A gathering in solidarity of protesting Cotabato farmers wants to hold the whole Aquino administration accountable for the bloody dispersal.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA — Jerome Aba of Suara Bangsamoro said it was one of the most dangerous times of his life when he ran for safety on April 1, as police started firing at the protesting farmers in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato.
Aba said he saw how farmers were struck down by gunfire from members of the Special Weapon and Tactics (SWAT) positioned on the top of the fire truck. He said three shots were fired at first, followed by a staccato of gunfire as the police started strafing the barricade.
“I saw with my two eyes when a member of SWAT aimed his M16 at the barricade. Then they open fired and I saw a farmer beside me got shot in the head,” said Aba, who flew all the way from Kidapawan City in the morning of April 6 for a solidarity gathering in support of the drought-stricken farmers.
The gathering was initiated by groups under the Pagkakaisa para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (Patria) and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan). The room was jam-packed with supporters who pledged to demand justice and accountability of President Aquino’s government.
Bayan chairperson Carol Araullo said the national and local governments are culpable for all the sufferings of the farmers as it has not really mitigated the effects of El Niño. Worse, the farmers who demand relief were answered by bullets.
She stressed that the response to the effects of El Niño is a whole-government effort.
“It could not only be the Department of Agriculture (DA) that has a program for the distribution of relief for the farmers, it should also include the Department of Social Welfare and Development. In other words, the response to the effects of drought is not only concentrated in one agency, it is the whole administration. It is a one big effort,” said Araullo.
Asserting basic rights
Aba said for six months, the farmers and their families have no food to eat as farms have dried up. Their crops all withered because of severe drought. The farmers took action and went to Governor Emmylou “Lala” Taliño-Mendoza to demand government relief and assistance to farmers affected by El Niño. (Read: ‘We only want to feed our children’ – North Cotabato farmers)
Aba said the farmers’ only demand is 15,000 sacks of rice to alleviate the farmers’ starvation. On March 29, farmers protested at the regional National Food Authority (NFA) in Kidapawan City.
On March 30, at 6 a.m., the farmers started barricading the national highway of Kidapawan City, with the simple intention to fight for their right to food. Aba said there were already police and members of SWAT in the national hi-way even before they set up their barricade. “They were all carrying long firearms. We wondered why they were carrying M16 and all aimed at the barricade,” Aba said.
Aba, who was among the leaders who negotiated with the police and the local government, said they told Cotabato provincial police director, Senior Superintendent Alexander Tagum, that fire arms are prohibited in any assembly. “But he did not listen. Instead, he said, ‘Wag daw syang turuan’ (Don’t tell me what to do).”
On the same day, Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista also came to the barricade, and the leaders told him about the members of SWAT carrying firearms, but they were ignored. The farmers, who came from different towns in Cotabato, asserted to have a dialogue with the governor. At first they were told that Mendoza was in Manila to accept an award. At 7 a.m. of the same day, a spokesperson of the governor said she will hold a dialogue, but only with three farmer-leaders and at the Kidapawan City Hall.
“But the farmers feared they might be arrested at the city hall, and did not go,” said Aba. He said the farmers wanted the governor to face the people at the barricade, but she refused, and was quoted as saying “the governor should not be ordered around.”
The people stayed at the national highway. On March 31 at 1:30 a.m., the farmers and their supporters were roused by the loud music played by suspected military agents in civilian clothes. Aba said they were carrying .45 caliber pistols. They were told to go home and that the rice is in their village. “We were also told that if we did not leave they will arrest us.” The harassment lasted until morning.
In the morning Aba said 14 farmers were forcibly taken by the police and military agents and were brought to the precinct. “That whole day, they were forcibly taking farmers to the provincial jail.”
Aba said on the same day of March 31, the mayor of the nearby municipalities also came to Kidapawan and told farmers to go home. They were again told that there is rice in their respected municipalities.
There were farmers who believed it and eventually left the barricade. But they were not brought to their municipalities but to the provincial jail of Kidapawan, said Aba.
Mendoza eventually met with the protesting farmers on the same day at the United Methodist Church. The farmers laid their demand of 15,000 sacks of rice as relief to those who are affected of drought. But this was rejected by Mendoza. Instead, Mendoza said only three kilos of rice can be distributed to them every quarter.
Mendoza’s counter-proposal was rejected by the farmers and they all went back to the barricade.
Aba noted that after the dialogue, additional police men and fire trucks were deployed, ready to disperse the barricade.
“We talked to the farmers and asked them if they could still carry on. If they could still bear the heat, the harassment by police and military, and the deception by mayors and Lala (the governor). They said they wanted to stay, because they would only face hunger when they return home,” Aba recounted.
“Kaya mas mabuti pa daw po mamatay sila sa kalsada hanggang sa ibigay ang hinihinging bigas kaysa umuwi at mamatay sa gutom. Ganun katindi ng prinsipyong hinahawakan ng mga magsasaka (They would rather die on the road until they get the rice, than to just go home and die. They firmly held on to that principle),” said Aba.
Aba who was among those in the front line of negotiation said he saw members of SWAT on top of the fire truck open fire at the protesting farmers. He then pulled Gabriela Women’s Partylist third nominee Bai Ali Indayla down to the ground as police and soldiers peppered them with bullets.
While lying on their stomach on the ground, they saw farmers getting shot at and falling to the ground. “Then another farmer told us that Sheena Duazo of Bayan was wounded. We ran across the street to locate Sheena. The police was still firing and we saw another farmer shot and fell. Bai wanted to rescue the farmer but I restrained her because of the strafing,” Aba recalled.
Aba said the police and SWAT were moving towards the farmers while strafing the farmers who were all running to safety. He added that the SWAT continued sniping at farmers hiding inside the United Methodist Church.
“That was how brutal that day was,” said Aba.
Aba, Indayla and Suazo were able to hide in a hotel but the police still chased them. Fortunately the hotel owner asserted that they cannot enter the hotel because it is a private property.
“We were calling for rescue but not one could come near because of fear of the police around the building,” said Aba. They were rescued by former Kidapawan Governor Emmanuel Piñol with members of the media who surrounded them to protect them from the police.
Aba sustained a fracture on his foot while Duazo sustained injuries in the head. He said the firing, which was started at past 10:00 a.m., only stopped at around 12 noon.
According to the recently concluded National Fact Finding Mission at least 40 were injured due to gunshot wounds.
National government’s culpability
Araullo said it has been more than a year that the national government knew about the imminent effects of drought but has not done much.
“If you will sum up what the Department of Agriculture and the spokesperson of Malacañang have been saying, basically the government’s response merely revolves around cloud seeding, conservation of water and distribution of drought-resistant seeds. But they mentioned nothing about mitigation efforts for the people’s hunger and thirst,” she said.
Instead of resolving the lack of irrigation in most of parts of the country by providing a free irrigation system, the government is promoting a privatized irrigation system. How can farmers avail of that when they are already deep in debt?” she added.
Araullo added that Commission on Audit report said that the DA under Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala has squandered more than P14 billion ($30 million) in questionable projects it implemented in 2013.
She said there is no one to hold accountable for the government’s ineptitude and lack of preparedness in this kind of calamity “that they had more than a year to prepare for other than the Aquino government.”
On April 8, one week after the Kidapawan massacre different groups will once again gather this time on the streets dubbed as the Global Day for land, food and justice.
Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. urged the public to join the activity that will start in a concelebrated mass in Quiapo Church at 9 a.m. After the mass they will march to Chino Roces bridge near the Malacañang Palace.