By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA – Soldiers of the 86th Infantry Battalion are being accused of killing two farmers in Echague Isabela. The soldiers are led by a Philippine Army Lt. Bernardino, a Sgt. Balansa, and soldiers Robert Bagni and Alfred Liclican
On November 27, a fact-finding team went to Sitio Calabaggin, San Miguel village, Echague in response to reports that civilians were killed by soldiers. The team was composed of representatives from Karapatan, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, Dagami, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Kabataan Partylist, Gabriela and the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines.
The FFM pieced together various reports and discovered that last Nov. 17, seven soldiers of the 56th Division Reconnaissance Company PA were killed in a clash with New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas at Mabbayad, Echague, Isabela. It was one of several encounters between government troops and rebels, which triggered military combat operations in the hinterland villages of Echague.
Five days later on November 22, at around 7 a.m., some 14 to 16 soldiers of the 86th IB arrived in sitio Calabaggin, San Miguel village, and stayed in two houses.
Residents identified the commanding officers as Lt. Bernardino and Sgt. Balansa and among the soldiers were Bagni and Liclican. The soldiers stayed the whole day, and some soldiers drank alcohol with some residents. They left the following day at 1 a.m.
A few hours after the soldiers left, at around 3 a.m., residents heard gunshots, which sounded like two simultaneous single shots, followed by automatic firing. Residents thought there was an encounter between the soldiers and NPA rebels, but thought otherwise when no more gunshots followed.
Later that day at 11 a.m., however, they heard a report on the local radio station that there was an encounter in their community. They were immediately skeptical because they knew that nothing of the sort happened.
On Saturday, Nov. 24, soldiers informed San Miguel village officials about some people who died, and accompanied them to the hilltop where stood the lone hut of peasant couple Vic and Rosario Valenzuela, some half kilometer away from the sub-village’s main cluster of houses.
The village officials found Vic’s body slumped by the entrance to his hut where he, residents said, appeared to be chopping cassava when he was shot. He had a gunshot wound at the back, and the bullet went through his chest.
The body of his wife Rosario was in the sleeping area in the upper part of the hut. She was found lying on her back, her legs splayed. She had a gunshot wound under the right ear, and the bullet appeared to have gone through the left side of her skull. The bodies reeked and showed signs of decomposition. The hut was apparently strafed as several bullet holes lined the bamboo and wooden walls.
According to the villagers, the soldiers took videos and pictures of the bodies and of the hut, and picked up the spent shells and placed them in plastic bags. Then the soldiers wrapped the bodies in the victims’ sleeping mats and told the villagers to take them down to the village proper.
As the bodies were brought down to the victims’ relatives, the soldier Bagni reportedly apologized saying that the other soldiers had fired at the hut, thinking there were rebels inside.
Many residents heard Bagni’s statements. Relatives of the victims were enraged because the soldiers did not immediately inform them of the incident.
On Nov. 25, Sunday, two investigators from the Philippine National Police (PNP Echague) arrived in Sitio Calabaggin. They went to the victims’ hut with village officials. They inspected the site, took photos and videos, and collected spent shells and slugs.
That same day, however, villagers heard news on the local station Bombo Radyo quoting a military report that said the Valenzuela couple were killed in the crossfire between the Philippine Army and the NPA. Residents and relatives of the victims were further angered by the fabricated reports of the military. They sought help from Karapatan-Cagayan Valley, who immediately organized a fact-finding team.
On Nov. 26, Chief Insp. Rogelio Taliping of PNP Isabela told Bombo Radyo that their investigation showed that there was an encounter and that the Valenzuela couple were possibly used as human shields by the NPA rebels. Taliping was also quoted as saying that the items recovered from the victims’ hut included a detonating cord, a laptop, and the belongings of one of the soldiers killed in Mabbayad. This was belied by the residents who accompanied the soldiers and retrieved the victims’ bodies on Nov. 24.
On Nov.28, the fact-finding team requested a copy of the initial police investigation report from the PNP Echague, but Chief Insp. Melchor Ariola told the team that they cannot yet release any report because the deaths in Calabaggin was being investigated by a military probe body looking into similar incidents.
Relatives of the slain couple said that P15,000 ($357) cash was missing from the Valenzuela’s house. The couple had just sold a small farm lot, and Rosario was said to have kept the money in a small purse which she kept close to her body.
On July 22 this year, Karapatan documented a similar incident in Laak, Compostela Valley in Southern Mindanao region, where 60th IB soldiers killed Totong Mabinsi, a member of Dibabawon tribe and Katribu partylist. The commanding officer, a Lt. Gamus, apologized to the victim’s brother saying that his soldiers mistook Totong for a guide of the NPA and shot him. Totong’s body was recovered a kilometer away from the detachment of the 60th IB, and soldiers accompanied villagers in taking the victim’s body to his relatives.