Desperate for Food, Mindanao Villagers Want to Return Home

Fellows 2015

By Sarah Jones

March 24, 2015

Also published by Reuters, New York Times, Yahoo News, Business Insider, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Dina Yusef points to some rice and a few cans of sardines – all she has left to feed her four children and husband nearly a month after they fled their Philippines village when soldiers cleared the area in their search for armed Muslim rebels.

"I want to go home because we don't have food,” Yusef told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a camp set up in a school in this town in the Maguindanao province of Mindanao, the southern Philippines island where Muslim separatists have fought the army and police for 45 years.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that fighting between government forces and a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had forced more than 120,000 people to flee their homes since late January.

Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) rebels stand guard near a Barrett sniper rifle along a road at Camp Darapanan rebel base in Maguindanao province, in the southern Philippines on March 12, 2015. Erik De Castro / Reuters

The conflict flared after rebels killed 44 police commandos in an ambush in late January during a police bid to arrest two wanted militants who had taken refuge with rebel fighters. One of the militants was later arrested.

The clash shattered a three-year ceasefire and dealt a blow to plans for a fully autonomous Muslim region in the south of the mainly Christian country.

The Yusufs are one of at least 22,000 families now living in evacuation centers, schools, tents or with host families.

Urgent Need for Food

They urgently need food, clean water, tarpaulins, hygiene kits and latrines, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said last week after visiting the area, one of the poorest parts of the Philippines.

Besim Ajeti, head of the IOM’s office in Cotabato city, said in a statement that about 70 percent of the displaced families were living in tents and needed better shelter.

The evacuation centers also need to be better organized with camp committees to ensure needs are met properly, he said.

The government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which controls part of the island, is providing food aid and a few plastic sheets, but the IOM fears that food supplies from government agencies may run out soon.

International aid agencies said they had been unable to bring supplies to the area because of security concerns.

"For the time being, the armed clashes and general security situation does not allow our teams to access the area," Allison Lopez, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the Philippines, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

No Aid Since Villagers Fled 

Farmer Mustafa Bado said he and 500 families from his village fled about three weeks ago to the town of Shariff Aguak, where they now live in makeshift tents by a roadside.

"We evacuated because the soldiers came to the village and we feared being caught in conflict,” Bado, who is the village official, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We have not received any relief assistance since arriving here, neither from aid agencies nor from the government,” he said.

Aida Badu and her husband fled their village with their three children aged between one and three. They now share a tent in Shariff Aguak with seven other families, some of them extended families, the 31-year-old said.

"For dinner we will cook bananas which we picked on our way", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Tonight we are eating our last bit of food."

Yusef said she carried her four-year-old child during the day-long walk from their village to the evacuation center, bringing only a few belongings in the hope that they might be able to return soon to their bean farm.

"Our source of income is bean farming and we can't get access to our farm," the 24-year-old said. “I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow."

After staying at the Nabundas elementary school in Shariff Saydona for almost four weeks, they have no idea when they can return to their village, she said.

Sarah Jones reported from the Philippines on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).