Accusations Fly in Wake of Suarez Family Killing
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Author||Ma Cecilia L Rodriguez|
|Publication Date||28 May 2009|
|Citation / Document Symbol||PHR No. 18|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Accusations Fly in Wake of Suarez Family Killing, 28 May 2009, PHR No. 18, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a28c219c.html [accessed 13 March 2014]|
Army and rebels charge each other with brutal murder of couple and their four young children.
By Ma Cecilia L Rodriguez in Gingoog City (PHR No. 18, 28-May-09)The sun was still hiding behind the Pantaron range when Manuel Suarez, wife Jocelyn and their four children in tow, set off on an eight-hour trek to their farm upstream along the borders of Agusan del Norte and Misamis Oriental.
For two months since military operations began in their neighbourhood, Manuel's family and 40 others had been taking refuge in Kamanikan, a small upland village that can only be accessed via a 20-kilometre rough road and a collapsed bridge.
"Life is so difficult there, we may not be killed by bullets but we could just die there of hunger," Manuel's sister Miraflor (not her real name) recalled him saying.
It was the start of Holy Week and the Philippine army had advised villagers that it was safe to go back to their upland farms. Everyone was fearful that fighting may still erupt between the New People's Army, NPA, and government troops, but having failed to secure much in the way of food for his family on a trip to Gingoog City, Manuel went back up to where they were billeted and decided they had little option but to go back to their farm and raise food there.
Two days after on April 9, Manuel, Jocelyn and their children, Mary Joy, 5, Junmark, 4, Jean, 2 and Niño, 2 months old, were dead; their hut burned down; and their charred bodies riddled with bullets.
There were no witnesses to the crime. A neighbour living close by heard gun shots around midday but did not check on the Suarez family till the next morning.
"Nobody could tell us what happened except for that neighbour who found them all dead. It took another three days to recover their bodies," recounted Miraflor who said they had to persuade the police to go to the area.
"We could not give them a decent burial because their bodies were already decomposing," said Manuel's brother-in-law Bobong (not his real name).
He was the only family member to reach the area together with a small police team. There were no autopsies conducted, nor any kind of even basic investigation. Bobong said they simply were left to put the bodies inside plastic bags and then bury them in a single grave.
"We found the whole family huddled together in one room. Everything was burned to the ground," he said.
Bobong said they found M16 and M14 bullet casings which suggest the killers were not villagers, as they could not possibly own such guns.
"What we cannot accept is that they also had to kill the poor children, especially the baby. It's very painful for us," cried Miraflor.
NPA OR MILITARY?
Gingoog City police chief Leonroy Ga says they were the first to reach the site to help Bobong recover the bodies.
"It was an NPA area so we were very careful. We could not just go there immediately," he said.
The Suarez village is on the border of Pantaron mountain range along Nilugos river - site of the latest general meeting of the North-Central Regional Mindanao Command, NCRMC, of the NPA, and where the rebels celebrated their 40th anniversary in March, according to the military.
"It is obviously an NPA-infested area, so we suspect they have something to do with it," said Ga.
And the army's 4th Infantry Division spokesperson Major Michel Anayron agrees.
He says the rebels may have been irked by the decision of village residents, including the Suarez family, to evacuate and leave them without a "civilian cover or buffer".
"You know the NPA uses the community to screen them from military operations," said Anayron in an interview.
A week before the massacre of the family, government troops were able to overrun the NPA camp located in the same area, according to Anayron.
"A whole bunch of the insurgents had to flee. They suffered many casualties. So it is possible that they belted out their anger on the victims," he added.
But the rebels dismiss this claim and in a statement posted on the website of the Communist Party of the Philippines, a spokesperson for the insurgents, Cesar Renerio, said the military was responsible and is trying to "deceive" the public.
In an interview broadcast on the radio in Gingoog City on April 30, Renerio said, "The revolutionary forces and people of North Central Mindanao, condemn the customary dirty practice of the [army] of killing and massacring people and passing these off to us."
Renerio claims the NPA are conducting their own investigation into the crime and has identified the perpetrators as members of the Bulif Bungkatol Liberation Front or BULIF.
Bulif Bungkatol is a Higaonon term loosely translated as "golden light".
According to Renerio, BULIF is a paramilitary group founded by the army's 30th Infantry Battalion in the late 1990s.
Renerio claims that officers from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, NCIP, helped to set up BULIF to stem the resurgent revolutionary movement during the 90s.
BULIF has figured in several criminal activities in Agusan del Norte, including the kidnapping of 30 persons in Las Nieves town two years ago.
And the indigenous peoples' organisation Kalumaran has also issued statements condemning BULIF's human rights abuses.
Anayron, meanwhile, categorically denies that the army is overseeing BULIF.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Caught between the claims of the warring camps, police remain unsure as to real motives for the killings and the identity of the perpetrators. No case has been filed and an investigation is stalled for a lack of witnesses and any material evidence collected.
It follows a trend set by several particularly violent killings in the first half of 2007 that took place in the same area.
Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Watch Mindanao, a local human rights group, has documented two cases which they attribute to BULIF and which never made it through the courts.
Kalumaran has also compiled its own list of alleged human rights violations it says were committed by other armed groups in the area and which have affected 144 families.
The families of Manuel and Jocelyn Suarez are now pleading that the brutal killing of the entire family will not go unsolved and the culprits unpunished. Sadly, this may well happen judging by the success rate in solving very serious crimes in the mountains of the Pantaron range.
Jocelyn's other sister Jasmin began crying when recollecting how her nephews used to play in front of her house.
"It is so sad that this has happened to us. We are trapped in war and poverty," she said
Ma Cecilia L Rodriguez is a journalist based in Cagayan de Oro City.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting