In the Valley of Death

A recent fact-finding and relief mission in Compostela Valley uncovers the Philippine military’s trail of abuses against hapless civilians.

By Cheryll Fiel

LAAK, Compostela Valley – One day in November, a knock came at the door of the parish church here. A resident of one of the town’s villages appeared at the doorstep, asking for help. The military, the man said, had entered their communities and were committing abuses against the residents.

To the villagers, the recent incidents of government abuses brought back ugly memories of Laak’s past — a past that’s all-too familiar in its brutality: the harassment, the torture, the disrespect toward Lumad culture.

Early last month, an “interfaith, peace and mercy mission” visited Lorenzo Sarmiento, Kinabuhian, and Candiis, three of the Laak communities where intensified military operations had taken place. Human-rights alliance Karapatan, medical and health organizations, Church groups, students, professionals and ordinary residents brought relief goods, food and medicines to the communities.

No man’s land

Until 1994, Lorenzo Sarmiento was a no man’s land. Years of strife, brought on mainly by the militarization of the community, had driven many of the original residents away. (Majority of them belong to the Dibabawon tribe.) They returned to the area only in 1994, only to relive the horror once again a decade later.

The military first launched massive operations in Lorenzon Sarmiento in February 2004. Over warm binignit (sweet porridge) and hot coffee, the residents recalled that ordeal.

Insong Amac, a villager, said the military had lined up all the men, including the children, at the basketball court from seven in the morning until noon. Under the burning sun, soldiers called out the names of residents off a list. “It was a method they usually use to sift the area of any NPAs,” Amac said, referring to the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that has been waging a Maoist revolution in the Philippines for more than three decades now.

The soldiers, who belonged to the 72nd Infantry Battalion and who were under the command of a certain Lieutenant Suaybaguio, singled out three of Amac’s neighbors. The troops put pails, which had been used to collect food scraps for pigs, over their heads.

“The soldiers were mocking them while questioning them about the whereabouts of the NPAs,” Amac narrated.

Last Nov. 11, the soldiers came back to Lorenzo Sarmiento. This time, the victim was Amac’s own father, Manangkis Amac, who was also the tribal chieftain. Amac and his father were working on an unfinished house when the soldiers, around 40 of them, arrived. The Scout Rangers spoke in Tagalog and had no name patches on their uniforms. Some of them even wore their uniforms inside out.

A soldier called out to the Amacs, asking them why they were suddenly hammering the nails much too swiftly. Were they sending out signals to the NPA? the soldier wanted to know.

“One of the soldiers poked an M-14 rifle to my father’s right side, where he had just had an appendectomy,” Insong Amac said. His mother rushed to intervene but one of the troops pushed her aside, he added.

When the soldiers learned that Manangkis Amac was the chieftain, they tried to apologize but it was too late. “They already showed disrespect,” Insong Amac said.

Narciso Olila, another resident, suffered the most during the military operation. The soldiers forced him to the ground, where he was repeatedly punched and kicked.

“I must have received around 10 punches,” recalled Olila, who was still recovering from malaria when the soldiers came. The hardest blows came from one soldier called Ledesma. “After each punch, they asked me where I took the wounded NPA. I didn’t know anything about any wounded NPA,” Olila said.

The soldiers then put a cellophane bag over Olila’s head. “I was able to withstand the cellophane for only three minutes,” Olila said. Then he started gasping for air, at the same time shouting for help, his muffled cries tearing at the heart of his fellow villagers who had been ordered by the soldiers to turn their backs and look away. Olila’s wife Virginia pleaded for her husband’s life.

Olila said he urinated blood after his harrowing ordeal. “They said they were going to finish me off if they saw me again buying rice for the NPA,” he said. “But I own a sari-sari store! It is impossible for me not to travel to the town center to buy supplies since my store is our only source of income.”

Artemio Kaibigan, another villager, said the soldiers took 13 of the chickens in his yard. The chickens, he said, cost P2,500 all in all, at P105 per kilo. “I had taken care of the mother hen. It was supposed to breed me more chickens. But they took it away. In return, they just handed me a kilo of rice and a can of sardines,” Kaibigan grumbled.

Afraid that the soldiers might harm more of them, the residents decided to offer to the military an 80-kilo pig. Later, the residents were told to gather at the village hall for a meeting. There, the soldiers made fun of the residents by asking them to guess the battalion they belonged to; the soldiers never really introduced themselves to the villagers.

“They told us that they are a different brood of soldiers because they don’t beat up people. I could only smirk in a corner,” Olila said. In that meeting, the soldiers told the residents to rise up against the NPA.

Bullets between fingers

The military descended on Kinabuhian, a Lumad community that is also known as Kilometer 3, on Nov. 6 and left a trail of abuses, such as torture and illegal searches.

