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North Cotabato: Refugees Frightened to Return Home

Continued fighting means few of those crammed into evacuation centres are prepared to risk going back to their villages.
By Bong S
In this Muslim-dominated region that has seen four wars since the late 1990s, thousands of homes in isolated villages await the return of their owners.

For the moment at least, the guns of war have fallen silent here, but to the north of the region in Lanao Del Norte fighting has flared up.

These are nervous times for the residents of North Cotabato who have been caught up in battles between the army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, over the past week or so.

The uncertain security situation in North Cotabato has kept a quarter of Pikit’s 90,000 population cramped in 29 evacuation centres scattered across town.

“Many sleep on cold pavements,” said Mila Grace Nabos, a 33-year old mother of three school-age children, at a gymnasium in the Pikit Catholic parish, where about 250 families are seeking refuge and refuse to go home almost a week after the fighting here stopped.

Serious fighting has seen the army employ heavy artillery, helicopters and fighter planes in a bid to force back the MILF insurgents who moved into North Cotabato and started burning villages in the wake of the stalled peace deal.

The clashes in both North Cotabato and now Lanao Del Norte erupted after the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on the scheduled signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF that would have delivered the Muslim separatist rebels an enlarged homeland.

Less than two weeks after it was due to be signed in Malaysia on August 5, in the presence of foreign dignitaries, including the US ambassador, the agreement is effectively dead after mounting public criticism and concern over the lack of consultation.

Critics cite the agreement’s ambiguities and the fact that it was kept secret until being leaked to the press and published just days before the scheduled signing.

“We’re still terrified to go home,” said Nabos, a few feet from where a baby slept in a hammock while its mother made do with a concrete floor covered by cardboard.

“Aside from continued food assistance, what we really need are sleeping mats, mosquito nets and blankets,” added Nabos, lamenting they were only able to bring two sets of shirts for their children as they hastily left their village.

Aid, in the form of food and non-food items from several national and international groups and non-government organisations, has arrived in North Cotabato towns affected by the conflict.

Child evacuees in Pikit line up for the day's food ration of rice porridge with bits of chicken from a humanitarian aid group. The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, was one of the first organisations to respond to the displacement of civilians, rushing supplies to the area.

At the time of writing, the team had distributed food items to at least 6,700 families in the province, according to ICRC representative Juan Fuertes.

“It is not just about a person hit by a bullet, but those deprived of their education because schools have been disrupted by the fighting. Conflict makes people suffer,” Fuertes told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting and there are now fears of disease breaking out in the evacuation centres due to poor sanitation.

“We are building water reservoirs and distributing hygiene kits, aside from mattresses and mosquito nets,” said Fuertes.

The World Food Programme has so far provided 400 tonnes of rice for the evacuees. Each family has been given 25 kilogrammes to last them a month.

But not all evacuees have received the help or supplies they need.

Alex Mantawil, 29, a father of six, who’s staying in one of the Pikit evacuation centres, confirmed that many refugees have not been given sleeping mats, mosquito nets and blankets.

“This despite our names being on the list,” he complained, adding that he remained afraid to try and head home because of the security situation.

In Pikit, a tent city has sprung up: chickens, goats, carabaos, cows and horses brought by the evacuees wander and feed off the neighboring grasslands.

Home right now for Samira Abas, 20, a mother of three, is a cart covered by a tarpaulin.

“We bought the tent at the market so the children and our belongings would not get wet when there would be rain. My husband would sleep outside our covered cart because it could not longer accommodate him,” said Abas.

“We are in a pitiful state. We really want to go home but we are afraid because the situation is still dangerous.”

There is no immediate sign of the refugee centres closing down or emptying of people.

Before latest round of fighting this week, Senior Inspector Elias Dandan, the local police chief, told a local congregation celebrating mass on Sunday that it was “already safe to return home”.

But like others, Nancy Macagba, from the village of Kolambog, does not want to take any risks regardless of any assurances from Dandan.

“Our four-hectare farm of corn and coconuts is waiting but our village is a hot spot. We are still afraid to go home,” said the 39-year old mother.

“How I wish peace will reign in our midst. We are tired of being displaced.”

Bong S Sarmiento is a Mindanao journalist and a correspondent for the daily BusinessWorld.

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