ZAMBOANGA CITY: Some 500 tribesmen fled the province of Agusan del Sur because of reported militarization and harassment by soldiers and policemen and have sought refuge in Davao City.
Tribe leaders said they were treated like animals and detained by authorities for no apparent reasons.
“We don’t understand why we had to be treated worse than farm animals,” said Marilyn Edgame, spokesman for the group Kasaka, which represents indigenous tribes.
Edgame said they were detained by authorities when they asked for aid from the provincial government. And with no hope and under threat, they were forced to flee their homes and sought sanctuary in Davao City.
They are now temporarily housed in Bankerohan Gymnasium. She said evacuees were victims of alleged “ambush negotiations” by a municipal warden who would come in the middle of the night and forced the tribe leaders to sign agreements to bring back the villagers to their homes.
”They dragged one of our datus, who had difficulty in understanding because he was deaf. They forced him to sign an agreement, but we immediately intervened. The warden was furious after that,” Edgame said.
A village leader, Mako Malayon, said the warden took advantage of their inability to read and write and the little knowledge they have of the process of law.
Edgame said police forces prevented them from bringing the human rights group Karapatan into the village. “We were barricaded by the police from coming back. We were without shelter and had to sleep on the road, with police trucks that had no plate numbers roving around us. The police held our food supply and to think that we had mothers who were still carrying their children, I would say we treat our farm animals better,” she said.
But the Eastern Mindanao Command has strongly denied accusations by Kasaka that there is widespread militarization in Agusan del Sur that prompted some 500 Manobo tribesmen to flee.
Captain Severino David, a spokesman for the Eastern Mindanao Command, said Kasaka and the human rights group Karapatan violated an agreement with the Agusan Provincial Crisis Committee when they hauled the evacuees to Davao City instead of returning them back to Loreto town.
David said part of the agreement signed by Karapatan and Kasaka is that the evacuees will go back to their respective villages with the following conditions—the evacuees will be provided with transportation, accommodation and food provision until they arrive safely in their respective villages and the governor and mayor would ensure the safe and peaceful return of the evacuees.
Loreto town mayor Dario Otaza told the military that they learned the flight of the evacuees from other villagers. “We learned from our constituents that the evacuees were already being hauled to Davao City instead of going back to Loreto,” Otaza said.
“The agreement was very clear when they signed it. I am dismayed how Karapatan defied the agreement by deceiving the indigenous peoples and propagating lies about the plight of our tribe,” tribal chieftain Ronnie Tuga said.
The military said that Gov. Adolph Edward Plaza has created the provincial crisis committee to assess and respond to the needs of the tribesmen who camped out in the capitol grounds, claiming they were evacuees from Loreto town and were protesting “militarization” of their villages.
David said Karapatan and Kasaka prodded the evacuees to set up camps in the capitol grounds.
He said both groups are believed to be affiliated with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Rainier Cruz 3rd, the Eastern Mindanao Command chief, said the presence of troops in the province was approved by the municipal government and six villages in Loreto which also issued a resolution welcoming the presence of the soldiers—who are members of the 26th Infantry Battalion—to promote peace and development in the area.
“Karapatan took away the rights of the indigenous people to avail of the basic services from the government. With this, Karapatan and the NPA front organizations should be held liable for the conditions of the indigenous people who are in Davao City right now,” Cruz said.
The military said thee motive of the two groups is suspicious as both fail to lift a finger when the NPA rebels commit atrocities in Loreto town in the same way that they were silent when the rebels tossed a grenade at a fiesta celebration in Paquibato district in Davao City that left 20 people wounded.
And other crimes perpetrated by the NPA, including the murder of health worker Lina Bacus in Kauswagan village in Loreto town in June. The village chieftain was also murdered by rebels in his house in Kauswagan. Rebels also abducted Santa Teresa village Councilor Edgar Bantuasan and torched one sawmill after its owner refused to pay extortion money.