'They treated us like animals'

Mark Saludes

Posted at Aug 07 2018 06:26 PM | Updated as of Aug 07 2018 09:15 PM

They fled their villages to escape the threats of intensifying military presence, only to be subjected to the same military cordon at a temporary shelter. 

On July 16, 2018, some 1,600 indigenous people from 15 communities within the Andap Valley Complex in Surigao del Sur walked for 10 hours to seek refuge due to harassment and human rights violations allegedly perpetuated by state forces. 

They sought temporary shelther in a gymnasium in Diatagon village in Lianga town, situated along the national highway some 16 kilometers away from their communities.

Church workers and leaders of the tribal groups had to beg for mercy from Diatagon village chieftain Remegio Pareja to open the gates of the gymnasium and give the people, especially the elders and the children, a place to rest. 

There was no water supply, no toilets, and not enough space for everyone in the gymnasium. People had to take turns in order to sleep.

The situation became unbearable after the military blocked all entry and exit points to the evacuation area and controlled every humanitarian aid coming from various organizations intended for the displaced tribal people. 

They prevented other people from passing thru the barricades, including members of the media.

"We were treated like animals. The military has been controlling relief goods that were meant for us while the local government refused to give assistance because they said there was no calamity," said tribal leader Sandy Sanchez. 

On July 30, the internally displaced Lumad people decided to escape their untenable situation and initiated a long march to Tandag City, the provincial capital. 

"We will die if we will not move to another safer location. We have no choice but to walk to the capital and bring our issues to the higher government," said Sanchez. 

The army prevented the indigenous people from advancing when they reached San Agustin town after nearly 10 hours of walking. 

They blocked the road with anti-riot policemen, fully armed troops, military trucks, and fire trucks. 

The provincial government’s crisis management committee called for a dialogue to prevent the escalation of conflict if the Lumad would insist on passing through the barricade. 

During the dialogue, the tribal group MAPASU, the local government unit, and the military agreed to several conditions including the withdrawal of military detachment and army personnel in the tribal territories.

A Memorandum of Agreement was signed by representatives of the tribal communities, church people and local government officials, but the army refused to affix their signatures. 

"While we agree to the temporary withdraw of detachment, we cannot stop our mandate to conduct security operations," Major Ezra Balagtey, spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said. 

Balagtey said army officials did not sign the agreement because "groups with political intentions could use it" to hinder the military from running operations against insurgents. 

Colonel Maurito Licudine, deputy commander of the 401st brigade, stressed that the military presence in the area is "to go after armed rebels endangering civilian communities." 

"That is why we will not cease mobile patrol operations because there are threats of rebel forces. And if they will enter into tribal villages, then we have no option but to hunt them down in those places," said the Army official. 

Lucidine, however said, they already "ordered the withdrawal of troops and the dismantling of detachments” in the village so people could come home.

The Lumad have vowed not to return to their communities if the military will not sign the memorandum of agreement.

Some 1,600 indigenous people, or Lumad, from 15 communities within the Andap Valley Complex seek temporary shelter at a gymnasium in Diatagon village after fleeing their communities because of militarization. Mark Saludes

Displaced tribal people, including 568 students and 48 teachers from eight community schools, sleep on the concrete pavement at a gymnasium in Diatagon village. Mark Saludes

Among the displaced tribal people are children, at least 10 pregnant women and 50 lactating mothers. Mark Saludes

Indigenous people who fled their homes due to massive military operations in Lianga town, Surigao del Sur, find temporary shelter at a gymnasium in Diatagon village. Mark Saludes

Indigenous people who fled their homes due to massive military operations in Lianga town, Surigao del Sur, find temporary shelter at a gymnasium in Diatagon village. Mark Saludes

A medical volunteer examines a child who was complaining of stomach aches. Mark Saludes

The displaced indigenous people want the government to lift martial law to stop the militarization happening in their communities. Mark Saludes

Whole families of indigenous people packed their belongings and joined the exodus from their villages. Mark Saludes

The Lumad brought with them almost everything they owned, fearing they have nothing to go back to in their villages. Mark Saludes

The Lumad brought with them everything they need, thinking they are ready to camp out until the government responds to their plea. Mark Saludes

Participants in the march stop every now and then to camp out and provide meals for the large group. Mark Saludes

Elderly Lumad join the march urging government to stop the militarization of their communities. Mark Saludes

Rain prompts marchers to stop along the national road in San Agustin town, Surigao del Sur. Mark Saludes

Elements of the 75th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army stop the march from proceeding to Tandag City along the national highway. Mark Saludes

Army personnel offer food to some of the Lumad who joined the journey to seek safer grounds in Surigao del Sur. Mark Saludes

The Lumad leave their temporary shelter at a gymnasium so they can take air their concerns to authorities in Tandag City. Mark Saludes

The march aims to raise awareness to the ongoing militarization of Lumad lands in Surigao del Sur. Mark Saludes

The 90-kilometer journey to Tandag City from Diatagon village in Lianga town for some 1,600 Lumad seeks to raise awareness to their plight and stop the militarization in the countryside. Mark Saludes