Soldiers tortured three Kinabuhian residents that day, inserting bullets between their fingers and then squeezing the victims’ hands if they failed to answer questions satisfactorily, said the tribal chieftain, who requested that his name not be used for this story. He is being hunted down by the military for a crime that the chieftain insisted he didn’t commit.

Ricky Antay, Boy Mabido, Jerry Tinoy, Lolong Bacod and Robert Pangulibay also told the mission participants that they were beaten up and tied with a rope while being interrogated.

What angered the tribal chieftain the most was the military’s disrespect toward their culture. “They took the bangkaw (traditional spear), which had been handed down to us by generations, and broke its head, which was made of gold. The soldiers took it away,” the chieftain said.

“Forced surrender”

Candiis was the last village the mission visited. There were five cases of “forced surrender” of Bayan Muna members to elements of the 60th Infantry Battalion on Nov. 6.

Dominador Perocho said that, on Nov. 6, he went to the community center, where the military had been calling out names from a list. When his name was called, Perocho raised his hand.

“They were all armed. I was afraid they might beat me up, just like what they did to residents in Lorenzo Sarmiento and Kilometer 33,” Perocho said. The soldiers then asked some of the men to “surrender.”

But Perocho did not budge. “Surrender for what?” he recalled thinking. “I did not surrender. I just presented myself to prevent them from harboring suspicion on me. They then asked me to train for the Cafgu (a paramilitary group) but I’d rather leave the community and find work elsewhere,” Perocho said.

Doming has decided to leave Candiis soon. He said he does not feel safe living in the community anymore. The coconut farm he tends does not matter so much to him now. “What is important is I can take my family out of the village,” he said.

‘Who are these people?’

Fifty meters from where we were interviewing Perocho, burly men flagged down our vehicles. As soon as the engines stopped, the gun-wielding men surrounded us. We felt we were in a very dangerous situation.

“Here they are!” we could hear one of the soldiers saying. “Who are these people?”

They were talking about us as though we were fugitives. We felt very vulnerable. We saw Armalite-clutching men who were not even in proper military uniforms. Since Nov. 6, they had been occupying the barangay center and the houses by the roadside.

Later, Karapatan-Southern Mindanao secretary general Ariel Casilao and two medical doctors who joined the mission got down to negotiate with the commanding officer who identified himself as Lieutenat Judit.

As the negotiation went on, we increasingly felt like preys in a cage at the back of the truck. The Armalite-wielding men surrounded us, cocking their guns, some of them playfully aiming their weapons at us. Some of them positioned themselves on the hilly side of the road, the better to have a clearer view of us. For many of us who joined the mission, it was our first time to experience being held at gunpoint.

The soldiers started asking us questions: where we were from, what organizations we belonged to. They even ordered the men to get off the trucks but we insisted that the negotiation was still going on and that we follow only what the negotiating team would tell us.

Some of the soldiers attempted to climb the vehicle and to open our bags; they said we might be hiding grenades. But we told them they had no right to do so. Without asking permission from the driver, they took gasoline from the barrel loaded on the truck.

Images of being fired at or dragged to the bushes flashed in my mind. The men kept silent; to keep the soldiers from being provoked, only the women dealt with them. We felt helpless. There was no cellphone signal in the area.

They released us only an hour later. Their commanding officer insisted that we failed to make proper coordination, although the negotiating team made clear that it had coordinated with the provincial as well as the local governments before entering the area.

Militarized zone

Compostela Valley remains the valley of death that it used to be. It is among the most militarized zones in Southern Mindanao. It has one Army brigade, three battalions — the 60th Infantry Battalion, the 72nd Infantry Battalion and the 30th Infantry Battalion — three companies, including the 4th Scout Ranger Company. In a military report, the valley ranks fifth in a list of the country’s insurgency hotspots.

Some of the gravest human-rights violations documented by Karapatan-Southern Mindanao took place in Compostela Valley, including the strafing of Lumad farmers in Monkayo town in January this year. In that incident, members of the military’s 36th Infantry Battalion finished off a 16-year-old Lumad resident.

In May, Bayan Muna leaders in Mabini town received threats from a group called Kahugpungan Batok sa NPA Extortion (Kabane).

In April, a group of Bayan Muna members was massacred in Laak. There were also cases of indiscriminate firing on civilians in Montevista town in June, the torture of civilians and suspected NPA guerrillas in April and November, and the displacement of thousands of residents due to military operations.

In many parts of Compostela Valley, the militarization goes on and the abuses continue, largely ignored by the mainstream press and unknown to the public. And with the recent approval by the government of large-scale mining by foreign firms, Karapatan expects more abuses against civilians in the mineral-rich province.

Share This Post