ice cream to the children. The adults grabbed the cones and threw them.

Elsie did not accept the ice cream. “I knew they were just fooling us,” she said.

Rona Franca of the Save Bondoc Peninsula Movement was furious. “The ice cream could not erase the trauma the soldiers caused to the children.”

After the protest action at Camp Aguinaldo, the peasant families went to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to file complaints against the 74 and harassment.

The Save Bondoc Peninsula Movement and Karapatan-Southern Tagalog have been calling for the pullout of the military from the villages of South Quezon and Bondoc Peninsula. The human rights groups documented 128 cases of different types of abuses.

International mission

The families have not returned to their homes after the incident, leaving behind their livelihood.

A dozen foreign delegates of the International Conference on Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (ICHRPP) would go the their place to document cases of human rights violations and to provide medical, dental, literacy, psychosocial services to the communities affected by heavy militarization.

The activities would start today, July 15 and end on July 17 where a dialogue with the Lucena City government was set to discuss the results of the mission.

At least 1,000 residents from various villages in South Quezon would participate in the activities, according to Save Bondoc Peninsula Movement.

The ICHRRP delegates bound for Quezon came from Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and California.

Since June of 2012, eight battalions of the Philippine Army were deployed in the province, the highest concentration of military troops since martial law.

The Save Bondoc Peninsula Movement noted military presence in areas with projects such as the biodiesel plant in the town of Gumaca, Mirant power plant Extension in Pagbilao, Ogdel Bechtel Coal Fire Thermal Powerplant Extension in Atimonan, and the construction of a big dam in Macalelon.

“These projects endanger the lives of residents who disapprove of these ‘development schemes.’ There is also the issue of land-grabbing by local hacienderos (plantation owners) in the area,” Pedro Gonzales, spokesman of the Save Bondoc Peninsula Movement, said.

Gonzales reacted to the latest report by Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, chief of AFP’s public affairs office, who admitted that state forces have committed seven mission-related human rights violations (HRVs) during the first half of 2013.

“This statement is obviously released to tone down the growing discontent of the people with how the Aquino administration is handling issues of human rights and the lack of genuine peace in the country.

This number is too small, given the number of AFP troops deployed in South Quezon province. During the solidarity mission, we expect to hear testimonies of residents who were initially afraid to talk about the atrocities of the military. We also expect to gather evidences of more abuses,” Gonzales said.

Other delegates of the ICCHRP would go to the Cordillera region, Central Luzon provinces and several areas in Mindanao, all affected by land conflict and development aggression. ()

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