By DANILDA L. FUSILERO
MAGPET, North Cotabato — Cousins Kenneth, 13, and Bernie, 12, (not their real names) share almost similar dreams.
On their way home from school, the two adolescents enthusiastically shared what they hope to be like when they finished school and how they wish things are different from what they have recently experienced.
“I want to arrest bad people),” Kenneth proudly told Davao Today in the local dialect.
He dreams of becoming a policeman, influenced by schoolteachers who have been setting the profession as an example of a noble one.
“I want to be a policeman, too, because that’s what my cousin also wants,” the timid Bernie shared, seemingly contented with his ambition.
The two belong to the Ilonggo-Manobo families in Sitio Buay-buay, Basak village, this town.
They were the boys mentioned in earlier news reports, who were allegedly used as “guides” by the military during their combat operations against Communist guerrillas on July 15.
In a recent psycho-social activity facilitated by the children’s rights advocacy group Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC), the two boys narrated their experience during their four-hour walk with soldiers from the Philippine Army’s 57th Infantry Battalion.
“I felt so hungry and thirsty already. But they said they would tie us in the rubber trees if we would not tell them where the NPAs are,” Kenneth said, adding that, “And we have no idea where the NPAs are.”
Worried about their safety, Kenneth said, he randomly pointed to a group of trees and bamboos as the lair of the NPAs.
Based on the documentation by peasant group Kilusang Magbukid sa Pilipinas (KMP), the two boys were “forcibly held as guides of the military in their hunt of the NPAs” from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 15. It also stated that the boys witnessed the soldiers entering two houses whose owners were not around.
Saying they were released at around 3 p.m. the same day, “Though we were very tired, we ran as fast and as far as we can before they could realize that we were lying,” Kenneth said.
KMP Provincial Council Chairperson Noli Lapaz said, “Using children as guides in military operations is a clear violation of existing human rights laws and agreements that secure the safety of the civilians.”
Lapaz cited Part IV, Article 3, Section 9 of the Comprehensive Agreement for Respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law that was duly signed by the Philippine Government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, which prohibits the “participation of civilians or civilian authorities in military field operations and campaigns.”
But, in an interview over radio station DXND-NDBC on July 19, Lt. Nasrulla Sema of the 57th IB’s Civil Military Operations denied using the children as guides, saying they “strongly adhere to the provisions of CARHRIHL and CHR guidelines not to use civilians.”
He confirmed, however, that they conducted military operations in Basak village and nearby villages. “The operation was to prevent the NPAs from harassing our Peace and Development Teams working in the area. We received civilian reports that there was a big group of NPAs there,” he said.
During the psycho-social debriefing, Kenneth and Bernie were asked to draw their experiences through an exercise which was divided into four categories of experiences: happy, sad, mad and actual experiences where they felt fears.
CRC facilitator Rius Fidel Avellanosa noted that while Kenneth and Bernie’s responses were varied in the first three categories, “they both identified their experience with the military as guide, as one of their most fearsome experience.”
Lovey Aton of the Kabiba Alliance for Children’s Concerns, a Davao-based organization, described the military’s act as “a concrete violation” of related provisions enshrined in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Children which states that children shall be safeguarded against all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation.
“We were really scared because an encounter might happen with our children still around,” Bernie’s father told Davao Today.
Kenneth’s mother also recounted that the boys were asked to re-charge a mobile phone in the barangay center since they don’t have any power source in Sitio Buay-buay. On their way home, an undetermined number of soldiers in the rubber plantation “forced” the boys to become guides as they hunt for NPAs, she said.
“It’s a must that children should be spared and protected during war or armed conflict,” Ruby Padilla-Sison of Gabriela Women’s Party said, as she strongly condemned the military’s “use of children.”
Magpet town Mayor Efren Pinol said he will act on the matter, saying, he does not allow the use of children as guides. (Danilda L. Fusilero/davaotoday.com)