Bullets Rain Over Palo Farmers

“Without any warning, they just started shooting at us with their armalite rifles, followed by six to nine explosions from M203 grenade launchers. I shouted at the top of my lungs: Hindi kami kalaban, magsasaka lang kami, sir!…Tama na! (We’re not enemies, we are just farmers…stop it!) But they continued peppering us with bullets,” said Joselito Tobe.

BY Johann Hein B. Arpon

“Without any warning, they just started shooting at us with their armalite rifles, followed by six to nine explosions from M203 grenade launchers. I shouted at the top of my lungs: Hindi kami kalaban, magsasaka lang kami, sir!…Tama na! (We’re not enemies, we are just farmers…stop it!) But they continued peppering us with bullets,” said Joselito Tobe.

A shrapnel from one of the explosions hit Richard Margallo, who even heard soldiers shouting “Sige, tumakbo kayo!” (go, run) and “Patayin na lahat!” (kill them all).

Tobe and Margallo were among the wounded survivors of what they called the November 21 dawn massacre of helpless peasants by soldiers of the 19th Infantry Battalion and the 8th Infantry Division in Barangay (village) San Agustin, Palo, Leyte. Leyte is located in central Philippines, __ south of Manila.

Tobe is an organizer of Bayan Muna and staff of the human rights group Concerned Citizens for Justice and Peace (CCJP) while Margallo is president of the San Agustin Farmers Beneficiaries Cooperative.

Seven peasants were killed including a seven-months-old-pregnant woman. Eleven others were wounded, eight were arrested but only six were detained, while two were still missing. Eighteen others were also unaccounted for.

Those killed were: Gerry Almerino, pregnant Alma Bartoline, both were of Barangay Capirawan, Palo, and Bayan Muna members; Eufemia Burra, 51, of Brgy. Teraza, Palo, her son Bernabe Jr., Eric Nogal, Roel Obejas, Richard Tante, of brgy. San Antonio.

Those who were wounded are the following: Ramy Cumpio, 36, organizer of Bayan Muna party list, Mark Bonsa, 23, Ferdinand Montanejos, Bernabe Burra Sr., Ranilo Orseda, 42, Berlito Barbosa, Ismael Regato, 22, Cora Bernabe, 52, Richard Margallo, 30, male, chairman of SAFaBenCo., Christopher Bayase, Ariel Timbo Capatoy.

Those who were arrested and being detained at the Palo Police Station were: Joselito Tobe, resident of Brgy. Cabuynan, Tanauan, Leyte, and member of CCJP-Metro Tacloban and Bayan Muna, Arniel Dizon, Fe Muriel Obejas of Brgy. San Agustin, Palo, Eulogio Pilapil of Brgy. San Agustin, Artemio Amante of Brgy. Capirawan, Baltazar Mardo, of Brgy. Salvacion, Alang-alang, and ASFA President.

Legitimate military operation?

The military claimed it was a legitimate military operation. In a sworn affidavit, 2nd Lt. Ruel Adrian Benedicto said that on Nov. 20, 9 pm, they were informed by the 802nd Brigade that there were armed groups in San Agustin. He formed two squads to “verify” the report and reached the area at 2:30 am, Nov. 21. They positioned themselves at 30 meters from the “kamalig” (hut) and allegedly saw people cooking food, singing and even heard someone chambering guns.

At 5:45 a.m., their position was allegedly discovered by the people in the hut, who allegedly fired the first shots, which forced them to return fire. The “gunfight” lasted for about 45 minutes, according to Benedicto.

The survivors and the San Agustin barangay captain however contradicted the military statement, and said that there were no members of the New People’s Army (NPA) there nor were the farmers armed. They said that they were there for a “balik-uma” or land positioning led by members of the San Agustin Farmers Beneficiaries Cooperative (SABFC). The activity was supported by the Alang-alang Small Farmers Association (ASFA) and the Bayan Muna chapter in Capirawan, Palo, Leyte.

Accounts of survivors and witnesses

At 3 p.m. on Nov. 20, some farmers belonging to the Alang-alang Small Farmers Association (ASFA) started converging at the kamalig and members of SAFaBenCo and Bayan Muna joined them.

Other farmers arrived a 4 a.m. on Nov. 21. Media practitioners including this writer, and Bantay Jazmin Bonifacio of DYDW were also invited to cover the balik-uma.

At around 5 a.m., the women were preparing breakfast at the kamalig, while some were still sleeping, others were having coffee and already preparing to work on the farm.

Bayan Muna organizer Jomar Cortaga saw silhouettes in the rice paddies, which he checked and confirmed to be other people. He shouted: “May tawo!” (There are people!)

Ramy Cumpio saw the soldiers and was going to organize a team to negotiate with the soldiers, when they were fired at with M-16 armalite rifles and a succession of grenade launchers. Some were immediately hit including Alma Bartoline, a 7-month old pregnant woman who was still asleep in the kamalig. From the account of those who were in the kamalig, the soldiers were only 30 meters away. The shooting, they reported, lasted for about 15 minutes.

Five peasants were dead on the spot. The wounded were brought to the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center (EVRMC). Two women, Burra and the pregnant Bartoline, died on arrival.

The military claimed to have “captured” eight people including Joselito Tobe, organizer of Bayan Muna and staff of CCJP who was hit repeatedly by a soldier with an M-16 rifle butt in his eye and different parts of the body.

Missing detainees and survivors

As of this writing, two of those arrested were missing: Bernardo Lantajo and Marivic Macawile of Brgy. Utap, Tacloban City, and also a member and organizer of the urban poor group Kadamay and Bayan Muna.

