The “Balit mission” confirms cases of rights abuses by soldiers in Lumad communities, who were forced to evacuate.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
San Luis, AGUSAN DEL SUR — When Marissa Wakdas, 25, a Banwaon, and her family evacuated from sitio Nakadayas, Mahagsay village, San Luis, Agusan del Sur, what was in her mind was that they were fighting for their ancestral land. Instead of giving in to the harassment of soldiers, they would rather evacuate so the soldiers will not bother them, she said.
Wakdas was one of the 969 Banwaons who left their homes, starting from Dec. 31, 2014 to January this year, when soldiers from the 26th Infantry Battalion began terrorizing at least 14 sitios (subvillage) in four villages of San Luis, Agusan del Sur.
The Lumad evacuees are still staying at the abandoned hospital building in Balit village, San Luis town.
An international solidarity mission, dubbed “The Balit Mission,” on March 9 and 10, looked into reported human rights violations that led to the evacuation of the Banwaons. The mission was jointly organized by the Northern Mindanao and Caraga formations of Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Kalumaran, Kalumbay, Kasalo, and the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Network on Extractive Industries and Energy.
In the name of development?
The Balit mission confirmed reports by Karapatan-Northern Mindanao Region that soldiers have encamped in public facilities like the village office and social hall. Males, adults and even youths, in the communities were forcibly recruited to the Peace Development Security Volunteers (PDSV) by the Phil. Army’s Community Organizing for Peace and Development (COPD) teams. If they refuse, soldiers tag them as New People’s Army (NPA) rebels.
Datu Jomorito Goaynon, chairman of Kalumbay, a regional Lumad organization and a Higaonon, said that in 2009, it was discovered that Agusan del Sur has rich deposits of gold, manganese, bromite, and margaha or magnetite. He said the government deployed military forces in the area to pave the way for the entry of mining companies that were given permit to explore and operate by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.
For Wakdas, giving up their land would mean being forever trapped in poverty.
“We will be like beggars if we will be displaced from our lands,” she said in an interview with Bulatlat.com.
The Lumads are being harassed by the state forces because they refused to sign a unified Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT), Wakdas said. Once the Lumads agree to sign the CADT, they will all lose their ancestral lands – the only treasure they have to pass on to the next generations.
“Datus” or traditional Lumad leaders united not to sign the CADT and continue to fight for their ancestral land. With this, they were tagged as members of the NPA.
The mission documented a total of 93 cases of human rights violations in Agusan del Sur alone. These include the forced evacuation of 200 families or 969 individuals, 22 individuals who were victims of harassment and intimidation, 10 civilians who were used as guide in military operations, seven who were forced to surrender as members of the NPA, and 11 were victims of indiscriminate firing.
Jane Mandakyan, 37, pregnant with her eighth child was used as a guide or human shield by soldiers in December 2014. She said soldiers passed by their village in sitio Nakadayas coming from a firefight with NPAs some three kilometers away. The soldiers forced the villagers to guide them until they have passed sitio Nakadayas.
“I was very afraid that time. I did not want to come with them, but they forced us. They said if we come with them, they will not be ambushed by the NPAs because they were accompanied by civilians,” Mandakyas said in an interview with Bulatlat.com.
While walking, she said soldiers interrogated them: who their leaders are, where do the NPAs enter and exit the area, who among them are “members of the Party” referring to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
What they found as a most bizarre question was when soldiers asked about the wedding of a certain “Ka Antoy.���
“We don’t even know a Ka Antoy. I would know if someone in our community was named Ka Antoy,” Mandakyas said. Soldiers told them that Ka Antoy is a member of the NPA and his wedding was to be held in time for the CPP’s anniversary. The soldiers did not stop with their allegations.
Mandakyas said when the soldiers saw a stage, they asked, “Is this where the wedding of Ka Antoy will be held?”
“No, sir. This is where the festival celebration of the RGS (Religious of the Good Sheperd) school will be held,” Mandakyas answered the soldier.
