|Policemen guard a distribution site for relief supplies in Tipo-Tipo town|
The Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team (HEART) in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) twice provided last week with relief supplies the 3,589 evacuees from Barangays Baguindan, Silangkum, and Bohe Piang who are now confined in relief sites near the municipal center.
The displaced villagers were driven away from their homes by a series of encounters between the Army and the Abu Sayyaf from April 9 to 14, which resulted in fatalities on both sides.
In a statement on Monday, the HEART, operating under the supervision of ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman, said the regional government’s main concern now is the safe return of the evacuees to their conflict-stricken barangays.
HEART workers, among them relief and rehabilitation experts from ARMM’s Department of Social Welfare and Development, said the evacuees are hesitant to return to their villages, with worries of possible retaliation by the Abu Sayyaf after last week’s encounters left several bandits dead.
Hataman’s office had provided the evacuees food, non-food relief supplies, and medicines for common ailments, according to HEART’s operation center in Cotabato City.
The evacuees were forced to abandon their villages during the April 9 onset of the firefight between Abu Sayyaf bandits, led by Isnilon Hapilon and Radzmil Jannatul, and soldiers belonging to the Army’s 44th Infantry Battalion.
The hostilities erupted when the two Abu Sayyaf leaders and their men attacked government forces approaching Barangay Baguindan to drive them away, killing 18 soldiers and wounding more than 20 others.
Local officials said 13 Abu Sayyaf bandits may have possibly perished, based on accounts of evacuees, in the skirmishes that ensued two days later and lasted until April 14.
“The territories controlled by the bandits in Tipo-Tipo are now under government control and clearing operations continue just to ensure they would not come back,” said an Army colonel, who asked not to be identified for lack of authority to speak on the issue.
Members of the municipal peace and order councils in the neighboring Tipo-Tipo, Albarka,and Sumisip towns have urged the military to put up detachments in Baguindan, Silangkum, and Bohe Piang to prevent a return of the bandits to re-establish their camps.
Hataman on Monday told The STAR via text message that all of their infrastructure projects in Tipo-Tipo would continue, virtually unaffected by the recent strife in the municipality.
Local officials said it was for the continuing construction of farm-to-market roads in Tipo-Tipo since 2013 that the Abu Sayyaf kept attacking, in an apparent bid to delay the arterial network projects, which will make their camps vulnerable to military combat vehicles and tanks.
The Abu Sayyaf is opposed to socio-economic interventions that can weaken their influence over impoverished villagers, whose hardships in life it stoked to fan animosity towards the government.