As the “war against terrorists” in Marawi City under martial law conditions in Mindanao enters its fifth week, a grave humanitarian crisis looms. Meantime, conflicting signals from President Duterte and the Armed Forces of the Philippines continue to baffle the public.
On the one hand, the AFP claimed its troops have cornered the terrorists, consisting of the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf, which US and Philippine officials claim have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria). “They’re running out of place to run,” bragged the head of Task Force Ranao. “We continue to recover and control strategic areas… and the enemy resistance is waning,” said the Army’s 1st Infantry Division spokesperson, while acknowledging that the leaders of the two groups (the brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute and Abu Sayyaf’s Isnilon Hapilon) haven’t been killed in the fighting and “are still in the area.”
On the other hand, invoking his bigger responsibility to the Republic and saying he wouldn’t put soldiers “at high risk,” the President said he would order the “carpet bombing” of Marawi. “I will really destroy everything… and I will take full responsibility for it,” he told reporters in Cagayan de Oro, while military and police commanders met to reassess strategy and operations against the terrorist groups.
Already, aerial bombings have left much of Marawi City in ruins and most of its 200,000 residents have fled to Iligan City and other surrounding areas. Marawi civic leaders, lawyers, human rights and peace advocacy groups, and various humanitarian missions have called for the lifting of martial law and a stop to the bombings, to no avail.
These bombings are “an overkill,” said the National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission (NIHM) which, on June 14-16, interviewed evacuees from Marawi and some areas in Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Davao del Sur. Along with martial law, it says, the bombings’ grave impact on the human rights and welfare of civilians demonstrates their ineffectiveness and “casts doubt on their appropriateness as a response to a small armed and foreign-affiliated terrorist group.”
And yet, even as the government stepped up air strikes, destroying entire neighborhoods and infrastructure, mission members noted that apparently – according to official statements trying to explain why the fighting in Marawi isn’t over yet – “the number of ISIS-affiliated terrorists have actually increased rather than decreased.”
There was an even more rapid increase in the number of evacuees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). The NIHM recalled that when it called out for participation in and public support for the mission on June 4, the number of evacuees (per the ARMM Bureau of Information) stood at 235,000; two weeks after, the number had increased to 325, 294. (On June 22, the Asian Peasant Coalition cited higher NIHM data: “More than 69,055 families or 336,783 individuals are staying in 82 evacuation centers in Lanao del Sur and other provinces.”)
“We foresee this displacement to rise and spread to other areas as the AFP resorts to aerial bombardment which does not discriminate civilians, adversely affects farms and livelihood, and by evidence of experience domestically and internationally, has not proved effective in decimating terrorist and armed groups,” the NIHM warns. The history of internal conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries has shown that various terrorist groups have arisen and persisted to sow terror in unimaginable ways – despite, or because of, outside instigation and intervention by global powers.
(The CIA, America’s chief spy agency, has a record of training militants who later turned against US imperialism. It is “credited” for having trained mujaheddins – including fighters from Mindanao, who later formed the Abu Sayyaf Group – to fight the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. One of them, Osama bin Laden from Saudi Arabia, later organized the al Qaida that launched the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The current, more brutal ISIS arose from remnants of al Qaida who had been tortured and held for long periods in US prison camps in Iraq.)
The NIHM acknowledges that it was able to give provisional relief to only 1,222 displaced families, mostly the so-called home-based evacuees (who have moved in with relatives in other towns). It observes that while government and private-sector relief missions have gradually tried to address the humanitarian needs in more than 16 evacuation centers in Lanao del Sur, “the hidden humanitarian crisis” lies in the home-based evacuees, who usually don’t get served by such relief missions.
While the mission lauds local government units in nearby towns for absorbing the influx of bakwit and trying to cope with their needs, it points out the lack of suitable infrastructure for temporary shelters, sanitation facilities, and potable water. The dire situation is worsened by the steep rise in prices of prime commodities due to the sudden increase in demand.
Common chronic diseases already prevalent in pre-evacuation conditions have been aggravated by prolonged displacements in crowded evacuation centers. Besides poor-quality health services, medicines are lacking or unavailable. Another cause for concern is the incidence of post-traumatic stress and anxieties, particularly among the children, with an apparent lack of social workers and trained personnel to handle these cases.
But there are thousands of other evacuees the NIHM found besides those in Lanao del Sur. Counterinsurgency air and artillery attacks in areas of Maguindanao, Davao del Sur and North Cotabato have been causing thousands of families to flee their homes and communities. This is also part of the massive humanitarian crisis in Mindanao, which the local government units are ill prepared to address. National attention needs to be paid to the situation as a whole.
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Published in The Philippine Star
June 24, 2017