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Friday, June 5, 2009

Justice for the People of Datu Piang, Maguindanao

DATU PIANG, Maguindanao—As the situation of evacuees in refugee camps here continue to worsen with people starving and dying, another wave of over 200 families fled their homes on May 31, adding to the 6,277 evacuee-families reported last week.

The over 200 families fled Barangay Reyna Rehente of this town to seek refuge under the trees in the village of Macasendig in neighboring town of Midsayap in North Cotabato.

Fr. Eduardo Vasquez, OMI, parish priest here, and his over 30 youth volunteers under the OMI Disaster Response Team, immediately distributed relief goods and plastic laminated sacks for the shanties that the evacuees built under a woody area in Macasendig.

Fr. Vasquez said that the evacuation was triggered by an encounter between government militias and Moro guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the burning of houses of civilians on May 31.

Noraida Musa, an evacuee who joined the queue for rice rations, said vernacular that “there are more than 100 houses of civilians burned” by armed men. Asked who the armed men were, she said: “Cafgus (Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit) and CVOs (Civilian Volunteer Organization) , both are government militias.

Yul Olaya, coordinator of the Bantay Ceasefire, a community-based grassroots organization actively monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF, said his group was able to count 92 houses burned.

This developed after evacuees in Nunangan village in the neighbor town of Talayan, also in Maguindanao, filed at the Commission on Human Rights in Region 12 “destructive arson” cases against soldiers they alleged were behind the torching of some 150 houses located at the public market of the community last May 7.

In their sworn statements, the complainants alleged that the solider ordered them (civilians) to vacant the community before the torching of their dwellings.

Meanwhile, the Mindanao Peoples Caucus (MPC), a tri-people organization actively campaigning for peace advocacy in Mindanao, denounced the Army for the burning of houses of civilians.

In a statement, the MPC titled “Stop the Food Blockade,” the MPC said: “Nearly a year since military operations were launched against two field commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the commanders are still on the loose and the civilians are suffering the brunt of war: children, pregnant women, teachers, students, the civilian population in Maguindanao”

The government, since August last year, has been running after so-called “lawless MILF” Commanders Ameril Umbra Kato is Abdulrahman Macapaar, alias Commander Bravo, and one Commander Mercury who are both operating in two Lanao provinces, and, Wahid Tundok, also in Maguindanao.

“For more than ten months now, these internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- the evacuees or “bakwits” as they have come to be known – are still in cramped evacuation centers and government buildings and schoolhouses, waiting for the time when they can return to their homes and resume their interrupted lives,” the MPC statement said.

Fr. Vasquez said that his sources from the military already advised him to “be prepared” because the war may escalate “since this (war) already has the blessings of the higher ups. They told me we can no longer stop this, Father because the order came from up there.”

The MPC statement said “the war has instead become so vicious and soldiers who are supposed to be running against renegade MILF commanders for allegedly attacking civilians are now committing the very same atrocities that renegade commanders allegedly perpetuate.”

At a coordination meeting of humanitarian agencies and representatives of the evacuees in Cotabato City last Thursday, it was reported that the military has blocked a truck-load of rice intended for the evacuees last May 27. On May 5, 11 truckloads of relief goods of the International Committee on the Red Cross were also blocked at a military checkpoint.

“The military refuses to acknowledge it is food blockade. But it is food blockade, nonetheless, when food intended for evacuees are held at checkpoints, the MPC statement said as it condemned “this practice of blocking humanitarian assistance to the evacuees” emphasizing that “justice delayed is justice denied, food delayed is food denied as well. And food denied could, as we all know, help save starving bakwits from preventable deaths.”

The MPC statement also called on civil society and church organizations, including international humanitarian agencies, “to stand up and assert the independence of relief assistance as a matter of right for the IDPs. Our silence on this regard can be construed as our acquiescence to military's control of relief supplies to promote their military objective.”

It was earlier reported that of the 50,333 families of displaced persons in Maguindanao, only 15,522 were provided relief assistance.

MPC called on the Commission of Human Rights to investigate the alleged military atrocities and “bring those responsible for the attacks to justice.” (30)

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