“The soldiers came and burned our school. They said it was a school of the New People’s Army.” – Epoy, 19, a Manobo from Mindanao
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – Manobo student Epoy, 19, has been running away from militarization since childhood. He and his family have moved from one town to another, hoping to get away from soldiers and their hostility. But their effort was in vain.
“From the mountains of Bukidnon, we fled to the mountains of Compostela Valley. We helped build a school there. It was just a hut so that somehow, children could learn. But the soldiers came and burned our school. They said it was a school of the New People’s Army (NPA),” Epoy said in an interview with Bulatlat.com.
“I thought the military is supposed to serve and protect the Filipino people. But they are the ones who do harm on the people,” he said.
Epoy’s situation has not changed up to now. He once again fled the mountains of Compostela Valley and came to the hinterlands of Talaingod, Davao Del Norte, only to find himself caught in the middle of another military operation, which subjected their school to harassment and disrupted their classes.
Epoy and 12 of his Manobo classmates of the Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center, Inc. (STTICLCI), teachers and community leaders have traveled from Davao Del Norte to Manila to redress their grievances to the government. For a month, they will hold a cultural caravan entitled “Og Iskwela Puron (To school… I wish)” which highlights their journey of hope and struggle for their right to education through a showcase of their traditional arts and culture.
A kick-off activity was held on Nov. 5, at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon, City where the Teatro Salugpongan, a cultural group of the Manobo children, performed a stage play depicting the violence inflicted by the soldiers and how they stand up to fight for their right to education.
In March this year, constant military operations and military encampment in or near schools and households and other human rights violations, drove them to evacuate their community for more than a month.
Just this October, drunken soldiers under the 68th IBPA, who encamped no more than 50 meters away from the school, successively fired at some STTICLCI classrooms and school farm. Epoy and other residents have kept their ground but the military presence has kept them anxious.
In the nearby region of Caraga, school children are among the 1,783 Lumad residents who evacuated from 16 hinterland communities to evade militarization in the bordering towns of Lianga, San Agustin and Tago. Since Oct. 27, they have been staying at the barangay (village) center of Diatagon, Lianga.
Seven community schools in the three towns stopped classes, affecting 569 students.
Right to education
Indigenous people in far-flung areas have little or no access to the government’s social services like education. With the help of the people’s organization, schools were built for the children of the indigenous people who have to travel for hours to go to school in the town center.
Epoy and his classmates were grateful to the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines for taking the lead in building their school. When they were beginning to fulfil their dreams, state security forces arrived.
“How can we study peacefully? How can we help our parents and the community if the soldiers are building their camps in our school? We are here today to seek your support so that we can continue with our studies and we could go back to our peaceful lives,” Lando, 15 years old said.
“Hayaan ninyo kaming sumayaw sa saliw ng aming katutubong musika, hindi sa tunog ng mga bala (Let us dance to the rhythm of our indigenous music, not to the sound of gunfire)!” he said.
Roland Dalin, 15, dreams to be a people’s lawyer someday, to fight those who have consistently violated their human rights.
“I want to be a lawyer when I finish school so that I can defend the indigenous people from the soldiers. I want to defend their right to education,” Dalin said in an interview with Bulatlat.com.
Madella Santiago, Save our Schools (SOS) Network spokeswoman said Lando’s plea is only one of the lumad children’s many pleas for help. She said there 39 cases of military attacks on schools – encampment, threats and intimidation of students and teachers – that have been documented by the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in southern Mindanao alone.
“This is quite alarming as these alternative schools, borne out of the efforts of lumad organizations and support groups and aims to provide education services for indigenous children, are under threat by the government who have long neglected them and deprived them of basic social services like health and education,” Santiago said.
Based on CRC’s documentation, since July 2, 2010 to October this year, there were 52 cases of attacks on schools, and the perpetrators are soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
During the program, Manobo children presented the “Kulintas sa Paghagit” (Necklace of Challenge) to the legislators, members of non-government organizations and individuals, who vowed to support their struggle for the right to education.
Rep. Nancy Catamco of the second district of North Cotabato also expressed support for the struggle of her fellow indigenous people. Catamco, who belongs to the Bagobo-Manobo tribe, chairs the House Committee on National Cultural Communities.
“I, too, have witnessed the oppression and violence being inflicted on the indigenous peoples since I was a child. My uncle, also an indigenous people, would go to our house and hide from the soldiers because he is being hunted by them. I also knew that whenever the soldiers and the members of the NPA have an encounter, the indigenous people are the ones who bear the brunt of the soldiers’ anger,” Catamco said who became emotional during the program.
“I really thank the Makabayan bloc who really stands up for the rights of the indigenous people, because without them, I could not do this alone,” she added. She also vowed to bring the Manobo children to the House of Representatives to share their stories.
Gabriela Women’s Partylist Luz Ilagan said there is also a need to bring the struggle outside the halls of Congress.
“Let us also mobilize in the streets so that the people would know the experiences and hardships of the indigenous people in the countryside,” Ilagan said in the program.
At the end of the program, the legislators, the Lumad students and their supporters joined the community dance, to the rhythm of bankakawan, an indigenous musical instrument consisting of a hanging percussion beam.