After that incident, Mandakyas and her family together with other residents of the village evacuated to Balit, San Luis. She said this was the third time that their community evacuated: first was in 1991 when the military bombed their community, killing a man, the second time in 2005 and then, last January – all because of the interest of the mining companies.
Ran Las Mareas, staff of Karapatan-Bukidnon who had been at the Balit evacuation center since January, said that San Luis Mayor Ronaldo Corvera visited the evacuees on March 4, and told them that there would only be a dialogue if other groups “would stop from intervening.”
The mayor was referring to Karapatan, religious groups like the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and indigenous groups, who, he said, should not be concerned because “this was a problem of the San Luis municipality.” The datus disagreed.
“The soldiers would ask the Lumads why they were against the mining, when it is for their own development that mining companies were coming in to their communities,” said Las Mareas.
Soldiers in public, civilian places
The Balit mission looked into complaints about soldiers holding camps in public facilities like the village office.
Upon arriving in Nuevo Trabaho village, a mission team found soldiers inside the village office. Their uniforms, armaments were also inside the barangay office. Some men in plainclothes were also carrying firearms, walking around the community and slowly clearing their things from the office.
A few meters from the barangay office was a hut where more armed men were seen. No soldier or their team leader talked to the team. Minutes later, village captain Roberto Ceno came and accommodated the mission team. He said there was one squad or 12 soldiers staying in the barangay facilities.
Ceno said the soldiers were conducting a “census,” consultation-meetings and were monitoring the “peace and order” situation.
In Balit village, another mission team found soldiers holding their camp adjacent to the barangay hall. The soldiers’ team leader Sgt. Henry Castillo told the mission delegates that they were there to conduct census, consultation-meeting and to also monitor peace and order.
In Policarpio village, Barangay Chairman Eduardo Agustine was also out of the office when the team arrived. The mission team was able to talk to village Councilor Luz Tecson, who denied that soldiers were using public facilities. However, some residents said the soldiers were encamped in the barangay hall and had just left the area before the team arrived.
On March 10, at the end of the mission, the mission delegates visited the camp of the 26th Infantry Battalion Philippine Army in Talacogon town, Agusan del Sur to inform them of the initial findings of the Balit mission. But the team was informed that the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Rolando Dumawa, was out. A certain Capt. Soquera, who met with the mission delegates, advised them to file a complaint or request for a dialogue in writing. He also said that he will relay the information to his “higher ups.”
Prior to this, a dialogue was already held on Feb. 25 between the Lumad evacuees and military officials, including Dumawa and officials of the East Mindanao Command headed by Lt. Gen. Aurelio Baladad. Davao Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, chairperson of the Regional Peace and Order, has criticized the military for the COPD and for using public facilities as their base camp.
‘Never give up’
“There will be a war if mining companies come to our villages,” an emotional Wakdas said.
She said mining would ruin not only their homes, but the environment. “We are not the only ones who will be affected by the destruction of the environment,” she said. “But the people down the mountains too.”
Makilala Mining Co. Inc. and Tambuli Mining Company Incorporated are two mining companies that were allowed to explore in San Luis. In spite of the human rights violations, the Banwaons have put up a strong opposition, and the mining companies were still barred to operate.
Julito Otakan, 41, secretary general of Tagdumahan, a municipal-wide Lumad group and a resident of Balit, said they are united to fight for their right to land that is why they welcome the evacuees with open arms.
Tagdumahan strongly opposes the entry of mining companies, and the group has been tagged as an NPA ally. One of Tagdumahan’s founders was Necasio Precioso Sr., the village captain of Balit who was slain in December last year.
Otakan said Precioso was killed because he refused to recruit for the PDSV. Asked if Otakan worries for his and his family’s safety, he said, “There is always fear but I do not let fear overpower me. We know that there is always threat in what we do, but we are ready. This is for the good of all indigenous peoples and to our next generation,” Otakan said.