“The military positioned themselves among us civilians. We did not want them to join us, but they insisted. We did not want to go to with them back to the Poblacion but they forced us.” – A Lacub resident interviewed by the National Solidarity Mission to Abra
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – A fact-finding mission in Abra is calling for the prosecution of the Phil. Army’s 41st Infantry Battalion for violations it committed during its operations in Lacub, Abra in the first week September.
In its report, the National Solidarity Mission (NSM) led by the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) said the Army unit committed “war crimes” such as the extrajudicial killing of civilians, using civilians as guides, illegal detention, ‘willful killing’ of a combatant and desecration of remains of the rebels.
These are violations of Republic Act 9851, or the Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide, and Other Crimes Against Humanity,” said the NSM report.
The mission was prompted by suspected violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the operations by the 41st Infantry Battalion on Sept. 4 and 5, that led to the killing of seven members of the New People’s Army and two civilians namely, NGO worker Engr. Fidela Salvador and Lacub resident Noel Viste.
The NSM mobilized more than a hundred delegates from church, human rights and people’s organizations who joined the fact-finding and solidarity mission to Lacub on Sept. 28 to Oct. 1. The mission conducted medical consultation, psychosocial therapy sessions and focus group discussions with residents. Local groups Tulbek and Kastan hosted the mission.
The mission also reported that the military operations have caused stress on the people’s mental health, livelihood and on the children of the villages of Poblacion, Talampak and Guinguinabang. Residents could no longer attend to their fields or their small-scale mining due to the intensified military operations in Lacub, Abra, it said. This has resulted to loss in agricultural production, and subsequently, lack of food.
“The people, even the children of Lacub have suffered enough from the military operations,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, said. “AFP operations in Abra under Oplan Bayanihan should stop immediately and the 41st IBPA and all military units involved in the said operations should be pulled out and prosecuted,” she said.
In its September 12 Urgent Action Alert, Karapatan identified the seven NPAs killed as Pedring Banggao, Robert Beyao, Arnold Jaramillo, Brandon Magranga, Recca Noelle Monte, Robert Perez and Ricardo Reyes.
“Even in times of war, rights of civilians, and even those members of conflicting parties, should be observed. That is why international humanitarian law is in place. This is reiterated in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), which the Philippine government is a party to,” Palabay said.
The report said there were violations against the NPA rebels, among them “the willful killing” of Recca Noelle Monte. Autopsy results revealed that she had no gunshot wound at all, and her cause of death was “blunt traumatic injuries on the head, face and chest.”
There was also “mutilation and desecration” of the NPA guerilla’s bodies.
The mission report noted “probable war crimes” in the deaths of the rebels.
“This is a strong probability in the case of Arnold Jaramillo. Jaramillo’s body was riddled with multiple gunshot wounds at his back and lower extremities, with one particular gunshot wound fired at close-range that the skin surrounding the bullet’s point of entry had a burnt appearance,” the NSM report said, quoting the autopsy report by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Jaramillo’s both arms “were riddled with bullets down to his wrists and thumbs,” it added.
In 2011, soldiers of the 41st IB were also suspected of violating international humanitarian law in the killing of eight NPA rebels in Abra.
Civilians used as shields
During the fact-finding mission, human rights advocates talked to residents who were forced by soldiers to act as their shield during the military operation. Residents, at that time, were recovering the remains of those killed during the military operation.
“The military positioned themselves among us, civilians. We did not want them to join us, but they insisted. We did not want to go to with them back to the Poblacion but they forced us,” “Boyette,” a resident who talked to the fact finding team on conditions of anonymity, said.
On Sept. 5, Boyette told the fact-finding team that he joined seven other Lacub residents to retrieve the remains of Ricardo Reyes, a Lacub native who was one of the seven rebels killed.
“It is the community’s practice to immediately retrieve bodies of their dead kin. I wanted to help because there were only seven of them. Dead bodies are heavy,” he said.
Soldiers, he added, turned over Reyes’ remains to residents of Bacag and Guinguinabang village. From there, eight residents from Lacub intended to retrieve his remains and bring it to their town.
