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The living casualties of the Mindanao conflict

 The Jeepney (Philippines) 03 June 2019

(Originally published: 08/2009) During the course of the past year, hundreds of thousands of families have been forced to flee the Filipino region of Mindanao, as their communities and rice fields are seized and transformed into makeshift battlegrounds between government troops and the Morro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The rejection of peace talks by the Filipino supreme court in August last year effectively ended 11 years of peace talks, aimed at ending the conflict which has afflicted the region for the last 30 years, and signaled a return to the violence which has devastated the area and its inhabitants. In the first of a series of reports Chris.J.Martin reports on the human cost and consequences of this l rarely reported conflict. (692 words) - By Chris J. Martin

Jeepney

Courtesy of The Jeepney Magazine

During the course of the past year, hundreds of thousands of families have fled regions of Mindanao, the philipinnes, as their communities and rice fields are seized and transformed into makeshift battlegrounds between government troops and the Morro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The violence escalated rapidly after the groundbreaking peace treaty of August 2008 was rejected by the Filipino Supreme Court. This action effectively ended 11 years of peace talks between the two military groups. The treaty had been considered the boldest move yet towards ending the violence that has devastated Mindanao for the past 30 years.

While the signs of shelling and ongoing firefights are apparent, these fail to convey the invisible devastation the conflict has inflicted on the displaced families of Mindanao. Even after the fighting moves on, left in its wake are entire communities haunted by long-term instability, violence, and emotional trauma.

Labeled IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), those who have fled now reside in crowded evacuation centers, for some a sea of canvas tents, as they wait for the violence to leave their home regions. Despite the strained situation, children continue to play games and laugh, but many of their parents wear an expression of anxious silence. The IDPs are not a catchword-they are rice farmers, elementary teachers, and midwives who have had the misfortune of once living where now 105mm howitzer shells explode. With no assurance of a peaceful future, these civilians are caught in the crossfire of a war in which they never enlisted.

Some of the families have endured life in the evacuation centers for more than six months, unable to return home due to the remaining threat of violence; others have come within the last week. Whether long term or recent, all share the uncertainties and insecurities of surviving without the sustenance of their crops and steady income. For many, evacuation has meant evading the threat of death only to be met with different forms of hardship within the camps.

Hunger lingers in many of the shelters-one evacuation center visited had not received food aid for several months due to military blockades. Indignant over the dire conditions, a grandmother spoke of being forced to grind her remaining rice into a thin porridge that hopefully would outlast the hunger pangs of her grandchildren. Others drink coffee to ward off the sting of empty stomachs, having no guarantee that food supplies will arrive before rations run out.

Poor sanitation and health problems are daily threats as well. Due to the dense population, minimal shelter, and lack of health education, the evacuation centers are breeding grounds for typhoid, tuberculosis, and respiratory diseases. Families, many who are accustomed to drinking fresh spring water, fail to boil contaminated water and suffer intestinal parasites as a result.

Beyond the physical hardships of life in the evacuation centers, many of the IDPs suffer from severe emotional and psychological stress. The serious impact of such stresses on families and local communities will be witnessed and felt long after the assault rifles, howitzer shells, and rocket-propelled grenades have been silenced.

Unfortunately, the voices of Mindanao's displaced are rarely heard through the Philippine and international media. Rarer still are those willing to speak out against the unnecessary suffering and displacement of these entire communities. Social and religious prejudices are significant factors in blinding those to the humanitarian crisis occurring within their own country.

Although silenced for years, all victims share their personal accounts in the hope that through the recognition of the grave injustice inflicted upon them, peace will replace violent warfare, and they will be able to return to their homes.

Yul Olaya, member of the peace-advocating Bantay Ceasefire Organization, calls upon his countrymen: "You have a stake in this conflict. If you don't do anything, then it's saying that you are allowing this conflict to happen."

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