It is a sight the residents of Diatagon, a barangay or village some 9 kilometers north of Lianga, have seen many times before and will likely see again and again in the foreseeable future. Ordinary people and entire families fleeing from their homes in the nearby mountain villages and settlements and seeking shelter in the Diatagon barangay gymnasium, a public structure that has been the temporary home for hundreds of evacuees like them many times in the past.
They say they have left their homes for fear of being caught in the crossfire between government soldiers mostly belonging to the 58th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army conducting offensive operations in the vicinity of their villages and rebel insurgents of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The affected villages and settlements, most of which are tribal or lumad communities nestled amidst the timber rich mountains bordering the municipalities of Lianga, San Agustin and San Miguel, are considered "rebel controlled or influenced" by the government and the military and have been classified as such for decades now. During the 1980's, for example, the Diatagon area was the location of many violent clashes between government forces and NPA guerrillas, fierce encounters that had esulted in many casualties for both sides.
Getting verifiable reports of what is really happening in Diatagon can be difficult in Lianga where no local print, radio or television news media exists but from all indications the military operations there have been apparently going on for some weeks now. There have been reports of armed encounters between government troops and the insurgents and rumors of casualties but neither the military leadership here or the local municipal government has been keen to talk about what is really happening.
As a result of this dearth of information, rumors are rife that the on-going offensive is part of an overall plan to eventually clear this part of the province of the presence of rebel forces in preparation for the entry of economic interests keen to invest in mining and logging ventures in area. In 2005, similar clearing operations by Army troops in the nearby Andap valley also led to the mass exodus of mountain folk to evacuation centers in Diatagon. Until now, the rationale for that military action has not yet been fully explained.
What is worrisome are reports from evacuees that some military units are actually occupying villages and that a number of their troops are living with residents and sleeping at night in private homes, thus essentially using these civilians as human shields. Schools and other public buildings have been reported to be similarly co-opted. As to whether in all these cases the permission or consent of residents or their community leaders were either sought or not, one can only speculate.
Complaints of unnecessary and illegal searches of homes and persons are also being made. Also cited are cases where patently private information were allegedly improperly solicited from residents through threats and intimidation. In many instances for example, private mobile phone numbers were supposedly demanded by soldiers manning checkpoints and some residents, including children, were allegedly intimidated and threatened to provide soldiers with information about NPA activities in their area.
If this accusations and reports are all true then the local military brass has a lot of explaining to do. Their mandate to fight insurgency and enforce the law even in insurgency prone areas does not include the right to use whatever methods they think necessary, including those violating basic human rights or are in direct violation of the generally accepted rules of war and armed conflict, even in an domestic insurgency setting. This is especially essential when dealing with civilians and non-combatants even if they may be sympathetic to or are actually supporting opposing or enemy forces.
Accusations of military misconduct aside, it must also be pointed out here the municipal government of Lianga is supposed to be the one responsible for monitoring the on-going military operations in Diatagon and coordinating with the military units on the field to ensure that the personal safety and general welfare of civilians in the affected villages are not in any prejudiced or disregarded. But municipal officials, except for a few exceptions, have been strangely silent or noncommittal whenever this issue is raised.
In most computer war games, a so called "fog of war" covers much of the simulated battlefield that prevents opposing players from seeing the all-over tactical situation and leaves all of them guessing the movements and intentions of their enemies. It enhances realism and makes these games more exciting and challenging.
There is a comparable fog of war that has settled in the midst of the villages and communities in the remote highlands of Diatagon. But what is happening there is no game and the local people have the right to know.
In the meantime, an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear hangs over these hamlets and settlements and that is something that the unfortunate residents there, as well as the people in Lianga and Diatagon, may have to live with for the time being and who knows for how long.