CEBU, Philippines — Seven were arrested while 19 minors from an indigenous group in Mindanao who were part of an education program were rescued during an operation by the Police Regional Office (PRO)-7 at a retreat house inside a university in Cebu City Monday morning.
PRO-7 Director Ronnie Montejo said the operation was carried out after six parents sought the help of authorities, saying their children were taken to Cebu without their permission.
The parents arrived in Cebu City from Talaingod, Davao del Norte Monday morning. The municipal government of Talaingod and Davao del Norte facilitated their trip.
“According to these parents, their children were taken by members of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanogon without their knowledge and consent. The six parents were accompanied by two tribal leaders and personnel of the MSWD of the municipality of Talaingod,” PRO-7 said in an official statement.
The children were separated from their parents in 2018.
Allegedly, PRO-7 said, the children “are victims of indoctrination and recruitment by the Communist Terrorist Group and exploitation by the Salungpungan, as they were used during protest rallies against the government. They also asked for donations using the IP minors.”
PRO-7 said Salugpungan was an alternative learning institution ran by the Communist Terrorist Group.
“Salugpungan schools were closed by the government since they operated without proper permit, aside from being used as breeding ground for the communist recruitment of minors,” PRO-7 said.
Montejo said the seven are facing the charges for kidnapping and serious illegal detention, and for violating the Anti-Human Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003. They may also face charges for violating the anti-child abuse law.
A certain Datu Benito Bayao who stands as one of the leaders of the group that came to Cebu denied that they are using the children for militant activities.
"Natingala mi nganong naa mo diri nga kami, nangita nami’g paagi nga makauli mi didto sa Mindanao," Bayao said during the operation.
In the first place, he said, they would not have travelled to Cebu had their schools in Mindanao not been attacked. He said they came to Cebu so that the children can get an education.
They were the taking shelter at the retreat house inside the Talamban Campus of the University of San Carlos, the last of four academic institutions they have visited since last year.
In a statement to The Freeman, Atty. King Anthony Perez of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL)- Cebu Chapter said the group will represent the seven people arrested.
“We would just like to assure the safety of our clients after the traumatic event they have experienced today and make sure that their right to counsel will be recognized and respected,” he said yesterday.
As of this writing, the NUPL was awaiting access to the seven as they were reportedly barred from entering the detention area at PRO-7. They have waited for at least three hours.
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In a joint statement, the Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) Philippines Southern Province and the University of San Carlos said the delegation of the Bakwit School Program, a project supported by the Archdiocese of Cebu-Commission on Social Advocacies (COSA), was supposed to complete modular schooling on April 3, 2020 and would have gone back to Mindanao had the lockdowns not been put in place.
The SVD started hosting the group on March 11, 2020. Composing the delegation are 42 students, five teachers, and three community elders (Datu).
“After being locked down, the SVD Community has since sheltered the delegation at its retreat house, providing them with comfortable accommodation, and allowing them the use of its facilities for the lumad’s recreation,” the statement reads.
“The delegation was housed at the SVD-owned retreat house, accessible through USC-Talamban campus. The delegation was supposed to complete their modular schooling on April 3, 2020, after which, they would have returned to their respective indigenous communities,” it reads further.
They said the group was just waiting for travel documents as its members had to return to Mindanao by batches owing to logistical preparations and cost of travel going back.
In a press conference Monday night, university president, Fr. Narciso Cellan, Jr. said the police did not coordinate with his office before carrying the operation out inside the campus.
He said the university is gathering additional information, including who allowed access to the police, but will cooperate with the PNP in any investigation.
In the statement, which was also adopted by the Cebu Archdiocese, SVD and USC said the operation surprised them because “while COSA 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.”
“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.
In an interview with the media also yesterday, a woman who introduced herself as the leader of the tribe where the minors are from, said it was three years ago when a group of people arrived in Talaingod and promised to send their children to a school in Davao City.
The parents reportedly agreed to send their children to Davao City as it was also agreed that they could visit their children every month.
It was only about three months ago when some members of the tribe who returned home told them that the children are actually in Cebu City.
"Matud pa sa mga estorya sa ilang mama, diha lang sya sya mu-eskwela sa Davao nya nganong nakaabot man na sila diri (Cebu)? Hangtod nga naabot nalang sila (parents) diri, wala gyud nakabalik, "she further said.
She said up to 13 children were 'recruited' from their tribe, three of whom were reportedly sent to Metro Manila.
She said the parents are happy to be reunited with their children.
"Nalipay ko ug nalipay pud ang mga ginikanan na nakuha na ilang mga anak. Ang ilang mga anak, kinahanglan gyud nga matabangan kay ang gusto nila, mang-eswkela ilang mga anak ug makatabang pud sa ila kay ngano man nga nakaabot sila diri," she said.
But Beverly Gofredo of the Save Our Schools Network, the organization behind the Bakwit school program, belied the statements and said the children were not forced to travel to Cebu. The parents also consented to their travel.
Gofredo also denied the statement of the tribe leader.
"Yan pong mga katutubo nakausap nyo ay yan po ang ang nagdi-divide nang mga grupong lumad. Sila po yung mga kontsyabo nang mga military, ng mga police sa pagpapasardo nang lumad school at sila po mismo ang nagbebenta ng mga lupang ninuno ng mga katutubo," she said.
She said the group condemns the police operation at USC.
"In behalf of the Save our School Network, kinokondena po namin ang ginawang operasyon nang kapolisan sa pagkuha nang mga bata. Itong pag bakwit nang mga bata dyan sa Cebu ay resulta nang patuloy na militarisasyon nang kanilang mga community at pagsasara ng mga lumad schools na nagresulta sya na nag bakwit ang mga bata," Gofredo said.
Gofredo said the bakwit is the 'highest expression' of the Lumad children to descend from their ancestral land after they were allegedly militarized from their community through forced closures of their schools. The children, accordingly, went to Cebu to seek sanctuary.
"Sa loob ng kanilang mga communities, nagiging goons ng mga big mining company yung nga militar at nagresulta ito kasi ayaw nilang ma-educate ang mga katutubong lumad kaya pinasara yung mga paaralan na sila mismo ang nagpatayo, ang kanilang mga magulang, mga leader at datu," Gofredo said. — JMO (FREEMAN)