DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Living inside a noisy, hot, and difficult shelter for years is how an 11-year-old Manobo girl describes her temporary yet almost permanent shelter inside the evacuation center of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – Haran (UCCP-Haran).
In an ordinary day inside the evacuation center, most children are in their makeshift classrooms to learn the basics of ABCs and counting of numbers. Those who are not in their classes are playing outside, running around from various directions. Others quietly sit and, like artists, make something out of the soil.
Most of them arrived at Haran evacuation center in 2014. Relentless operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against the New People’s Army (NPA) forced their families to abandon their abodes and communities. That was the last time they saw their homes and communities.
Jennilyn Malibato or ‘Jen’ to her playmates was just seven years old when she arrived in Haran. Just like any other young Manobos who grew up running in the fields and enjoying the natural environment of their communities, she found the atmosphere in the evacuation camp difficult to survive.
“It is small and the air is different here. There are no trees to climb and river to swim,” Jen moaned.
Yet, in her young age, she now understands why they need to stay in the evacuation camp. She is aware that they need protection against harassments and threats – the fearsome experiences they had undergone in their community. Jen is still longing to go back home, but the fear forces her and the rest of her family not to proceed because the formidable experiences in 2014 still run fresh in their memories, and their beings.
“Here, even if the place is small, I know we can live without fear. Everyone here is helping each other and we are friends,” Jen said.
In February this year, another batch of 500 Talaingod Manobos arrived at UCCP Haran for shelter and protection. They came from the Lumad evacuation center in Marbai, Barangay Mdaum, Tagum City.
The new batch of evacuees stayed at Marbai evacuation center since February 2018. They were welcomed there by the group of agrarian reform beneficiaries in the area. Their stay at the center was disrupted when they were harassed and intimidated by the elements of 71st Infantry Battalion led by Lt. Col. Estevyn Ducusin and Col. Cabantin.
Ten-year-old Rey is among those who arrived at Haran last February and, for almost a month now, will have to cope with the new environment he needs to adopt.
Rey arrived at Haran with a handful of clothing, a school bag with some notebooks and a pencil. He also brought with him an undying hope to start a new life in another evacuation center now called Haran. After weeks, Rey won new friends though oftentimes he still spent his time with old pals from the former evacuation center.
“I have some new friends here. Some of them are my new classmates that lend me their notes about our subjects. Others I knew after playing together after class or during weekends” Rey said.
The new “normal”
The Haran evacuation center formerly housed 81 children, but with the arrival of more evacuees in February, their number has increased to around 200.
In an interview, PASAKA Confederation of Lumad Organizations secretary-general Jong Monzon said children evacuees are “forced to adopt a new environment called home inside the evacuation center” as the conflict and abuses in their communities continue.
“Because of the imposition of martial law, these children are deprived of their liberty to become children in their communities where they can do anything they like to do. Instead of giving them the chance to move forward and help the tribe, the state itself took it,” Monzon emphasized.
Playing now serves as a therapy for the children inside the evacuation center. Boys who are in their middle age usually find time to play basketball, especially during free time while the younger ones, if not playing their usual children’s plays can be seen reading books in a makeshift library. But most of the children enjoy playing, shouting and laughing. To reminisce their community life, some children climb that single mango tree inside the evacuation center. Others contend themselves sitting in corners and chat with friends.
“Inside the camp, they have developed a way to entertain each other. With the help of the support groups and volunteers, children felt their importance in the society” Monzon said.
Jen is a witness to the never-ending struggle inside the evacuation center in Haran. Children have encountered disease, sickness and other forms of difficulties in life inside the center. But for Jen, Rey and the rest of the Manobo children, it’s the struggle to adjust from the environment of their homes to the atmosphere inside the evacuation center was the most difficult process they have gone through.
The strains that Jen met inside Haran did not bar her to dream big. She wishes to become a doctor someday, she told Davao Today.
“I have always dreamed of becoming a doctor. I want to help everyone, especially the sick,” Jen said, in a local dialect, when asked about her ambition in life.
The talk with her was short as she is shy and timid to answer the question.
Aside from helping those who are sick, she was also asked of the other reasons why she wanted to become a doctor. She answered, “Because there is no doctor in our tribe that could bring help if needed. Back in our home in the mountains, people would walk for hours to see a health worker at a clinic in nearby barangay. In many instances, our loved ones die.”
Different from Jen, Rey just wants to be happy in life by becoming a leader of his tribe. “I want to defend them from the bad guys,” he said.
Becoming a leader and defender of the tribe runs deep to Rey’s experiences. He is a witness to the harassments perpetrated by soldiers belonging to the 56th Infantry Battalion and the dreaded paramilitary group Alamara against his school, the Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center Incorporated (STTICLCI) in Talaingod, Davao del Norte. A total of 14 STTICLCI campuses have stopped their operations due to the continuing harassment made by state forces and the paramilitary groups. The continuing military operations and harassments have displaced 700 Lumad students and 23 teachers in the area.
“I want to become the bravest Datu that can protect his people. I will defend the Manobo people because we are humans and we are the owner the ancestral land,” Rey, in his local dialect said while showing his thin arms that he said are strong muscles.
In the data presented by Save our Schools Network (SOS), the continuing imposition of martial law has already resulted to 535 cases of attacks on schools in Mindanao, 73 of these schools were forced to close down while 111 charges were filed against volunteer teachers.
The group also recorded a total number of 8,000 Lumads and farmers “forcibly paraded as New People’s Army (NPA) surrenders. Intensified military operations have already displaced some 11,500 Lumads in Mindanao.
“We want to go back to our house in the mountain if the military will leave the place. I am afraid of them but I also missed home”, Rey said. (davaotoday.com)