Last week I went on my first Fact Finding Mission with the human rights group. We went into an area high up in the mountains to investigate human rights violations that occurred during earlier military operations.
Our group was about 30, from all of the sectors: regional groups, human rights groups, medical personal, students, women, elders. We packed into and on top of a jeep and we headed into the mountains. In the planning we were told the details. The area we where going into had been the basis of a military operation for a month earlier in the year. The community we where heading to was the worst effected. For a whole month the Armed Forces of the Philippines camped in the community, sleeping in hammocks outside of houses, sleeping on the pews in the church and on the floor of the elementary school and the dap-ay (the indigenous political meeting place). The 3 companies, with about 300 soldiers, told the locals, all 18 households, that there were NPA rebel forces in the area. That the military had to be in the area to fight those rebels. This area is hours from almost anywhere - the closest neighbors are
a kilometer down the mountain. There is more open space in this area then there is occupied land. Every high point, every house's patio even, offers you a view of the gorgeous and innumerable valleys and mountains that surround the community. And yet even with all of this open space the military had to set up their camp in the community, not beside it, not down the mountain from it, not a kilometer away - but right in the center, in the school and in the Dap-ay. They had to bring their mortar cannons into the community, and fire them at the mountains from inside the community, they had to land their helicopter in the community.
They claimed to be there looking for NPA rebels. The rebels live in the mountains, that is exactly why the military continues to perform operations in the mountainous areas. But they barely spent any time searching the mountains, they searched the community houses, illegally entering, questioning and demanding to take things they suspected belonged to the NPA. These farmers had to defend their work knifes, their hunting rifles, their telescopes and clothing from being confiscated by the soldiers. Anyone with more rice then
Children's Psycho-Social Processing Workshop
The kids were asked to draw the most significant to thing to happen in their community recently. They almost all drew the helicopter and the mortars.
their families could eat in one day, anyone with more plates then the exact number of their family members and anyone with a two way radio issued by the local community security officials were accused of supporting the NPA. The people were constantly watched and were not allowed to go to their fields or into the mountains to collect the honey or the wild fruit that they feed their families. So few of their operations involved actual trips into the mountains to look for the rebels that it is a wonder the soldiers could continue saying it was why they were in the area with a strait face.
The goal of the companies' in the community, a goal they were horrifyingly successful at achieving, was actually to harass and intimidate the local people. These people lived for a month with the most intensive state terrorism. No sleep from the shelling, men with guns outnumbering the community members, their photos being taken and put on file by the officers, threats involving guns and abduction and violence. They were told they would be sacrificed in the community center like the sacrifice chickens and pigs, if they did not give up all
of the information they had about the rebels. These community members have no information about the rebels though. When the community members asked why this was happening to them, why the soldiers were there, why they were being questioned and harassed the soldiers told them that it was the rebels fault. The soldiers were telling the community that they were guilty for the simple fact of their proximity to the rebels. The soldiers did not try to deny that their actions where wrong, simply insisting that they had the right to harm the citizens, that their geographical proximity to rebels made them legitimate targets in the conflict.
It has been overwhelming this week to reread the stories, to think about the people I met and then to read the Geneva Conventions and CARHRIHL (the domestic legislation that regulates the actions of the belligerents to the civil war) and on every page to literally find at least one violation committed against a person I have met.
The old women whose house was illegally searched, whose husband was threatened with death in front of her, the children who will have nightmares of mortars and who will know hunger for the
next 6 months because their community's crops where allowed to die in the fields, and the community leaders who sought out the help of people's organizations this month and have to worry about being targeted as a result next time the military come into the community. How do I order the violations I learned about last week in my head... I don't know. Six months ago I probably would have said that after times of militarization we need to focus on ingraining human rights in the minds of the community members, so that they can assert them the next time the military moves into their community. That we need to draw public attention to what has happened in order to bring moral pressure down on the Philippine government. And that we need to bring the CARHRIHL violations to the attention of the military brass, at least to let them know we are watching them. But thinking about it this week, while it is still all fresh I feel a almost paralyzed. All I know is that these violations are all horrifying. They all make me desperate to hide in a corner and cry, they all make me angry at every piece of camouflage clothing I see, they all make me wish we lived in a better world, happy I can go home someday and leave all of this behind and devastated that the people I have met don't have the option to “go home.” Thank God I have co-workers around me this week to direct my work while I grope my way out of the fog of emotion that the Fact Finding Mission has evoked.
As much as this is all hard, I am glad I am working through it here, during my internship in the Philippines. It was inevitable that I would be forced to deal with the emotional reality of this work. I am glad to be doing it surrounded by people who have worked in this field for a long time, who have gone through this themselves, and who are willing to help me through my own processing.
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