DAVAO ORIENTAL -- Fifty-nine former members of the Underground Mass Organization (Ugmo) of the communist New People's Army have decided to give their support to the government.

During a barangay assembly held on January 10 that gathered more than 1,000 villagers from five sub-villages or sitios in Barangay Tubaon in Tarragaona town, the former Ugmo members took the oath of allegiance, manifesting their full support to the government while rejecting the communist ideology.

"The Ugmos are victims of the lies and deception of the communist terrorists who continue to organize and extort the masses in Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (Gidas). Your army, together with other line agencies, will bridge the gap and help the government deliver its basic services and establish peaceful and conflict-resilient communities," said 701st Brigade Commander Brigadier General Reuben Basiao in a statement.

The barangay assembly, organized by the Philippine Army's 28th Infantry Battalion and the 701st Brigade, in collaboration with the Municipal Government of Tarragona, was part of the military's bid to restore peace in the area after a clash between government forces and NPA rebels on December 30, 2017 that erupted after residents reported to authorities the harassment and extortion by the NPA.

Colonel Rodolfo Lavadia Jr., 701st Brigade deputy commander, urged the residents to stand united with the government in its efforts on peace building. He told residents not to become swayed by the NPA's "twisted" ideologies and not to allow themselves to become exploited.

"They (NPA) should not take anything from you," he said, inciting residents to question the NPA's claim of being "servants of the masses."

While challenging the rest of the community members to decide whether they will take side with the government or to those who wreak havoc in defenseless communities, he also reminded the residents of the government's efforts in investing for projects and bringing government programs up to the farthest barangays.

Meanwhile, authorities warned that through the new anti-terrorism law, those who are proven to be supporting the communist group could be sued in court and face charges.

Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, 28th IB commander, emphasized that it is only through the peaceful resolution of conflicts would the communities achieve their long-desired peace and development. He assured the residents that the Philippine Army will relentlessly stick on its role of protecting the people while bridging the gap between the community and the government.

IDPs Return Home

The more than 500 families who evacuated as the clash broke out said they are happy to finally be able to return home.

Although some of them are distraught over the impact of the conflict on their properties and livelihood, most of them have expressed joy as they can now go back to their sitio after staying almost two weeks in evacuation centers.

Noel Nene, 50, who fled to their relative's house in Sitio Maitum before the firefight started near their home in Purok Madian, said that although he was saddened over what happened, he is still optimistic that everything will get better.

"We will start over," he said while happily carrying a food pack distributed by the Provincial Social Welfare Development Office for the internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Other IDPs said that while they regret not being able to celebrate a supposedly peaceful new year's holiday with their family in their homes, they will remain hopeful and strive to become resilient.

Meanwhile, there are also those who are still shocked by the incident.

"We spent the New Year at the evacuation center, horrified that the rebels might hurt us, too. We have always been living peacefully and we intend to stay that way. I hope that the rebels will stop doing their harassment activities because the lives of innocent civilians are at stake," said another.

A former Uhmo member, who refused to be named for security reasons, appealed to the NPA to stop causing violence to their community.

"We were only forced to support them for fear that they might hurt us," he said, referring to the extortion they have experienced at the hands of the communist rebels.

The Municipal Government of Tarragona has declared the area under a state of calamity to fast-track provision of assistance for the IDPs.

Aside from food packs, the Provincial Government has set a schedule for psychosocial intervention for the IDPs, especially those who have experienced trauma. (Karen Lou Deloso and Riza Golez, Davao Oriental Information Office)