“We are poor, but never this poor”

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Friday, April 11, 2014


DAVAO CITY – Upon entering the gates of Haran, a training facility of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) where the Ata-Manobo community sought sanctuary since April 3, 2014, one is greeted with the sight of a beehive of activity. Indigenous Peoples, women and men alike are either squatting about, talking in groups or just staring out at people coming in, some seemingly hopeful, others looking out with a quizzical look.

Dusk fell swiftly it seems, at the make-shift tents that attempts to provide shelter to hundreds of evacuees lying about or squatting on corners, trying to make themselves comfortable. Among them are the two young mothers with their babies, one of them nursing her little one, trying to look comfortable it seems, as the shelter becomes steaming hot.

Moving far deeper into the cave-like tents one can see women with their babies lying on thin sheets of empty sacks, trying to snuggle at each other. Talking in their native tongue, one can surmise at the mixed feelings they would have felt at their situation.

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“Back in Talaingod, we are poor. But we are never this poor,” said Lorena, 33, an IP certified Barangay Health Worker (BHW) who has been serving her community for over 20 years already in Talaingod. She said a 12-days old infant named “Biboy” became the first casualty during the trek of the community away from their homes and two of the young pregnant women were so traumatized during their exodus from the hills in the middle of the night on April 2 such that they involuntarily delivered their babies.

Traumatized mothers

Sixteen-year old Emelita Butanlog was already having birth pains at twelve midnight of April 2, but because everyone was already moving out of their homes at that time, she had to go with the rest of the community and walk out in the dark for hours, just to escape the bombs that scared most of them. It was a half day walk, but Emelita barely reached halfway through when at about five in the morning she gave birth to her first baby girl she lovingly calls “Honey Mae” by the side of the road.

As a health worker, it was her duty to assist but Lorena said she could not cut the umbilical cord as there was no way to do it, and so she had to tuck in the baby in its mother’s side after which two men carried her on a cloth hammock and continued on their way at dawn on April 3.

Meanwhile, 20-year old Gementiza Maas, another pregnant young woman who was already riding a vehicle along with the rest of the community also delivered her son, “Kilab” at a check point in Davao City. Both women were later brought to the Brokenshire Hospital and attended to, and their babies given initial shots against infection.

Lorena herself was also worrying about her family, including her five children the youngest of whom is two years old and her husband who were left back home in their sitio, Lorena could not help but be concerned about the newly-born, including the rest of the infants at the camp numbering about 20, some of whom are getting sick because of the dire situation at the evacuation centre. She added that three of them were brought to the Southern Mindanao Medical Center (SPMC) for medical attention after showing signs of severe dehydration, bronchopneumonia and diarrhea.

Meanwhile, a lone medical practitioner, Dr. Asha Apat, a member of the medical team from the “Fr. Pops Tentorio Foundation” assisting the refugees at the Haran camp had her hands full with a number of mothers with their babies in their arms waiting in line. Assisted by some of her young IP paramedical trainees, she single-handedly examined each of the women and their children waiting upon her, dispensing medicines seemingly tirelessly.

Of nearly 300 patients among the evacuees that she has attended to at some point, there were some 160 children suffering varied ailments such as, gastritis, sore eyes, pulmonary tuberculosis, malnutrition, ulcer, hyperacidity, and diarrhea. Dr. Asha expressed apprehension over the inadequate shelter and harsh environment that the children are exposed to, as these are harmful to their health.

Good thing however is that the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a non-government organization (NGO) that caters to children victims of militarization is at hand to provide psychosocial intervention. The young staffs manning the CRC have been accompanying the children IPs since day one at the camp, playing with them and reading them books, making the children more attuned to their situation.

Decry media rubbing salt to injury

A week after their exodus from their besiege land, the Ata-Manobo refugees are now beginning to show signs of restlessness especially when they heard twisted information dished out by news writers from the different news outlets who did not give justice to their situation and seemingly adding insult to their difficulties. Their bodies are growing weary in the cramped evacuation centre, where food, water and even the basic necessities are wanting, even as the heat from the ground seems to sap the very life in the children’s frail bodies.

Recently, some representatives from the local government unit of Talaingod came bringing five sacks of rice and some canned goods which the evacuees declined to accept. Clearly, it was a reaction to the strong condemnation expressed by the IP leaders against Municipal Mayor Libayao’s published statements against the refugees. They have demanded from the mayor to drive away the 60th IB soldiers whom they claimed as violating their rights as they conducted military operations against the New Peoples’ Army (NPA)in the area.

Reportedly, some IPs saw helicopters and aircraft doing aerial bombings in Sitios Pangaan, Pongpong, Barangay Dagohoy, among other areas under siege destroying farms and houses. Ubunay Botod Manlaon, an old woman from Sitio Bagang was also subjected to indignities by soldiers who took her as guide for a week and humiliated her with malicious mischief by dehumanizing her, tying her hands, stripping her naked and leaving her out in the cold and rain for several nights like an animal. Tears of rage still fill the old woman’s face every time she recalls her ordeal.

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on April 11, 2014.

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