PHILIPPINES: Displaced villagers in Mindanao begin to return home
Villagers use water buffalos to carry their belongings as they evacuate from fighting between government troops and separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Many are now returning home as calm is being restored
MANILA, 17 August 2008 (IRIN) - Thousands of villagers displaced by fighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels have been trickling back to their devastated communities on Mindanao Island, but tension remains high and the process of rebuilding could take a long time, government and humanitarian officials said.
Brig-Gen Jorge Segovia, deputy chief of the armed forces' command centre, said more than 15 of the 22 villages illegally occupied by separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels have now been cleared of unexploded munitions, booby traps, and land mines planted by fleeing gunmen.
"The next task is to support the regional disaster coordinating council and the social welfare agencies in assisting the handling of internally displaced persons [IDPs], both in the evacuation centres and those with host families,” he said.
There was a need “to deliver the relief goods that are coming in, as well as give proper medical attention to those in need," he said, adding: "The relief and rehabilitation process might take longer than the security operations."
Trouble started last week when about 1,500 MILF rebels occupied 22 villages in five towns in North Cotabato Province in southern Mindanao Island. They attacked government troops and defied orders to leave, after the Supreme Court stopped the government from signing a landmark deal that would have given the MILF control over large areas the MILF claims are ancestral lands.
Tens of thousands forced to flee
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
|Philippine forces are being asked to stay in the area to calm the fears of local residents who fear a further outbreak of violence|
Government forces used heavy artillery, ground assaults as well as air bombardments to flush out the rebels, triggering two days of intense fighting that left nearly 30 rebels, six civilians and at least two soldiers dead. But the fighting also left many villages in ruins, with the retreating guerrillas looting and burning homes.
Tens of thousands of villagers were forced to evacuate, and while the fighting has now stopped, many of the evacuees remain fearful of returning home.
Segovia said the army had brought in an additional battalion of army engineers to help with rehabilitation. Up to 100 houses had been razed to the ground. Schools and Catholic chapels had also been ransacked and destroyed.
The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) in its latest report on 14 August said the number of displaced on North Cotobato Province on Mindanao Island had grown to around 160,000 people. Of that total, many are staying with relatives and host families and less than 100,000 are in about 40 evacuation centres, many of which are overcrowded with farm animals jostling for space with humans.Help from ICRC, WFP
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has dispatched teams to assess the medical situation on the ground, and the World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered over 400 metric tonnes of rice to the area for distribution to the displaced, the NDCC reported.
Photo: Google Maps
|A map of the Philippines and surrounding countries highlighting Mindanao island|
WFP country director Stephen Anderson said field staff had reported that many of the evacuees were too afraid to go home after the military reported having recovered two improvised explosive devices in two separate public areas in North Cotabato.
"It is putting a strain on them to remain in this type of situation. But at the same time, people fear for their lives," Anderson said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement on 13 August, said he was "concerned about the unfolding humanitarian crisis as a result of fighting" in Mindanao. Ban "appeals for restraint, protection of all civilians as well as access for the provision of speedy humanitarian assistance to the affected population", the statement said.Mayor of Aleosan
Loreta Cabaya, mayor of Aleosan town, where most of the burned houses were, said he personally had led some 3,000 civilians back to their homes. He added that many others wanted assurances from the government that troops would be allowed to stay behind and help pro-government militiamen in street patrols, before they return.
|We just want peace to return, and let us not make this into a Muslim-Christian conflict. We can co-exist peacefully. |
“They are trying to rebuild their lives and pick up the pieces, but it’s going to be a very long rehabilitation," Cabaya told IRIN. "We just want peace to return, and let us not make this into a Muslim-Christian conflict. We can co-exist peacefully," he said.
The MILF has been waging a bloody rebellion for the establishment of an independent Islamic state since 1978. However, it signed a ceasefire with the government in 2003, paving the way for peace talks. The aborted deal would have been a stepping stone to a final political settlement with the MILF - instead, it triggered massive street protests from fearful Christian towns and provinces in the south, forcing the Supreme Court to issue an injunction.