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June 3, 2008

Almost three weeks after they were forced to flee, the 255 Matigsulug lumad refugees from Compostela Valley are still a long way from home. They’re worn down and tired, sleeping on the floor of the Bankerohan Gym in Davao City, where they first arrived on May 15. The 50 plus families share the two toilets in the gymnasium, receive limited medical care from a local NGO, and eat whatever they can get their hands on. Their existence is day to day, their struggle- bleak. Even as the children need to start school and their parents need to tend to the farms, the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) vows it will not give up its military operations in Compostela Valley, regardless of the cost.

The military has been haphazardly displacing lumads all of this year, its latest campaign against “terrorism” took off in Compostela Valley Province on April 5. This group of lumads currently stranded in Davao is already the third such group of refugees from the province, preceded by families from the Mandaya and Mansaka tribes last month. An infant, Romily Cayan from the Mandaya tribe, died in an evacuation center.

The AFP claims it is only in Compostela Valley to wipe out the rebellion. According to the military, in early April soldiers under the 1001st Brigade discovered six rebel camps New Bataan. Gasoline, radios, and land mines were among the inventory found at the camps. Then on April 20, suspected NPA members set aflame a Globe Telecommunication tower in Pantukan. That was more than enough figurative ammunition for the military to declare Compostela a war zone.

The military launched operations on the afternoon of May 12 in Purok 4 – B, Brgy. Mangayon Compostela Town. Evacuees first fled to the Compostela Town Gym, but soldiers (many of who were not wearing name plates) followed them there. The soldiers harassed the people and tried to present videos about the military’s counter-insurgency tactics. Fearing for their safety, the people fled again, this time to Davao City. Various NGO’s were able to pay for the lumads’ bus fare so they would not have to walk the long distance. Unfortunately, the military is saying this is proof that militant groups “imported” these evacuees to Davao for political purposes.

As the days turn to weeks, the possible validity of this accusation grows thin. Non-profit groups on Mindanao could not possibly have enough capital to pay the 10,000 to 12,000P ($250-300) per day required to feed and care for the evacuees in Davao City. And while stranded at the gym with absolutely nothing to do, the Matigsulug people can feel their livelihoods slipping away- precious livestock will starve or be stolen without proper care and attention; fields untilled will yield no harvest.

And there is also no money for the return bus fare. Even once the people arrive at their homes, which they will find ransacked (at best), there won’t be rations waiting for them. Their stored foodstuffs will most likely have “disappeared” when the troops rolled through and it will be impossible to reap anything immediately from their overgrown lands.

Despite the enormous desperation of it all, the thought of going home is truly academic. As of June 2, 2008 the AFP says it will only be stepping up military operations in Compostela Valley Province, with the goal of wiping out the ever illusive, ever convenient NPA (New People’s Army). The military’s answer to the problem is that there is no problem, there are no human rights violations and the people should just return home.

The lack of movement in the situation is reflected in the eyes of the evacuees at Bankerohan Gym. They’re tired of waiting for change in their lives and honesty from the government. Resolution to this militarization is a long way away.

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