Special Report: Under Siege: Life in Beleaguered Upper Pulangui
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 24 June) – Juan Paunalong, 54, kept thinking about the future of his family as he led them to safe grounds on the eve of heavy fighting between government forces and the New People’s Army (NPA) near their village in Malaybalay City’s mountainous Upper Pulangui area.
For him, the children’s lives were important; never mind the belongings.
Together with neighbors, members of the Higaonon tribe, they walked across five kilometers of darkness from remote Malilong village to the “sentro” (center) of Brgy. Zamboanguita.
It was only when dinner was served at the evacuation site, courtesy of the barangay government, when he realized that, indeed, he, his wife and four children brought nothing else but the clothes on their back.
The Paunalongs were among at least 600 people from four villages in barangays
Zamboanguita and St. Peter who were displaced by the fighting between the military and the NPA, considered the biggest thus far after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared an all-out offensive against the leftist rebels.
On June 16, in Isabela province in Northern Luzon, the President ordered the release of P1-B additional budget to fund renewed operations against the NPA.
A few hours later, at around 5 that afternoon, residents began evacuating as a result of military operations in this small village in Northern Mindanao.
For retired Col. Francisco Simbajon, spokesperson of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, it was only a coincidence. He denied, in a June 23 phone interview with MindaNews, that the fighting was signaled by the Presidential instruction.
He said the military was continuing its pursuit of the NPA guerrillas that day but chasing them actually earlier began on June 8. The NPAs were reported to have burned at least seven heavy equipment vehicles in Zamboanguita, he said.
The big bulk of the evacuations happened on June 17. Residents heard the gunshots and saw more government forces pour into their villages to engage the NPA on the ground, with aerial support.
As of June 22, the military reported that the heavily armed guerillas reportedly led by Leonardo Pitao, alleged leader of the NPA in eastern Mindanao, had put up a stiff resistance. Based on military reports, seven rebels and two government soldiers were killed while two other soldiers were wounded.
On June 20, the National Democratic Front called the encounter “NPA harassment operations” in an update posted at http://qc.indymedia.org/news
The report was posted by a Cesar Renerio, spokesperson of the National Democratic Front (NDF) in North Central Mindanao area, and credited the June 16 encounter to the NPA’s Rexan Perez command in Bindum, Busdi, Malaybalay City.
Renerio reported that on June 16, a squad of “Red fighters” under the Rexan Perez command harassed the government troops “conducting operations” in Bindom at around 4 p.m. Two soldiers were killed and another was wounded. The report said that at 8 a.m. of June 17, another soldier was killed and two others were wounded in continuing encounters.
On June 18, at 9 am, the report continued, government’s Huey helicopters strafed
the mountains of Pantaron range with machine guns, which triggered the evacuation of residents in the villages of Mahayag, Malilong, Biernesa at Baloodo in Zamboanguita and St. Peter.
At least 360 people, from 70 families, were housed in Zamboanguita’s elementary school, where classes were suspended since June 19. Around 241 others from 52 families were housed in either makeshift tents or kin’s houses in St. Peter, about five kilometers away.
The number of evacuees in St. Peter rose to 125 families as of June 22, as fighting escalated. Zamboanguita and St. Peter belong to a cluster of remote barangays in Malaybalay’s Upper Pulangui area, near Bukidnon’s boundary with Agusan del Sur and Davao del Norte.
Contacted through her mobile phone on June 23, Denia Tajones, 43, one of Zamboanguita’s barangay councilors, relayed the evacuees’ stories to MindaNews, noting the discomfort of the sound and sight of a helicopter hovering their village as she spoke.
Tajones chairs the barangay council’s committee on health, women and family. She said most of the evacuees fled because they were afraid that they might get caught in the crossfire. She said there had been tensions in the past months but nothing compared with the scale of the ongoing clashes.
“Grabe ang kakurat sa mga tawo sa dihang nadunggan nila ang grabe nga buto-buto, ug nakit-an pud nila ang daghang mga sundalo,” she said. (The people were shocked when they heard the intensity of the gunfire and the sight of many soldiers.)
Tajones said the villagers also fled for fear that they might be mistaken as members
of the NPA.
Villagers from Purok 5 and 6, Sitio Malilong rushed to Zamboanguita and those from Purok 9 and Sitio Mahayag to Barangay St. Peter. Some people boarded motorcycles but most of them evacuated either on foot or on carabao-drawn carts. Most of them brought belongings placed in old rice sacks and recycled paper boxes.
Because of the haste, Tajones said, villagers lacked extra clothing, slippers, soap, sleeping mats, kitchenware, among others, in the evacuation center. The local government helped with some food items like rice, canned goods, instant noodles, coffee and milk.
