Forgotten victims of a silent war

March 27, 1991

Since 1986, about 1 million civilians have fled their homes to escape the fighting in the Philippines. The plight of this destitute, homeless tribe — "internal refugees" — is still not fully recognised by the Aquino government. DAVID ROBIE reports.

Marcello Torres is a survivor. Escaping with his life after being shut in a cave which was then set ablaze by soldiers on the central Philippines island of Negros, he decided to fight back.

He and his wife Dixie trekked 120 kilometres with five children and 120 other families to confront the governor of their province. For almost a month, they camped in squalid conditions in the capital, Bacolod City: first outside the provincial government offices, to the embarrassment of Daniel Lacson, governor of Negros Occidental, and then beside the bishop's residence, Domus Dei. They would have starved had the Catholic Church not helped them and volunteers of the women's group Gabriela given meals to the children each day.

Finally, they were given safe conduct passes back to their ghost village of Buenavista, promised compensation and told that militarisation of their area would be halted. A fleet of six trucks, carrying about 50 people each, ferried them "home".

They are among the internal refugees of the Philippines — an estimated 1 million civilians who have fled their homes since 1986 in a desperate attempt to escape the fighting between government troops and the left-wing New People's Army.

Because the Aquino government refuses to fully recognise the displaced people, there is no official aid program to deal with their plight.

Army violence

Before the 52-year-old Torres left with his family, he and his companions talked to me through an interpreter about their suffering.

"The soldiers and the CAFGUs (paramilitary Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units) came to our village and asked us if any rebels stayed there.

"I said, 'We cannot pinpoint anybody because we don't know any rebels'. I was beaten by the CAFGU. They clubbed me to my knees, beat my head and then kicked me on the ground.

"I pleaded, 'I cannot tell you ... I don't know'."

The soldiers stripped the villagers of their rice supplies, cooking utensils and bolos (cane knives). Torres was pushed into a cave with several other men. A fire was lit in the entrance, and one man suffocated to death before other villagers were able to rescue them.

The 61st Battalion — one of the nine military and paramilitary battalions on highly militarised Negros — was accused of this and other atrocities. However, charges have been brought against only one lieutenant. The issue of internal refugees is highly sensitive for the Aquino government. The 1 million figure is an estimate made by non-government organisations documenting the displacement of civilians by the insurgency.

But NGO workers believe the number could be far higher. Many other refugees are said to have fled the remote mountain or forest villages.

It is difficult for the government to acknowledge the scale of the problem, because to do so would force it to admit to serious excesses in the counterinsurgency strategy.

About 60% of the refugees are children, according to the NGOs. Many of them, particularly on the southern island of Mindanao and in the mountainous northern Cordillera region, are tribal minorities. Indigenous tribes make up about 7 million out of the total population of 61 million.

'Total war'

The Citizens Disaster Rehabilitation Centre, a Manila-based umbrella secretariat for a network of 17 NGOs assisting refugees, blames the crisis on the Aquino government's "total war policy". In 1989, almost 36,000 people were displaced in the military's notorious Operation Thunderbolt on Negros.

Although the strategy was officially shelved for a while, it is clear the operation was used as a trial for similar mass operations against civilians elsewhere in the country. Militarisation on Mindanao led to far greater numbers of refugees — 126,000 by the end of 1989 alone.

A major operation has been under way since last October in the Marag valley, in the northern province of Cagayan. The military claims there are "no civilians in the area", which has been declared a free-fire zone against rebels. However, it is reported that more than 300 dislocated families are there, 98 children are said to have died from a measles epidemic and other diseases, and more than 100 homes have been burned by soldiers.

Journalists have been barred from the zone, and fact-finding missions were refused entry until Senator Bobby Tanada personally intervened on behalf of a team that went there in January.

In Negros Occidental province, Governor Lacson, who has a prawn farm

and major landholdings, praises the counterinsurgency strategy and defensively plays down the refugee problem.

"I don't believe in violence. I believe in democracy. I have started land reform in this province and I pay minimum wages", he said. "But [the rebels] burnt down my farm. Why touch my farm when I'm just trying to do something for my province and my country?"

Lacson believes the war is being won and says conditions in his province are better than in 1985, the year before President Aquino came to power."Don't you believe what you read in the papers — people are now coming back."

But Lacson had a word of warning for the Aquino government: "Unless s, there is no hope for Manila. It is going to become the garbage can of the Philippines, the squatter camp of the nation. More than 250,000 Filipinos migrate there every year."

Most people who die or fall ill in evacuation camps are either children or elderly refugees exhausted by trekking and who more easily contract diseases in the unsanitary conditions.

Diarrhoea, malaria, measles and respiratory illnesses are common, especially among children. After Operation Thunderbolt on Negros, 257 children died in evacuation camps.

Increasing numbers

The CDRC has noted a sharp increase in internal refugees since it first began to collect statistics in 1986. Before then there was no reliable data.

In 1986 the CDRC reported more than 54,000 people displaced by the armed conflict. The following year, when cease-fire negotiations between the government and the NPA broke down, the number of recorded refugees climbed to more than 340,000 — nearly seven times the 1986 figure.

In 1988, the number dropped slightly to around 322,000. Although in 1989 documented figures totalled only 197,000, the CDRC says the figure is incomplete. And in any case, statistics from other NGOs suggest the real figure is much higher.

For example, the Philippine National Red Cross reported that it provided help to 194,000 refugees in 1986 — more than three times the number recorded by CDRC for that year.

"But the statistics don't tell the full story", said Zenaida Delica of the CDRC. "Evacuees usually have to leave in a hurry. Many of them — perhaps as much as 60% — are terrified children or old people, while able-bodied adults must carry whatever food or possessions they're able to carry.

"Without land to till, they have no source of livelihood. With no property to sell, they are unable to buy food. They are forced to depend on badly paid casual work and charity."

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