KITAOTAO, Bukidnon (PIA) — Manobo evacuees or “bakwits” returned to their homes in the hinterland part of Barangay Sta. Felomina, Quezon, Bukidnon on December 9.
Two weeks after they left homes and stayed in makeshift tents inside the church compound of Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) in nearby Kitaotao town, the natives went home at 2:20 p.m last Monday right after Bukidnon Governor Jose Maria R. Zubiri spoke to them and gave them 150 sacks of rice and 300 boxes of assorted canned goods.
In an interview, Kitaotao vice-mayor Edwin P. Abucayan said these bakwits are indigenous peoples (IPs) comprising 20 families of 109 individuals and 35 children.
Abucayan said that before the governor’s dialogue with the evacuees, Kitaotao mayor Lorenzo Gawilan has ordered a team composed of Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representatives, Barangay Captain, Municipal Social Welfare and Development Officer (MSWDO), Rural Health Unit (RHU), and other concerned agencies to facilitate the return of said families to their respective homes at Sitio Dumasilag in barangay Sta. Felomina.
“Unfortunately, the tasked team’s efforts to negotiate were wasted because their presence was ignored and all that they’ve said fell on deaf ears. Our intervention is to ensure the protection and welfare of the evacuees, especially the children. Although the bakwits are from our neighbor town, they are still on our watch because they sought refuge here in Kitaotao,” Abucayan said.
Heal the sick children
After a few attempts, the RHU doctors and social workers were allowed by the bakwits’ spokesperson to check the health status of the kids. The doctors reported that five of the 35 children were diagnosed with a severe fever, chest pains, and dehydration.
The LGU team explained to the parents and informed them about the consequences of defying to bring their ailing kids to the hospital, but the bakwits’ insisted that their children were all fine.
Another report suggested that the parents should allow their children to be rushed to the hospital.
Violation of children’s rights
Brig. General Edgardo De Leon, the commander of the 403rd Infantry Brigade in Bukidnon said the bakwits’ defiance to bring sick children to the hospital is a clear violation of children’s rights.
“This case involves children that the state has a special responsibility to protect. Republic Act 7610 makes it clear that children must not be put at risk. This is what the law says. So we must act according to our mandate. Otherwise, the parents will be charged with a criminal case in violation of R.A 7610,” he said.
Guided by Republic Act 7610 or the Special Protection of Children Act, a team from local government units of Kitaotao and Quezon along with the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and Philippine National Police (PNP) exerted efforts on December 7 to rescue the said kids.
Due to the bakwits’ resistance, the rescue team failed to get the five sick children.
Some rescue team members, however, suggested pursuing the operation but considering hundreds of people and children in the neighborhood who will be affected in case of chaos, especially that it is already past 10:00 at night, PNP Provincial Director Roel L. Lami-ing suggested deferring the operation. Hence, cooler heads prevailed.
Unconfirmed media reports later said that the bakwits’ spokesperson has warned that some armed Special Partisan Unit (SPARU) or “Sparrow (NPA’s hit squad)” are with the bakwits inside their lair at the IFI compound.
Hopes for a better and peaceful life
Prior to the negotiation with the governor, bakwits’ leader Datu Wilboy Lay-um went live on air over DXMV radio saying they will only emerge in the presence of Gov. Zubiri.
Asked why they left homes, Datu Wilboy said they were scared to stay because a report has reached him that the military will bomb Sitio Dumasilag anytime soon.
But military reports showed that the area in Quezon where the bakwits left was not affected in the operation.
Online views, thus, implied that the incident bolsters public suggestions that these bakwits must have been deceived by the alleged NPA organizers who carried out this exodus just to further the NPA’s cause.
In an interview, Quezon town mayor Pablo M. Lorenzo III said the local government distributed relief goods on several occasions since the bakwits started arriving at IFI in Kitaotao.
“We gave them food packs and other relief goods, especially medicines because these things were most needed as our RHU reported that there were sick children inside the campsite,” the mayor said.
After weeks of staying away from their village, the natives rode home towards Barangay Sta. Felomina aboard dump trucks, accompanied by Quezon and Kitaotao MDRRMO personnel and local officials with the Army’s 88th Infantry Battalion.
“I’m grateful to those who helped us in this crisis and in seeking a peaceful way to end this conflict. I hope that these bakwits from Sitio Dumasilag in Sta. Felomina—now that they’re home—would cross their fingers that the possibility of leaving home without apparent reason would never happen again,” mayor Lorenzo said. (RLRBalistoy/PIA Bukidnon)