In a text message, Father Bogs Tapiadon, the Catholic priest assigned in the
area, said the evacuees were attended to but he noted the increasing military
activity in the area. “At least, the parishioners are in safe grounds,” he said.
Notwithstanding the gunbattles since June 16 and the informal declaration of a “no man’s land” over Zamboanguita’s Purok 5 and Purok 6 and St. Peter’s Purok 9 and Sitio Mahayag, some evacuees managed to sneak back into their farms to attend to their animals and crops.
But many wanted to return home for good. (Tomorrow: Displaced by the displaced)
Under Siege: Displaced by the displaced
Written by Walter I. Balane/MindaNews
Monday, 26 June 2006
Last of two parts
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 25 June) – As fighting escalated in the Upper Pulangui
in Malaybalay City near Bukidnon’s boundary with Davao del Norte and Agusan
del Sur, the number of evacuees rose by the hour.
Already, as of June 23, the count had reached at least 600 persons, from around 120 families from four villages. When the fighting began June 16, there were only 77 families in two evacuation sites in barangay Zamboanguita and St. Peter.
Although continued fighting took place in only a few villages in Barangay Zamboanguita, residents from other villages and even in the barangay center were also affected, according to Barangay Councilor Denia Tajones. She said many residents have farms and relatives in those areas.
Tajones said the military has issued “safe conduct” passes to residents, especially those who move from one village to another. She said this was for the safety of the residents to avoid being mistaken for rebels.
Movement of people was being restricted though residents could still go back to their farms with caution, she said. The military has imposed a curfew beginning at 3 p.m everyday so farmers have to move fast and return to the evacuation center early.
Tajones said the restrictions posed economic difficulties for residents. Most of the evacuees depended on what they could gather from their small farms planted to root crops, fruits and vegetables.
The evacuees also expressed mixed reactions to their life at the centers. Tajones said others were thankful that they did not have to worry to find their meal. But some suffered stomach disorders because they were not used to eating canned goods, like pork and beans, and instant noodles. Canned sardines were an exemption though, as they are used to eating them.
The armed skirmishes were taking their toll on children, who had just returned to school after the summer vacation.
Virginia Flores, of Malaybalay City’s social welfare office, said the experience was traumatic to the elders but it was worse to the children who shivered at the sight of soldiers and the sound of gunfire.
Children comprise more than half, or 191, of the 360 evacuees in the Zamboanguita evacuation center, the Malaybalay City’s social welfare office reported. The report also estimated the same ratio in the St. Peter site.
The problem is not only limited to children evacuees. Tajones said that around 400 pupils of Zamboanguita Elementary School were also displaced. Since June 19, the Department of Education had suspended classes in Zamboanguita to accommodate the evacuees in the classrooms.
By then, the pupils were just on their fifth day in school since classes opened only on June 13.
Tajones’ niece, 11-year old Andrea Mae Demegillo, a Grade 6 pupil, was initially happy when classes were suspended. But she was afraid when she saw the evacuees. Then, she began to worry if they could still hold classes and if ever the evacuees would return to their villages. She saw one of her teachers attending to the evacuees.
On June 24, George Madroñal, Department of Education supervisor for Malaybalay
East district, told MindaNews over the phone that the “small war” in the area has disrupted the children’s learning but there is nothing they can do about it.
“We plan to resume classes on June 26. But we are not yet sure about that. We have to listen to the advice of the military and the local school managers,” he said.
If classes resumed and the fighting continued, Tajones said, the plan might be to move the evacuees out of the classrooms at daytime and return them there at night for sleep.
Flores said life is different and difficult in an evacuation site “that is why most of the evacuees want to go home, but their need for safety held them.”
She said villagers hoped for the fighting to end so they could return to their normal lives. Tajones, a resident of Zamboanguita, said the evacuees are not only physically taken from their homes. “they are also uprooted from their livelihood, their cultural traditions and their right to peace.”
But the military sees no end in sight as yet.
Ret. Col. Francisco Simbajon, the military’s spokesperson in Cagayan de Oro, said the fighting would continue. “There is no timetable set when this would end. We will continue the pursuit operations until the rebels will yield,” he said.
Danny Flores, 31, an elementary school teacher from nearby Barangay Busdi told
MindaNews by phone that although the situation was normal there, there were already unconfirmed reports that residents from a far-flung village might evacuate, too.
“We are just waiting for the signal. If they want us to go, we are preparing for it,” he said.
Tajones said that while residents and local officials were grateful of assistance from the local government and concerned businessmen from Malaybalay (on June 23, a truckload of rice supply arrived from the provincial government of Bukidnon), Flores also reported that more army vehicles also arrived on that day, carrying with them more combatants. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)