The parents of 16-year-old Saadudin Ampuan recall the morning of 21 September 2008, when they told him to go to their farm, one and a half kilometers away from their house. Aware of the danger, they said they would be following right behind him. Thirty minutes later, the parents saw him in the custody of soldiers. Saadudin saw his parents and called to them. The parents tried to get near him but was fired upon by the soldiers. The following day they saw his dead body in a shallow grave – both his ears were cut off, both his legs had seven deep cuts each, and his sex organ was mutilated. This Moro family’s farm is located in Lanao del Norte province, which is heavily affected by the ongoing offensive by government soldiers against Moro rebels.
Basilan Kamidon, in an evacuation camp in the province of Maguindanao, recounts how he and all the Moros in his village in the adjoining North Cotabato province had to scamper for safety in early August 2008 after fighting between soldiers and rebels erupted. They walked and waded the whole day through the swamps to find safety in a secluded area of the Liguasan Marsh. The elderly and children had to be carried on the back of some of the adults. The next day, they walked again till the afternoon to reach a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the town of Datu Piang, Maguindanao province. They joined one hundred thousand other IDPs who have to put up with inadequate food aid, diseases, hot and crowded makeshift shelters, and the longing to go back home. Basilan says some of his fellow villagers tried to go back but were shot at and driven away by soldiers and Christian militia members. At the moment, he and the others see no hope of going back.
Mindanao has seen major outbreaks of fighting between Moro rebels waging an armed struggle for their right to self-determination against the Philippine Republic. The latest outbreak between the forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) began in early August 2008. Ironically, the two sides were supposed to sign an interim peace agreement (2008 Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of Peace of 2001 [MOA-AD]) in the same month.
As expected, both sides pin the responsibility on the other side for the breakdown of the ceasefire which has been holding for the previous five years. However, members of local civilian ceasefire monitors point to local Christian politicians in North Cotabato as engaging in attempts to incite or spark a big war between the government and the rebels as early as July 2008. According to these local monitors, the International-Monitoring-Team-brokered emergency agreement between the ceasefire committees of both sides to prevent a major breakdown of the ceasefire was sabotaged by civilian militias beholden to these politicians. The rebels were already pulling-out pursuant to that agreement when the militias fired at them, prompting the former to stay put. This provided an excuse for the military to launch an offensive against them.
Meanwhile, these politicians in tandem with their conservative but powerful counterparts in the nation’s capital were successful in scuttling the peace process through a well-coordinated disinformation campaign against the interim peace agreement. By pandering to Filipinos’ ultra-nationalist sentiments, they were able to generate widespread opposition among Christians against the agreement, forcing the government to abandon the product of eleven years of negotiations with the MILF.
Within a week after fighting broke out in early August 2008, there were almost one hundred thirty thousand IDPs. The military offensive carried on through the fasting month of Ramadhan and onwards such that by early October, the number of IDPs ballooned to almost four hundred thousand. Although the frequency of encounters between the government and rebel forces has decreased, IDPs still number more than three hundred thousand individuals as of 27 January 2009. The bulk of these IDPs are in the Moro communities in the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, and North Cotabato.
International human rights and humanitarian laws that protect non-combatants in armed conflict situations from such acts as food blockades, summary killings, use of civilian communities as human shields have little impact in protecting the IDPs of Mindanao.
Vilma Mandi recalls how on the morning of 8 September 2008 her husband and five of her children died after their boat was fired upon by a plane of the Philippine Air Force (PAF). The boat was part of a convoy of boats carrying civilians who hurriedly left their village upon seeing planes hovering over it. A few hundred meters before reaching a safe area, a rocket from one of the planes hit the boat. The military claimed that the victims were combatants who fired at the planes, but five of the victims were only two to seventeen years old. Civilians, including the village chief, who saw the incident along the highway that morning belied the military claim.