The Palo PNP claimed they had no official record of their whereabouts. Some witnesses said that the military took them. This information was corroborated by the other detainees who said that Marivic was still with them when they were brought to the Bulwagan ng Katarungan (Hall of Justice) for inquest proceedings.

Tobe recalled that they had both police and military escorts. “..but when we reached the fiscals office, Marivic was no longer with us. Then on our way back to the Palo Municipal Jail, Bernardo Lantajo was still with us but when we were brought to our cell, he was no longer with us. At that time, the military was still with us”.

However, Major Neneveigh Alcovindas, unit commander of 34th Civil Relation Service (CRS) of the Civil Affairs Unit (CAU) denied that they took the two, claiming that they have turned them over to the police.

The police have forwarded the filing of charges last November 21 to the Prosecutor’s office. Those that are still accounted for in the Municipal Jail will be charged with Illegal Assembly and Associations Inciting to Rebellion including those that are still in the hospital.

Bayan Muna said that there were 46 peasants and organizers who were in the kamalig. As of this writing, 18 are still missing including the two detainees.

Sack of arms

A fact-finding team of Karapatan-Easten Visayas who when to the Palo PNP reported that several of the detainees were subjected to a tactical investigation even without legal counsel, and in spite of the protests from the Karapatan. The tactical interrogation was also conducted by a team of soldiers and plainclothesmen.

Bayan Muna Representative Teodoro Casiño who came with the fact-finding team in San Agustin commented that if it was really a gathering of the New People’s Army, why would they publicize the event to media and barangay officials?

The fact-finding team also took a testimony from one of the survivors who witnessed an unidentified AFP soldier carrying a sack of arms dumped them into the outhouse next to their tent while they were being fired upon.

Alex Garcia-Lagunzad, secretary-general of Katungod-SB, said, “This is a clear case of a legal land dispute between the small farmers of San Agustin and Pedro Margallo. The claim that this was an ‘encounter’ between the NPA and the AFP only serves to legitimize this massacre of peasants and to further illegitimize the progressive people’s party-list Bayan Muna.”

The military was lambasted for issuing contradicting statements. First they claimed that the “exchange of gunfire” lasted for two hours only to recant it later by saying that it was for 45 minutes. Barangay residents and survivors however told the fact-finding team that the shooting lasted between 10-15 minutes.

The military also initially claimed that they recovered four pieces of .38 paltik revolver and two homemade shotguns. Later they added a carbine rifle and in succeeding pronouncement in the media, there was an additional M16 armalite. Then last November 23, Major Alcovindas claimed that M14 rifle was also found in the area. The sworn affidavit of 2nd Lt. Benedicto, the team leader of the strike team, however did not mention any M14 and the M16.


The balik-uma came as the peasants’ action after years of delay in the implementation of a government decision on who would be the rightful beneficiary of the land.

A 12-hectare farm was being disputed since May 29, 1998, in a case field with the office of the Provincial Agrarian Reform Adjudicator (PARAD). Spouses Renato and Fe Dizon filed the case for the “maintenance of peaceful possession and/or reinstatement” in the land, against Pedro Margallo, who was also claiming the land.

On November 13, 2000, the PARAD decision said it has no jurisdiction on selecting the rightful beneficiary because the task falls on only the DAR secretary, the regional director or the DAR Adjudication Board. However, the PARAD decided that pending the decision from the said offices, the Dizons “must be reinstated and maintained in peaceful possession, cultivation and adequate enjoyment of the subject land.”

In an interview with Bulatlat, Renato Dizon, who was also the barangay captain of San Agustin in Palo said: “Since 2000, we were not able to cultivate because the decision was never implemented. In fact, way back in 1998 we received death threats from the family of Pedro Margallo whose son is an active member of the Philippine National Police (PNP) assigned in Tacloban City.”

The long wait led Dizon’s two sons to the office of Bayan Muna in Palo for assistance this year.

Joel Arceo, the secretary-general of Bayan Muna-Leyte, said: “At first one peasant from San Agustin went to our office asking for assistance. It was then followed by visits of many other peasants complaining of the same problem in the area and so we sent some of our staff to facilitate the farmers in filing their complaints.”

“Brazen lie”

The National Democratic Front in Eastern Visayas (NDF-EV) has issued a statement denying that there wee operating units of the NPA in the municipality of Palo.

Fr. Santiago Salas, NDF-Eastern Visayas spokersperson “slams the 19th IB for the brazen lie that they had a ’45-minute encounter’ with the New People’s Army (NPA) and “confiscated” a few inferior firearms. But all the victims were unarmed and innocent civilians and included women and children. Moreover, the NDF-EV emphatically states that no encounter happened because there were no NPA fighters in the peasant community, and because the NPA is well-oriented to refrain from joining civilian activities and will never put the lives of civilians in danger. Just like the Hacienda Luisita massacre in Central Luzon last year, the military is quick at inventing fake threats from the NPA to justify mowing down defenseless civilians with impunity.”

The president on the other hand has issued an order to all concerned agencies to conduct an investigation on the Palo incident. Other groups which are investigating the case include the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) of Leyte, Citizens’ Anti-Crime Assistance Group (CAAG).

Meantime, the residents of Palo and its neighboring towns are still in a state of disbelief of the massacre that happened. The Palo has always been considered as insurgent-free and the most peaceful town in the region. But that all will change now. (Bulatlat.com)

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