Displaced tribal children in the southern Philippines hope to return to school soon after a university in Manila announced it would send volunteer teachers to conflict-stricken areas. The program, to be launched by the University of the Philippines, aims to provide alternative education to tribal people whose classes have been stopped because of war. "We believe it is again time for us to respond to the needs of these far-flung communities," said Marie Therese Angeline Bustos, dean of the university's College of Education. The program called "Gurong Pahinungod" was first launched in 1997 to promote volunteering among Filipino students and integration with the poor. Teachers assigned in hinterland communities have either left or refused to teach because of military allegations that the schools help communist rebels
. The military has often been accused of mounting attacks on tribal communities, either directly or by sponsoring paramilitary groups. Bustos appealed to soldiers to leave tribal communities and allow the children to continue their education. "Attacks against tribal students must stop," she said, adding that if children are targeted "you are hurting an entire generation." The Philippine military, however, said its operations were never directed against any school, student or personnel. Major Ezra Balagtey, spokesman for the military's Eastern Mindanao Command, said that while there may be soldiers in some communities, there are also community support teams. He said soldiers have been implementing support programs in far-flung communities in preparation for the start of classes this month. Protestant Bishop Romeo Galinde Tagud also protested the presence of soldiers in tribal communities and schools, saying they are a "clear violation of the basic right to education and a safe environment." He said religious congregations and church institutions established most schools in mountainous areas. Kerlan Fanagel of the tribal group Pasaka said the situation for tribal communities worsened after last year's declaration of martial law in Mindanao following the terrorist attack on Marawi. "The declaration of martial law gave justification to military operations and the encampment of soldiers in tribal schools and indigenous communities," Fanagel told ucanews.com.
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The group Save Our Schools Network (SOS Network) reported that from July 2016 to April 2018, a total of 134 schools had been affected by military operations, 56 of which were closed. The closure of the schools affected at least 2,209 pupils," said Rius Valle of the SOS Network
. He said at least 30 tribal schools were also used as military camps. The group said 15 teachers were forced to take a leave of absence or could not return to communities because of charges filed by soldiers. "Some were forced to confess to being members of a rebel group or supporters of the communist movement," said Valle. On Feb. 7, Jolita Tolino, a 24-year-old teacher in Sultan Kudarat province, was arrested on murder charges filed against her by unknown complainants. In Agusan del Sur province, Jocelyn Samora, a volunteer teacher for 11 years for the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation Inc
. said she was forced to admit that she was a guerrilla fighter. At least four teachers of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development also resigned because of trauma after being harassed at an army checkpoint. Rights group Karapatan documented 40,089 residents, including children, who were affected by the use of schools as military camps.