Numerous village officials and residents of several Moro towns in Maguindanao say that houses (except those along the highway) have been torched by government soldiers. This problem occurred in Barangay (Community) Muslim in Guindulungan town, Barangay Pamalian in Datu Unsay town, Barangays Pusao and Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town, and Barangays Tapikan and Lapok in Sharif Aguak town, among other places. However, in the village of Pagatin, at least ten houses along the highway were torched allegedly by government soldiers during the Eid’l Fitr celebrations commemorating the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadhan. In Pamalian, where residents say three hundred of the four hundred houses were torched, even the rice mill was set afire by placing burning tires under the machinery. Residents and village officials say civilians are victims of retaliation as the burning of civilian properties usually occur whenever soldiers suffer casualties in the hands of the rebels.
The IDPs could not go back to their farms to forage for whatever was left of their crops due to continuing aerial and artillery bombings. For instance, on 10 December 2009, IDPs from Barangays Balanakan, Liong, and Alonganan in Datu Piang town trooped back to their villages upon the military’s assurance that there would no longer be any bombardment. But before they could even complete their return, those villages were bombed again forcing the IDPs to hurry back to the IDP camp. In another village in another municipality, IDPs trying to get back to their farms were simply shot at similar to what happened in Barangay Tapikan in Sharif Aguak town.
Further, the IDP camps are not always safe because they can get hit by artillery. They can be exposed to rebel attacks when soldiers, with their military vehicles and tanks, roam places where IDP shelters are located as in the towns of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Datu Piang and Piagapo. Residents note that soldiers move in among them when their detachments become vulnerable to attacks by rebels. They theorize that soldiers are using the civilians, some of whom are related to the rebels by family ties, as shields to deter the rebels from attacking. In case of attack, the civilians will be caught in the cross-fire.
IDP camps are mainly constructed by the IDPs themselves using light materials such as plastic sheets and coconut leaves. These makeshift tents expose them to unbearable heat and rain.
The available food aid (twenty-five kilos of rice per family per month) has not been able to sufficiently serve the needs of the IDPs. In January 2009, a man who set up a tent for his family along the road in Datu Saudi Ampatuan burned his tent out of frustration for failing to receive any food for months from humanitarian organizations. The system of delivering food has also caused the exclusion of some IDPs from receiving food. This happened in the case of an international humanitarian organization whose strict system of distributing food using food stamps excluded IDPs who could not get the stamps. Also, a faulty system of determining who deserve to receive the food stamps has been seen as a cause of this problem. In one documented case, one group of IDPs received food, while another group who were present during the food distribution failed to get any due to lack of food stamp. While in another case, some IDPs were considered fake IDPs and thus disqualified from receiving aid.
Crowded and ill-prepared camps are places for diseases to spread quickly. Without proper medical support, IDPs especially children suffer from the diseases. Journalists, in a fact-finding mission in five conflict affected areas in Mindanao in October 2008, noted the high number of deaths at the IDP camps due to treatable diseases. In Lanao del Norte town, eleven children have died since August 2008 due to diarrhoea. Yet this situation has not been noticed by an international humanitarian organization (International Committee of the Red Cross) operating in the camp, whose staff likely saw dead children being brought out to the burial grounds.
On the whole, disease, hunger, and death would have been a much bigger problem at the IDP camps if the international aid organizations had not given support. But there are serious issues on their services to address, as the IDPs clearly say. The following suggestions are thus offered to the international aid organizations :
The human rights situation of the IDPs require more intense efforts, and the following are suggested:
In view of the bias of the international media in covering the situation of Christian IDPs in Mindanao (as in the case of IDPs in Kauswagan and Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte province), local and foreign aid organizations should pressure, or at least remind, the media outfits of their responsibility to be fair and to give sufficient attention to the plight of the Muslim IDPs in Mindanao. Lack of media coverage deprives the Muslim IDPs of the opportunity to generate public pressure against the continuation of the war.
These suggestions are merely remedial. A true long lasting and sustainable protection for the victims of the conflict is a successful peace process between the government and the rebels. A ceasefire will only offer temporary respite. Only by addressing the demands for the full respect for the human rights (i.e., self-determination) of Moro people can the people of Mindanao reasonably look forward to living in an environment of peace.
Zainudin S. Malang is currently an adviser to an international non-governmental organization providing medical aid to internally displaced persons in Mindanao.
For further information, please communicate with Mr. Malang through firstname.lastname@example.org.