When Boyette and the others reached Guinguinabang village, he said he was surprised to see about 100 soldiers. The elders of the village wanted to keep Reyes’ remains for the night for a ritual for the dead, but the soldiers opposed.
“The military said we had to go because they had to report immediately to their detachment at the town. They were bent on going to town with us,” Boyette said, adding that they felt that they had no choice but to concede to the soldiers’ demands.
Residents said they wanted to either walk ahead or behind the soldiers. But the troops insisted that they mix with the civilians and walk in single file.
The fact-finding team, in its report, said this shows how the military used civilians as shield during the military operation, which, they said, contradicted their claims that soldiers were simply escorting those who retrieved Reyes’ remains.
Boyette, according to Palabay, is only one of the 549 individuals who have been used by the military either as guides and human shields in the course of their operations.
The report said the military “intentionally embedded” a detachment in a residential area in sitio Bantugo, Poblacion village, which is also near a clinic, an elementary and secondary school.
Soldiers of the 41st IB also detained Richard Borgonia, a farmer from Guinguinabang village, who was looking for his carabaos when he was accosted by soldiers on Sept. 3. The soldiers led by Lt. Mark de los Santos detained Borgonia, coerced him to say he was an NPA member, and put him in front of the troop’s formation. He was released after 12 hours to his village mates who had come looking for him.
The fact-finding mission noted how the intensified military operations in Lacub affected the children, as reflected in a psychosocial first aid session conducted by members of children’s rights groups Salinlahi and Children’s Rehabilitation Center.
A helicopter flying above the school was among the images drawn by the students, according to the fact-finding team. They also said their classes were often disturbed by the deafening sound of the helicopter as it lands to bring supplies to a military camp near their school.
At least 60 Grade 5 and 6 students participated in the psychosocial session.
Facilitators of the psychosocial session noted that most children did not include the military detachment in their drawings, which could be a result of their fear of soldiers.
During the height of the military operations on Sept. 4 and 5, soldiers fired their guns toward the direction of Talamac Proper and Pacoc in Talampac village. The soldiers’ detachment is only separated by a basketball and volleyball court, where children play, the fact finding report said.
This forced school authorities to suspend classes for almost two weeks as parents wanted to keep their children safe at home.
Two children said they were used by the military as human shields.
Students also saw the mutilated bodies of the members of the NPA, whom, they said, were without eyes and had broken arms. A boy, the report noted, remembers the dead bodies every time he passes by the covered court in their village.
Teachers, too, have expressed that they want the military out of their community. They pointed out that the local government has not acted on their longtime demand to pull out the military detachment, citing the Department of Education’s memorandum to the Department of National Defense that prohibits soldiers from using school buildings as detachment.
Parents and teachers, the report noted, have anticipated that an incident such as the Sept. 5 military operation would affect the children’s schooling. However, the local government denied that they received the said petition letter.
The fact-finding team wanted to present its findings to the Lacub local government and to submit a petition requesting for the pull out of the military from their community. The Lacub government officials, however, did not accept the team’s request for a dialogue.
In 2008, Abra was declared a priority area of the government counterinsurgency program because of the mining interests in the province.
Diego Wadagan, spokesman of the Abra NPA Provincial Operations Command, said, in a 2011 statement, that the military repositioned its 503rd Mining Security Forces in Abra, resulting to intensified military operations and, consequently, grave human rights violations.
Even under Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, which aims to end the insurgency by winning the hearts and minds of the people, Wadagan said, it is “still the dog brandishing a new collar and a new master.”
Palabay, for her part, reminded the government of the bloody record of the 41st Infantry Battalion, such as the massacre of the Ligiw family.
On March 7, the remains of farmer Eddie Ligiw and his sons Freddie and Licuben were found in a shallow grave near their hut, tied up, gagged and in fetal position.
“BS Aquino and the AFP certainly have this distorted sense of justice and respect for human rights by rewarding this massacre battalion with awards, instead of holding them accountable for human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law,” Palabay said.
“How swift they are in pouring praises for this notorious battalion, when they have not moved an inch in looking into the complaints of relatives of the victims and have not heeded the call of the people of Abra to pull out these soldiers from their communities,” she added.