Justice for the Children of War

Davao Today
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DAVAO CITY – In April 2007, the remote town of New Bataan in the province of Compostela Valley–some three to four hours from downtown Davao City–hogged the headlines when a nine year old girl was killed and soldiers identified her as a New Peoples Army (NPA) child combatant.

Second Lt. Francis John Gabawa, leader of a platoon under the 67th infantry battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said they shot Grecil Buya-Galacio during an encounter with the NPA near her house because the girl was aiming an M16 armalite rifle at them and that they had to do it in self-defense.

On April 2, two days after Grecil was shot, a story came out in the Philippine Star that quoted then AFP Eastern Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Obaniana saying that soldiers fired at the child because she fired first at them using an M-16 rifle and that “she was good at it.”

Grecil’s family, neighbors and classmates were appalled at the accusation. Grecil was the eldest of a brood of four and her parents depended on her for many chores around the house, including taking care of her siblings and leading their family carabao to graze. The child was also an undernourished second grader at a local school and could not have lifted–much less aimed–a six-pound rifle. The AFP later recanted their story.

In June this year, 12-year-old Idoy (not his real name) was helping relatives look for a lost carabao when soldiers saw him. They asked him to identify a man they had beaten up as an NPA member but the boy, scared as he was, said the man was a corn and livestock farmer in their village, not an NPA.

The soldiers did not release the farmer but they let Idoy go. Later, they called him back. One soldier hit his head with the butt of his armalite rifle and another put a pistol into his mouth. He was asked whether he did errands for the NPAs. He was only released later in the day when his mother and other relatives arrived. The farmer, Idoy’s neighbor, disappeared and later surfaced in a detention cell in Cagayan de Oro.

Grecil and Idoy are only two of the newest child-victims of the increased military presence in the countryside. Child-victims of military abuses reached 989 in 2007 alone, according to the reports of the children-focused Kabiba Alliance for Children’s Concerns.

The same report said this figure more than doubled to 2,443 in 2008.

As the AFP races to meet its 2010 deadline to wipe out the NPA insurgency, Kabiba expects the situation will worsen.

Another child’s rights group, the Children Rehabilitation Center (CRC), also documented 800 incidents of human rights violations in the country between 2001 to 2006, affecting 215,233 children.

Of this total number, 58 were killed, 58 survived attempts of their lives, 40 were maimed, 17 were tortured and humiliated, 10 forcibly disappeared, five were sexually harassed, three were raped and 215,060 were forced to evacuate, among others.

These figures were included in the Ibon Foundation book “Uncounted Lives: A needs assessment of children and women affected by armed conflict in Mindanao,” which documented the experiences of residents of eight communities in the country, believed to be influenced by the NPA or by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Included in these documented cases were those that happened in the villages in Mapating town in Compostela Valley.

Kabiba fears that increased deployment of soldiers in the region by the 10th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army based in Camp Panacan will drive up the number of child victims of human rights violations.

Despite the documents implicating the soldiers, no member of the military has yet been charged or suspended.

Instead, Major General Carlos Holganza, the commanding officer of the 1001st infantry brigade, has been promoted. He was the commanding officer of the 67th IB involved in Grecil’s shooting. Now, he is the new commander of the AFP’s 6,000-strong 10th ID based in Camp Apolinario, Panacan, Davao City.

Gabawa, who earlier claimed they shot Grecil because the girl “aimed an armalite at them,” was promoted from second lieutenant to first lieutenant less than a year after Gracil was shot.

Despite the military’s conflicting statements, the regional office of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) cleared Gabawa and the Philippine Army of all charges regarding Grecil’s death. In a resolution signed by CHR regional director Alberto Sipaco, Jr. said the case was dismissed because of “lack of merit.”

He cited the absence of supporting legal argument or factual basis for Grecil’s family’s belief that members of the Philippine Army shot her.

Setting aside findings of their regional office, the national office of the CHR blamed both the AFP and the NPA for Grecil’s death. The family was granted 10,000 pesos in financial assistance.

Lindy Trenilla, Kabiba administrative officer, admits that, even before Grecil’s case, they have found it difficult to trust the merit of CHR investigations. Resolutions were vague and failed to present convincing evidence that would put perpetrators to task. She said that, for one, the CHR investigators move very slowly. “They do not seem to understand the value of urgency.”

In Grecil’s case, she died on March 31 but the CHR only sent its personnel to the place of incidence after April 12, almost two weeks had already passed. “What evidence will they still be able to find?,” Trenilla points out.

Trenilla believed that the CHR resolutions dismissing the military’s culpability over Grecil’s case denied justice to the family of the slain child.

After losing a daughter and sister in a violent way, the Grecil’s family was also subjected to incessant further distress.

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