'Rescued' Lumad children said they were taught reading and writing, not 'warfare training' — Cebu DSWS

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
'Rescued' Lumad children said they were taught reading and writing, not 'warfare training' â Cebu DSWS
Photo shows personnel of Police Regional Office-7 tackling a member of a Lumad school in Cebu at what they claim is a "rescue operation."
The Freeman / Romeo Marantal and Iris Mascardo

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Social Welfare Services belied the national police's claims that the 19 children "rescued" from a Lumad bakwit school in Cebu were being indoctrinated as communist rebels, saying none of the children mentioned "child warrior training" in their exit interviews with social workers. 

They were, the children themselves said, being taught reading and writing in a small nipa hut at the retreat house of the University of San Carlos-Talamban campus. 

This comes after no less than Police Gen. Debold Sinas, the chief of the Philippine National Police, claimed in a statement Monday that "some of the children told [Women and Children Protection Desk] investigators that they underwent some form of warfare training while in the custody of their handlers."

"We won't comment on that. The children never said that to us. Nothing about training to be child warriors," Annie Suico, a social welfare officer with the Cebu City DSWS who was present when the operation was conducted, said in mixed Filipino and English in a phone interview with Philstar.com

"We interviewed all of the children. They said nothing about being indoctrinated. Sulat at basa lang ang tinuturo ng mga guardian nila (All their guardians taught them were reading and writing)." 

On the contrary, she said, the children were assessed to be in good condition by the time they were supposedly rescued before their interviews. 

She was, however, careful to point out that these were only "initial interviews" where social workers "gathered limited data using our basic intake sheet." 

To recall, 19 minors were taken away in the operation on Monday morning, along with two teachers and two elders. 

In a live stream of the supposed rescue operation posted by the Save our Schools Network, children were seen screaming in a classroom as they were forced out by men in uniform.

It is yet unclear what they were being rescued from, as the teachers did not seem to be armed nor holding the children against their will, as shown in the videos of the operation. 

PNP: No irregularities in 'rescue operation' 

Despite challenges by Lumad groups and the University of San Carlos itself, the national police Tuesday doubled down on its narrative that its raid on a Lumad school in the university's retreat house was a "rescue operation" that had no irregularities in its execution.

Speaking in an interview aired over ANC, Police Lt. Col. Aurora Rayos, who serves as a public information officer of Police Regional Office-Central Visayas, asserted the validity of the "rescue operation" narrative, saying it was prompted by the reports of the children's parents. 

"The parents of the children asked for assistance including the social workers from Davao Oriental. They went to us for help to rescue their children," she said, adding that some parents even reported to police that their children have not returned home for two years already.

Asked about the reaction of the children at the time of the operation, though, Rayos simply asserted: "They weren't taken against their will. We had six parents with us. That's why we rescued them, because they are minors."

The lieutenant-colonel added that the children were now in the custody of social workers with the Cebu City DSWS. 

Suico contradicted this story, too. 

She said that the entire rescue operation was spearheaded by the PNP and its Women and Children Protection Center. 

The Police Regional Office-7 only reached out to the DSWS for the assistance of social workers, she said, since minors were involved in the operation.  

Asked about the children now, she said that they were brought to a safe house under the PNP and its Women and Children Protection Center in an undisclosed location.

"For their safety, they're being housed there temporarily due to the large number of parents and children," she said.  

Opposing narratives 

In a joint statement, the Society of the Divine Word Philippines Southern Province and the University of San Carlos said that the delegation of 42 students, five teachers, and three community elders were hosted for a bakwit school program with the Save our Schools Network last year.

"It came as a surprise that reports about minors being 'rescued' surfaced today. While [Archdiocese of Cebu - Commission on Social Advocacies] members mentioned that some parents were coming over to fetch their children, it did not dawn on us that the parents' visit will necessitate the presence of policemen," the statement, co-signed by Fr. Rogelio Bag-ao, SVD and Fr. Narciso Cellan Jr., SVD, said. 

"Here, no rescue need ever be conducted because the presence of the Lumads in the retreat house was for their welfare and well-being, and all throughout, they were nurtured, cared for, and treated with their best interest in mind," the school administrators added. 

According to Suico, the children corroborated this story, too. They all said they were well-fed at the retreat house, she said, though the space for all of them was a bit small. 

The teachers arrested face charges of kidnapping and violation of Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003. Suico declined to comment on the accusations. 

The national police in its own statement further claimed, without proof, that the Lumad bakwit school was training the children to be "future combatants" and child warriors for communist rebels. 

Rayos could not provide any information nor evidence that there was any indoctrination going on in the school.

"What they're teaching is against the government, as per the documents we saw. They also had laptops inside at the same time," she said of the first Lumad school in Davao del Norte that the students came from before it  was shut down by the education department. 

"We went inside the retreat house because it was confirmed that the children were there. We'll conduct a thorough investigation," she said when asked if the police coordinated with the university, a private institution, before it conducted the so-called "rescue operation." 

Confusion over personnel 

According to Police Brig. Gen. Brandi Usana, PNP spokesperson, the children are now in the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. "Charges are being readied as well by police investigators through the statements of Lumad parents and their children," he said in a text message to reporters. 

DSWD spokesperson Irene Dumlao belied this, telling Philstar.com in a text message that it was the City Social Welfare and Development Office who was there at the rescue and not DSWD-FO 7. 

Under the Local Government Code, functions of national government agencies like the DSWD are devolved to the CSWDOs of local government units.

Police and military officials have been on a red-tagging spree in recent years, a practice that human rights groups and the UN Human Rights Office say is both dangerous and has become institutionalized. Some activists and rights workers who had been tagged as communists and terrorists have ended up killed.

READ: PNP chief: We do not authorize red-tagging | PNP 'art' tags activists as terrorists amid debate on anti-terrorism bill

  At a press conference earlier Tuesday morning, Moro and indigenous people's alliance Sandugo slammed the narrative, calling it an attack on indigenous peoples. 

"The police aren't for the poor. They don't want us to study or have rights. They don't want us to have our own lands. They want all of us to die," Lumad leader Datu Tungig Mansumuy-at said in Filipino. 



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