Dirty and cold, about 100 children huddle under a tarpaulin at an evacuation site on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. With gun battles continuing daily, their prospects of returning home soon seem more remote than ever.
It is almost 10 months since all-out war re-erupted between government forces and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
In recent months, about 8,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have flocked to Libungan Toretta, an impoverished yet picturesque village of a few hundred, mostly subsistence farmers, near Mindanao's Pigkawayan town. Many would rather suffer the indignity of living in squalid camps than getting caught in potentially deadly crossfire.
They arrived from the nearby province of Maguindanao, scene of some of the heaviest fighting, with their farm animals and meagre belongings.
Many pitched tents by the roadside, in what has since become a major resettlement camp supported by UN agencies, including the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme (WFP), which make periodic food distribution trips here.
"There are so many children among them that food is becoming a major problem," local village council member Nasser Latip told IRIN.
"They didn't have much to start with, and now they are here. We have no choice but to take them in. There is not enough of anything - food, clothing, even tents."
But while the IDPs have been welcomed, they have no choice but to compete with the locals for food and resources.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|WFP food assistance arrives in conflict-hit Mindanao|
"Our food situation is being affected and our toilets are overflowing," Latip said, adding that many of the displaced were using a nearby stream to wash and relieve themselves - a potential source of disease outbreak.
Provincial governor Jesus Sacdalan said "local finances are also being depleted" even as help from aid agencies continued to pour in.
"These people feel safe here so we can't force them to go back to their homes, or what's left of [them]," he said.
Many of the displaced were now preparing to stay for the long term, while the local government was readying them for when the aid runs out.
"They will have to learn to feed themselves," Sacdalan said as he delivered a truck-full of shovels and pick axes to the men.
map of the Philippines highlighting Cotabato in the autonomous region
of Muslim Mindanao and Jolo Island, where government troops and
Islamist militants have frequently clashed
“No end in sight”
Fighting between the 12,000-strong MILF, which has been fighting for an independent Islamic state on Mindanao, and government forces restarted in August, when two senior rebel commanders simultaneously raided several towns and provinces across the mineral-rich island.
The government then suspended peace talks and sporadic clashes across central Mindanao provinces have persisted ever since.
According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), some 48,166 families or 240,650 people remain displaced by violence as of 18 May.
Of that number, 112,531 people are in some 127 evacuation centres scattered over Mindanao. Another 128,119 are staying with friends or relatives.
Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed in the clashes, which have also set back any immediate prospect of finding a political solution to the 31-year MILF insurgency.
Stephen Anderson, WFP country director, said his agency was committed to helping in the long term, even as he expressed alarm over the continuing insecurity on the island.
"There appears to be no end in sight," Anderson told IRIN, as he toured three evacuation camps with WFP private sector donors, adding that after nine months of fighting, "it appears the number of those displaced has not gone down. We hope the situation will return to normal. But in the last few weeks there's been another upsurge in fighting in the region, which we are concerned about because this is causing new displacement.
"We are concerned about the daily artillery bombings as well as the impact [on aid work] on the ground," he said.
But for Badrudin Udtog, a resident at an evacuation camp in Dos Shariff Kabunsuan village in Maguindanao Province, the latest fighting has left him with little hope that his children - aged six and 11 – will ever be able to lead normal lives.
His family is among the more than 740 families now being housed at the site, where "every day is a struggle to survive", he said.
"Sometimes we don't eat at all. Rice is not enough, and you have to fight for your ration," Udtog said. "My children have known the sounds of guns and bomb explosions since they were born, and their future children will probably be suffering like us," he said, appealing to both sides of the conflict to stop the fighting.