(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Half a million displaced in fighting

MILF snipers take up positions on a minaret in a MILF camp in Lanao del Norte Province, Mindanao Island.
Jason Gutierrez/IRIN

Up to 500,000 people are enduring poor health services and unsanitary conditions after fleeing the fighting between the government and Muslim rebels in the south.

Moreover, analysts fear that President Gloria Arroyo's 3 September decision to dissolve a negotiating panel seeking a political solution to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's (MILF) 30-year rebellion will trigger increased violence across the southern island of Mindanao.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) said on 4 September that four weeks of fighting between government soldiers and MILF forces had displaced some 423,772 people. These people "are directly affected and needing assistance of any form. They either lost their houses, are displaced and/or lost their livelihoods."

Cases of acute respiratory and urinary tract infections have been reported by medical authorities in camps near Kolambugan, one of the towns in Lanao del Norte province raided by MILF forces. Classes remain suspended in many areas, with schools burned down by rebels and not yet repaired and others serving as temporary shelters, according to the NDCC.

MILF rebels, headed by Umbra Kato and Commandero Bravo, led their forces in a deadly rampage across several mostly Christian towns and villages in Lanao and other areas on southern Mindanao island in August. They claimed the attacks were in retaliation for a Supreme Court order freezing an MILF-government deal that would have given them control over an expanded autonomous region in the south.

The MILF rebels looted homes and businesses, burned down houses and left some 50 people dead. Calling the attacks treacherous and a violation of a 2003 ceasefire, Arroyo unleashed punitive strikes, including heavy artillery and air bombardments, killing more than 100 rebels in the past four weeks. The government military has also taken over 15 MILF camps.

Civilian casualties

Leila de Lima, head of the independent Human Rights Commission, told IRIN the number of civilian casualties appeared to be higher than reported by the military. She said independent monitors from her office had said that in one Lanao town, Poona Piagapo, 20 civilians were killed on 24 August although their deaths went unreported.

She said it was not clear whether they were killed deliberately by the MILF or were caught in the crossfire.

Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
Up to 500,000 people have been displaced in the fighting between government forces and rebels

"Civilians are suffering immensely. Tens of thousands are internally displaced because of this war, dozens have been killed, hundreds of homes have been pillaged and razed, landmines have been utilised, shelters and rations are insufficient, children cannot go to school and sanitation is deplorable," De Lima said.

"Armed conflict is the worst environment for human rights. The human suffering involved here remains the unmistakable black mark that stains any incidence of armed conflict," De Lima said.

Humanitarian crisis

A report by the commission after visiting nine IDP camps in the area of Cotabato city this week stated that the national and local governments were overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis, and blamed central government for a "lack of foresight" in emergency planning prior to ordering the massive military offensive.

The report, obtained by IRIN, said sanitation was deplorable, medical supplies were running low and overall planning for disaster management "appears disorganised". It said there were no regular food supplies, potable water was inadequate, and the number of social workers to help women and children appear to be lacking.

Under pressure to quell public outrage, Arroyo scrapped talks with the MILF and said any future negotiation should entail the MILF disarming first. The directive was a major departure from her policy of talking peace and aiming for a final settlement before her term ends in 2010.


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