Residents of Brgy. Mahaba terrorized by Philippine government security forces in Marihatag, Surigao del Sur, Mindanao,

Elements of the 36th IBPA led by MSgt. Alex Abubakar arrived in Brgy. Mahaba at around 10:00 in the morning of 23 March 2010. There were twenty of them the first time but on the following day, seventy more soldiers arrived aboard two 6x6 trucks, 2 hummer jeeps and one Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). They scattered all over the community, occupying the Mahaba Multipurpose Hall, Barangay Hall, Barangay Health Center, Community Based Resource Management Project (CBRMP) office, Day Care Center, Dancing Hall and even the local chapel. They started to hold drinking sprees and film-showings of anticommunist materials. As part of their community “integration,” they started to conduct house-to-house visits and began to do “census” by listing down the names, ages and number of children of the households they visited. They also held mass meetings and openly accused the residents of being members and supporters of the underground and rebel movement and ordered to surrender. The residents were shown videos of rebel returnees and the benefits of returning to the folds of the law. Children were offered candies in return for information about alleged rebel New People’s Army (NPA) members. They were also offered 500 pesos if they can tell the soldiers where the NPAs are hiding. The soldiers also conducted regular patrol around the community.

Then, reports of human rights violations started to come in. Emilda Lacerda was accused of having a son who is a member of the New People’s Army and was made to report to the commanding officer together with her husband to “surrender.” The picture shown to her of the alleged NPA was not her son. When she told the soldiers, they got angry. Emilda and her family left the community. Antonio H. Acbo together with a certain Danny was accused by MSgt. Abubakar of being members of the local government unit of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)/NPA and giving support to the armed group. He denied the accusation but MSgt. Abubakar ordered him to find Danny so they both can “surrender.” He was again called to report to MSgt. Abubakar where he was allegedly shown the documents proving his connection with the NPA. He vehemently denied the accusations and challenged the soldier to produce the person who made the allegations so he can refute them to his/her face.

The communist witch-hunting instigated by the soldiers and their civilian assets spawned intrigues among the residents but the residents bore it all in silence and went on with their everyday lives. This all changed on 7 August 2010 when one hundred more soldiers from the 75th IBPA aboard two 6x6 trucks, two APC and two humvee trucks pulling canons joined the existing forces in the community.  One of the humvee trucks with the canon fell into a ravine killing one soldier and injuring two others. The loud sound produced by the weight of the falling heavy equipment was heard by the residents.

Then to their surprise, the soldiers who positioned at an elevated area started firing towards the community alleging that NPA snipers from inside the community were shooting at them. Luckily, no civilians were hurt but it brought the tension and fear long kept by residents to the fore. This was further aggravated when a drunken soldier who introduced himself as Castro threatened residents that should anything happen again to the soldiers they would all be massacred. He accused the residents of shooting his colleague who died in the humvee incident and started to threaten to kill those residents in the list from the “census” they conducted. Another soldier believed to be attached to the 75th IBPA terrorized the residents by telling them that should they evacuate, those left behind would be shot. These threats prevented those with farms in the mountains to visit them for fear of being suspected as members of the NPA.

Fearing for the security of their families, parents began to bring their children to the town center. And on 20 August, a massive evacuation took place. Some went to Pong-on but majority of the residents sought refuge in San. Isidro, the town center particularly in the Marihatag Municipal Gym leaving behind their belongings and livestock. They left in haste, leaving behind ready-to-harvest abaca and coconut trees, for fear of being left behind by the throng and apprehended by the soldiers; the threat of being shot if left behind still fresh in their minds.

On 22 August, Marihatag local government officials initiated a dialogue between the residents and the government forces. The commanding officer of the 36th IBPA, Lt. Col. Rene Canete and 1Lt. Serihim Temperante, attended the dialogue as well as the barangay council members of Brgy. Mahaba. The residents pleaded with the soldiers to leave their community but they refused citing the National Government’s anti-insurgency campaign as justification of their presence; although 1Lt. Temperante promised to restrict their forces from camping near the community and reassured them that the residents’ human rights would be respected. With the military’s reassurance, residents agreed to go home the following day, 23 August, except for the fifteen families from Sitio Loknodon where soldiers were still to pull out from their remote village. The families decided to wait for the pull out in the Multipurpose Hall of Brgy. San Isidro.

