MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE – 2:40 p.m.) More than 2,000 lumad, including students and teachers of a renowned school still traumatized by the grisly murder of their administrator and two tribal leaders in September 2015, fled their communities in Lianga and San Miguel towns in Surigao del Sur after government troops began operating in the area.
In a lumad community in San Miguel town, soldiers also allegedly circulated a list of “enemies of the state” that included four teachers of the school run by the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur or TRIFPSS, which operates elementary education centers in lumad communities.
Fr. Raymond Ambray, a Catholic priest who is a director of the award-winning Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), confirmed that 424 families from 13 hinterland communities in Barangay Diatagon, Lianga, including Han-ayan, which hosts the high school and a TRIFPSS center, and nearby villages in San Miguel began leaving the night of July 4 after what he said were “multiple sightings” by residents of armed men in uniform, some of them wearing hoods, lurking around their villages.
Some farmers later reported seeing around 60 troops of the Army’s 75th Infantry Battalion.
Ambray said the residents decided to flee not because of any actual atrocities committed but because of their past experiences with soldiers and military-backed militiamen.
On September 1, 2015, members of the Magahat militia drove the students and staff of ALCADEV out of the school then hogtied and stabbed dead Emerito Samarca. They also gunned down Dionel Campos, chairman of the Manobo organization Maluhutayong Pakigbisog Alang Sumusunod (Persevering Struggle for the Next Generation or MAPASU) and his cousin Juvello Sinzo, a tribal leader, in front of hundreds of terrified residents, including children.
The killings, which the military admitted took place as a nearby soldiers — also of the 75th IB — did nothing, triggered the exodus of thousands of lumad in Surigao del Sur. To this day, none of the killers have been arrested and prosecuted, although leaders of the militia, under military escort, had testified at a congressional inquiry at which one of them declared that Samarca deserved his fate.
The military, on the other hand, continued to openly accuse the tribal schools of teaching Manobo children to sympathize with and even join the communist revolutionary movement.
It took more than a year before the evacuees finally returned home.
Ambray and Norma Ampis, TRIFPSS executive director, said many of the lumad remain deeply traumatized by the 2015 murders.
The priest confirmed that the residents feared a recurrence of the 2015 murders as well as the bombing of their communities that often accompanied past military operations.
Initially, the evacuees gathered at the center of Han-ayan and the proceeded to the community at “Kilometer 13” but around midnight Thursday, Ambray said they heard a “tora-tora” circling for about an hour.
While “tora-tora” is the term normally used by people in the countryside to describe propeller-driven Air Force planes, Ambray said what they heard was most likely a helicopter.
However, he explained, in the lumad‘s experience, hovering helicopters were invariably followed by artillery bombardments or air strikes.
“Although we advised them to wait for first light, they decided to leave even if it was still dark, they were so afraid,” Ambray said.
Ambray said the evacuation has also disrupted the education of at least 700 students — 199 from ALCADEV, the rest from up to 20 TRIFPSS schools in the lumad communities — which have had to close down.
Some of the evacuees, he said, are staying at the TRIFPSS school in the community known as “Kilometer 9,” the rest in the houses of relatives and friends.
Ambray said they are coordinating for relief assistance from the Lianga municipal government and are also seeking a dialogue with provincial officials to address the concerns of the evacuees who, he stressed, “are safe for now but will pack up and leave again at the first sign that soldiers or militias are heading their way.”
Meanwhile, in Sitio Barbuan, Barangay Carromata, San Miguel, Ampis said eight community leaders were compelled to “surrender” and “clear” themselves after troops of the 36th IB showed their names were included in a list of “enemies of the state.”
And in Sitio Liangabon, Barangay Calatngan, an unidentified armed man handed a teachers of the TRIFPSS school there a “list of targets” that included the names of lumad community organizers and the four teachers of the tribal learning center.