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The human cost of armed conflict in the Philippines

Bantay Ceasefire volunteers recover the body of a dead civilian

Bantay Ceasefire volunteers recover the body of a dead civilian

© Bantay Ceasefire

29 October 2008

Amnesty International travelled to Mindanao in August 2008, to gather first hand information about the recent escalation of hostilities in the southern Philippines.

The findings are reflected in today's report, Shattered Peace in Mindanao: The Human Cost of Conflict in the Philippines, which documents the stories of the men, women and children affected by the recent upsurge in violence in the 40-year conflict.

An Amnesty International researcher, who went to Mindanao in August, recalls the thoughts, feelings and experiences of some civilian survivors of the conflict. A conflict that has killed an estimated 120,000 people, and displaced a further two million over the last four decades:

A few days after his relatives were gunned down by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, Crispin (not his real name) decided to take his remaining family from their village to a safe place. Hiding with relatives, he continues to live in fear.

Crispin, a farmer, is one of over 600,000 civilians recently affected by the armed conflict in Mindanao, an island twice the size of the Netherlands. In a building in North Cotabato province, he told us how he and his family were attacked by MILF fighters:

"It was early morning. I was harvesting corn with my father-in-law, while my mother in-law and brother-in-law were in their house, which was close to the corn fields where we were. I did not notice MILF (fighters) arrive. Suddenly, I heard someone calling me. I looked up and I saw a group of armed men, more than 20, not too far from where we were.

One of them asked me to come to them, quickly. I did not come. I was afraid. Their guns were aimed at me. When the man repeated his call, I panicked and ran. Then, they started shooting at us. I ran and ran, and saw my father in-law shot. I saw him buckle and fall. I ran and got onto my motorcycle. I went straight home to find my wife. I was afraid the armed men would follow me and if they find me and my family, they might kill us."

As we talked to Crispin, we could hear distant sporadic gunshots from what may have been another skirmish. Police auxiliaries and a military detachment were close by. Farther down the unpaved road, deeper into the village, members of civilian volunteer organizations (CVOs), many of them armed, patrolled the village in an effort to protect it from further attacks.

For information from other conflict-affected areas, Amnesty International sought the help of local contacts including humanitarian workers and human rights activists. One humanitarian worker described his experience in a neighbourhood attacked by the MILF:

"This morning we saw dead bodies of a three-year-old and her father lying… by the road side, unclaimed. Houses were burned and two school buildings were razed to the ground. We interviewed people including those who were used as human shield yesterday afternoon….  Last night we interviewed a 12-year-old girl. She narrated how her father was shot by the MILF. Her father was carrying her three-year-old sister who also died in front of her."

Amnesty International also received reports from local contacts about soldiers and other members of the security forces committing human rights violations with impunity. Initial findings of a trip by more than 40 local organizations report:  

"In the town of Piagapo, Lanao del Sur, cases of murder, destruction and burning of houses, farm equipment, Masjid, Madrasa School and looting of farm animals were confirmed to have been perpetrated by the military. The residents also claimed that their villages were occupied and used as camps of the military and that their food stocks such as rice grains, were either eaten, destroyed or burned. There was even a case of a 13-year-old boy who was killed and was thrown in a toilet hole (unused septic tank)."

In one of the evacuation centres that Amnesty visited, the mother of a seven-year-old child handed us a letter she had written for the Philippine president. She said she wasn't sure if people really understood what they have been going through in this on-and-off war that has lasted for more than 40 years. She wrote:

"We know that you are not so blind or deaf that you do not see or hear the violence in this war….  So many of us have died….  As a victim in this war, I am deeply saddened not only for my family, not only for my neighbours who remain with us in this evacuation centre, but also for government soldiers and MILF fighters who have died because of this war. I am ashamed that we have resorted to killing each other in this place."

A 63-year-old woman in an evacuation centre in Pikit town North Cotabato, told Amnesty International:

"I had not even gotten married yet when this conflict began. I was still a young lady when we first had to evacuate. Then, when I had young children, we had to evacuate again. Now, I have three grandchildren, but nothing has changed."

On 4 August 2008, the Philippine Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), a previously “initialled” document.  In the succeeding days, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters launched attacks against civilians in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Saranggani provinces, and sporadic fighting between the security forces and the MILF followed. On 14 October the Supreme Court ruled that the MOA-AD was unconstitutional, leading to fears of further escalation of the conflict.  

Both parties involved in the conflict - government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – have failed to protect civilians from harm. "They both must ensure that their fighters do not target civilians, nor steal or destroy their houses and food," said Donna Guest, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Programme. "Humanitarian organizations must be granted full access to the civilian population."

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