But only three days after their return, eight farmers were illegally arrested and tortured while working in the abaca farm of Salvador Dayola in the mountain area of Kandiisan which is a part of Sitio Palompon in Brgy. Mahaba. Salvador and his 14 year old son Josemar were together with his hired help - Elly Ambongan, Dimuel Kileste, Junry Kileste, Bryan Udtohan, Rolan Salamangca and Rymon Alameda – in going to the farm to work at around 6:00 in the morning. By noon, they took a break and ate lunch in their hut. After eating lunch, all seven except Salvador went back to the farm. While on their way, they heard a gunshot. In panic, Rymon Alameda ran towards the abaca farm while the rest of the group decided to go back to the hut taking another route from where they came from.

It was on this road at around 1:00 PM that they met 30 soldiers believed to be attached to the 36th IBPA. At gunpoint, they were interrogated, hogtied, dragged and tortured. The soldiers beat them up, stomped and walked on their backs in combat boots, exposed them to the rain, made them eat spoiled food, covered their heads with plastic bags and choked them, all while being forced to confess where they allegedly hid their firearms. This went on for five hours. They were released at around 6:00 PM.

Josemar was separated from the rest of the group. He was offered P20,000 if he would tell the soldiers where they allegedly hid their guns. With nothing to divulge, the soldiers psychologically tortured the minor by discussing within hearing distance to bury him alive. They also made him choose between being buried alive or dropped from an airborne helicopter. This truly traumatized Josemar.

When the residents learned of what the soldiers did to the victims, they decided to once again evacuate. They realized that the government forces were not serious in their promise to respect their rights. Palompon and Boringon residents joined the fifteen families who remained in Brgy. San Isidro.

From 28-30 August, a clash between the government forces and the rebel group ensued and volley of gunfire and explosions were heard in the vicinity prompting residents from Lokdonon and remote areas of Palompon to seek shelter in Amontay and San Isidro. They once again occupied the Marihatag Municipal Gym.

On 31 August, the Marihatag Municipal Peace and Order Committee (MPOC) met. Lt. Col. Rene R. Canete, Battalion Commanding Officer, 36IB PA; 1Lt. Serihim Temperante, 36IB PA, 1Lt. Charlynne C. Gabatin, 36IB PA; Katrina M. Cruz, 36IB PA of the AFP; Provincial Administrator Efren Rivas as Surigao del Sur Provincial LGU representative; members of the Provincial Disaster Coordinating Council (PDCC), Provincial Social Welfare and Development Office, Marihatag Municipal LGU reps, Brgy. Mahaba LGU Officials, concerned church people and some evacuees attended the session. Representatives of the evacuees asked the soldiers to allow them safe passage so that they could save more of their properties and farm animals. But the military refused to allow them to go back and salvage some of their things; although some were able to do so with the help of some local governement officials.

After three days of futile negotiations with the military and Marihatag local governement officials, the evacuees decided to bring their case to the attention of Governor Johnny Pimentel. At around 10:00 AM on 3 September, more than a hundred families on board jeepneys made their way to the Provincial Capitol in Tandag City. But they were blocked by the combined forces of the Philippine National Police (PNP) led by Police Director Quinonez and SPO1 Campos and an officer of the 36th IBPA with soldiers armed with still and video cameras. The governement forces harassed the convoy by ordering the drivers to disembark, confiscating their driver's licenses and taking their pictures. The evacuees were also ordered to disembark and their photos taken. The evacuees were forced to return to the Marihatag Municipal Gym.

At present, there is an outbreak of chicken pox and conjunctivitis in the evacuation center. To date, 60 patients, mostly children ages 0-6 years old have been treated for diarrhea, upper and lower respiratory diseases and fever. But there is a shortage of essential medicines and medical services.

Food supply is inadequate, especially milk for the children and there is a shortage of clean potable and household water. There is also insufficient sanitation facilities like toilets/latrines and bathrooms.

And finally on 7 September, after four days of negotiations, an agreement between the Barangay Chairman of Mahaba and the 36th IBPA was signed in the presence of the local government officials. The evacuees agreed to return to their community but the peace-keeping bodies will continue to monitor the area.