THE CHILDREN exploded into cheers the moment the kites were released into the air.
Eyes lit up as the kites–colored yellow and red and green—dipped and glided, tails fluttering merrily in the air as they stayed aloft.
It was one of those broiling summer days in April when ‘happiness’ made it through the walls of the evacuation center in Davao City’s Haran Center, a temporary shelter provided by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines for the 1,300 Ata-Manobo natives, more than half of them children.
It was a gentle fresh air that swept through the place that was like a cauldron of lives gripped by anguish and uncertainty after the natives left their upland villages in Talaingod in Davao del Norte out of fear of being caught in the crossfire between government soldiers and the New People’s Army rebels.
Flying the kites was more than a play for the lumad children. It was therapeutic as it was a needed respite from the ordeal they went through with their encounters with the soldiers who were pursuing the rebels.
One of the IDPs was 13-year-old Bobby. On that hot April afternoon, Bobby recalled the horrific day when his community in Sitio Bagang in Barangay Palma Gil, abandoned their village.
“The soldiers were dropping bombs that exploded very close to our community,” he said. He was referring to the March 20 massive bombardment by soldiers of alleged camps of NPA rebels. It was nine days before the rebels marked its 45th founding anniversary.
For three days, they walked down to the next village of Nasilaban.
A spokesperson of the military in Southern Mindanao has already said the bombings were calculated to avoid having civilian casualties.
Merina, 16, also narrated how she was chased by the soldiers who took her aunt for days.
“The soldiers screamed at me as they demanded that I do not move at all. But I was really scared so I ran and they chased me but they failed to get me,” she said.
Arriving home all bruised-up, she told her family about the incident. It was then that they decided to leave.
On their way down from their village, a 12-day-old boy died in the arms of his mother. And as that mother was grieving over the death of a son, another mother gave birth to a girl.
A 2010 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross stressed the protection accorded to children in times of conflict under the International Humanitarian Law.
“Children are especially vulnerable in armed conflicts,” the report said. “Despite the protection provided by law, they continue to be recruited by armed forces and armed groups. They are often separated from their families, driven from their homes, killed, maimed, sexually abused or exploited in other ways.”
The IHL, the ICRC said, aims to “limit the impact of war on children” but added that “regrettably, the very nature of today’s conflicts means that even greater efforts need to be made on the ground, by the ICRC and others, to save children from the horrors of war and to help them rebuild their lives once the conflict is over.”
For the Children Rehabilitation Center, the experience–and the fate–of the children of Talaingod only tell of the disregard or ignorance of state forces of one moral thing to do in times of combat: respect of children’s rights.
Allowing the Ata-Manobo children to fly kites marked the end of the series of trauma healing sessions conducted by the child rights group Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC).
Rius Valle, advocacy officer of CRC-Southern Mindanao, said the activity was aimed at facilitating the release of the trauma experienced by the children from their ordeal.
But while it was therapeutic, it was also a way for the children to express their desire—to go back to their village and live peacefully.
“Right now we want to go back to out villages,” Bobby said. “Why are we living here? In this evacuation center when we have our own homes? We want to go home now.”
Valle said the session gave the children the room for them to see their current situation and understand the circumstances—in a way for them to be given the choice to “act based on their own capacity, and to be active agents for peace.”
The psychosocial intervention conducted by the CRC also included art therapy–music, dance, theater and drawing.
On Friday, May 2, exactly one month since they arrived in Davao City on-board dump trucks, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) returned home. The decision came after the natives–helped by support group composed of people from the church, academe, students, human rights advocates and progressive organizations–successfully negotiated for the pullout of soldiers from 11 villages of Talaingod, their ancestral land.
The pullout of the military was also upon the intervention of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Davao del Norte Gov. Rodolfo del Rosario.
Datu Doloman Dawsay, tribal chieftain of Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanogon, in a statement expressed his gratitude over the assistance given to the children.
“We thank all of you who helped us, especially those who helped our children be healed and cared for while we are here, we are grateful for the big help for us to continue living,” he said. | Jefry M. Tupas, NewsDesk