By KIMBERLIE NGABIT-QUITASOL
BESAO, Mountain Province — Government soldiers occupying houses in sitio Dandanac of Tamboan village in Besao town in Mountain Province are restricting the movement of village folk and are causing fear among village folk, a team of human rights defenders who went to verify reports of human rights violations, found out on August 9.
A community elder who spoke to the team shared that soldiers are staying in several private houses in their community since the encounter with New People’s Army (NPA) here in July. The elder requested not to be named for fear of reprisal from soldiers.
“They (soldiers) are not as violent as before, but the mere sight of them especially with their guns makes us feel uneasy and unsafe that we are afraid to move around or even go to our rice fields,” the elder said.
The elder also shared that the soldiers have required villagers to secure a “safety conduct pass” and government issued identification cards to be able to go to their rice or corn fields or to their communal forest.
“We are not as free to roam in our village that we even have to secure passes going to our rice fields from soldiers, it would be best if the soldiers would leave but since it seems like that is not happening soon, we have to deal with our fear,” the elder said.
1st Lt. Jade Gavino, the commanding officer of the troops staying at some houses said that they asked barangay officials to give them a list of village folks whose farms are in the mountains and the officials gave them 72 names. He said that soldiers will be questioning those who are not in the list who will go to the mountains as part of security measures.
Fr. Joseph Requino, chair of the Mountain Province Human Rights Advocates (MPHRA) said that the “safety conduct pass” is meant to secure soldiers and not the village folk. He said villagers know each other and can easily identify outsiders while soldiers could not.
Farmers who have farms in the mountains shared with the team that soldiers ask them to present identification cards or cedula to complement the list.
“We have no choice but to comply because we have to harvest and bring home our harvest or the rains would damage them,” one of the farmers said. “We have to eat,” he added.
The farmers shared that it is harvest season and that their rice harvest was reduced to half because of the military operation. They said they would have to prepare the fields soon for the next planting season and would have to go through the same process of presenting IDs. They added that the planting might even be delayed as the harvest was already delayed due to ongoing military operations.
The MPHRA found out there are still several farmers who have not yet harvested due to the military operations.
Gavino said they are not leaving anytime soon because they have a Community Service Program to implement. He said that this program was already approved through an executive order signed by the governor of Mountain Province.
He explained that soldiers will facilitate the implementation of local government programs such as medical missions adding that some agencies are afraid to go to Dandanac due to the presence of armed groups.
Sgt. Jose Villena said they have considered the safety of the community that is why they occupied empty houses. He said they asked for permission from the owners. But Carol Bagyan, one of the house owners occupied by the soldiers said they did not seek her permission.
Bagyan is a human rights defender herself from the Cordillera Peoples Alliance Mountain Province chapter. She asked the soldiers to leave her house.
Rhoda Dalang, a local from Besao and executive director of the Center for Development Programs in the Cordillera (CDPC) raised with Sgt. Villena that their presence alone endangers the community. “You have enemies and your hot pursuit or whatever you call it is ongoing what if your enemies attack you, villagers are at risk,” she said.
“If you are looking for NPAs, there are no NPAs in the village,” Dalang said.
“Hindi po kami naghahanap ngayon, nakikituloy lang po kami,” Villena replied. # nordis.net