Mindanao's Forgotten Refugees

Last year they made up the largest group of newly internally displaced people in the world, but their plight has received little attention.

Mindanao's Forgotten Refugees

Last year they made up the largest group of newly internally displaced people in the world, but their plight has received little attention.

Tuesday, 16 June, 2009
They were only supposed to provide temporary shelter, yet nine months on, the streets of this impoverished town remain a sea of orange and blue plastic sheeting and tents which protect tens of thousands of war evacuees (bakwits) from the sun and rain - but not from ongoing misery, hunger, disease and trauma.

While their continuing plight was briefly highlighted in a national newspaper earlier last month after an aid convoy was reportedly blockaded here by the military, the evacuees appear to have few if any champions in Manila.

Moreover, despite constituting the world’s largest group of newly internally displaced people, IDPs, last year, according to a report published by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, IDCM, very few people in the international community or media appear to have even noticed.

The report claims that 600,000 of the world’s 4.6 million most recently uprooted people last year were war refugees from Central Mindanao – the numbers surpassing new internal refugees recorded in Sudan, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and more than 45 other countries surveyed.

Some of the tents and sheeting in the children’s park in Datu Piang have admittedly gone – only to be replaced by the sturdier bahay kubo (native huts) – a clear sign the refugees do not expect to be returning home any time soon.

New camps too have sprung up as a consequence of a spike in army attacks in the area these past few weeks as government forces once again tried to root out renegade elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF.

Wazan Teng is an incoming third-year high school student who used to dream of being a teacher. Not anymore. The continuing war and his life as an internal evacuee has seriously disrupted his education – just as it has for so many thousands of others.

"I don't know if can go to school this year because my parents have no money to enroll me. My father can’t fish for a living since our village is still off limits to us," Teng told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

Originally from Barangay (village) Ilian in nearby Datu Saudi Ampatuan town, Teng, his parents and his six other siblings sought refuge at the municipal gym here when renewed fighting broke out last August between the military and the Moro rebels.

And a fresh wave of refugees hit Datu Piang in the wake of recent army bombardments of positions reportedly still occupied by one of the MILF’s renegade commanders - Ameril Umbra Kato.

Kato carries a ten million Philippine pesos (212,766 US dollar) reward for allegedly leading the attacks on communities in Central Mindanao last August, following the botched signing of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). The homeland deal, the last obstacle towards the forging of a final peace agreement, would have given the MILF wider political and economic powers.

At the height of the war last year, some 8,194 families or nearly 50,000 individuals fled here in fear of getting caught up in the crossfire. The intervening months eventually reduced the number of refugees here by about half.

The number of evacuation centres in this town now stands at 23, a little lower from 27 at the height of the conflict last year.

But on April 21 this year, clashes erupted again to force a new exodus of IDPs in the town, raising the number to 6,067 families or 28,847 individuals, according to Musib Tan, the executive assistant of Datu Piang mayor Datu Samer Uy.

The military pounded suspected MILF rebel lairs with mortar fire and aerial bombardment almost continually for the first two weeks of May.

They also reportedly blocked aid organisations including the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, from entering the town to deliver relief.

The blockade was only lifted on May 14, allowing some 50 trucks to bring in food to the bakwits.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ponce, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division, denied in a phone interview the military implemented a food blockade.

"We're just concerned about the safety of the volunteers so we did not let them in. The situation then was very dangerous so we prevented entry purely for security reasons," said Ponce.

Anastasia Isyuk, ICRC-Philippines spokesperson, told us that those who did not receive aid will get it “the next time around”.

ICRC conducts relief operations in six-week cycles. Aid given to every displaced family includes 25 kilogrammes of rice, six litres of cooking oil, noodles, soy sauce, sugar, salt, coffee and two bars of soap.

Since the start of this year, ICRC has supported 160,000 IDPs on a regular basis in different parts of Maguindanao, according to Isyuk.

Reacting to the reported aid blockade, she said the ICRC maintains dialogue with all parties concerned and reminds them that under international humanitarian law, there is an obligation in time of armed conflict to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population, be they IDPs or residents, are adequately met.

"Free and safe passage of humanitarian supplies to the affected civilian population must be allowed,” said Isyuk.

Citing a report from the locally-led Bantay ceasefire monitoring group, Father Eduardo Vasquez, the parish priest of Datu Piang, complained that 75 per cent of the IDPs in the town did not receive food aid the last time it was delivered.

"They have been deprived of food assistance for quite some time because of the military's food blockade and when the time to receive it came many missed out," said the priest.

Vasquez also blasted the military because some of the soldiers allegedly covered their uniform nametags as well as their vehicle’s identification numbers during operations. Ponce, the military spokesperson, vowed to look into the claim.

At the back of the Notre Dame of Dulawan School, some 500 new families displaced by the fresh bombardments are building makeshift stilt houses as best they can on land that is since the evacuation site is prone to flooding.

Many are still waiting for the donated tarpaulins they will use to cover their makeshift homes which have been built using bamboo poles and whatever wood they could find nearby.

Those refugees who first came here in August originally occupied the classrooms and the front grounds but they have since been cleared out and ordered to back by the authorities who want to reopen the school in time for the new semester this month.

Danny Usman has been here since last August with his wife and three children and says he is too scared to return home still and claimed the military pounded his village for six days in late April and early May with mortars aimed at MILF rebels reported to be hiding out there.

Usman is among those who claim not to have received any aid from the ICRC's last visit and says past supplies have not been enough.

"Just so we do not die of hunger, I sneak in the village when I feel it's safe and take bananas and coconuts, and firewood too,” he said.

"In the evacuation site, we're just waiting for nothing."

Usman has a one-and-a-half hectare farm that he hasn’t been able to tend since last year. It is used for corn in the dry months and for palay (paddy rice) during the rainy season.

Rough bunk houses have been built in the school grounds for the refugees who stayed in the classrooms and Eduardo Diestro, the town’s municipal information officer, says that children born in the town will be using the classrooms in the morning and refugee-students in the afternoon.

But very few refugee families if any will have any money to pay for school supplies – and uniforms are obviously out of the question for those with only one change of clothing at best. The town’s own “calamity fund” of 200,000 PhP is just not enough for all the demands on it.

While there have been learning centres built in some evacuation sites, the local government has appealed to the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, for help.

In all, there are said to be more than 19,000 school age children living as refugees in Datu Piang alone.

Bong S Sarmiento is a Mindanao journalist.
Frontline Updates
Support local journalists