Updated: July 17, 2018 09:37 AM GMT
More than a thousand tribal people from 15 communities in the towns of San Agustin and Lianga in the southern Philippine province of Surigao del Sur leave their homes on July 16. (Photo by Jose Hernani/The Breakaway Media)
More than a thousand tribal people fled their homes in the southern Philippine province of Surigao del Sur on July 17 due to ongoing military operations in the area.
At least 1,600 people from 15 communities left their homes in the towns of Lianga and San Agustin, according to reports received by ucanews.com.
The displaced individuals include 568 students and 48 teachers from eight community schools.
They sought refuge at a sports gymnasium in the village of Diatagon after walking for about 10 hours from the village of Han-ayan.
A statement released by the tribal group Mapasu said they were forced to leave their communities because "soldiers have been spreading fear" among residents.
The tribal leaders claimed the presence of soldiers in the area has resulted in sexual harassment, intimidation and violations of people's rights.
"Residents can no longer return to their farms for fear of being attacked by the military as has happened to community members in previous military operations," read the group's statement.
The group noted that tribal schools have also been affected because soldiers patrol school grounds even during classes, "putting students and teachers in constant fear."
On June 14, the army set up an outpost on the edge of Diatagon village.
Major Ezra Balagtey, spokesman of the army's Eastern Mindanao Command, dismissed the tribe's allegations saying the soldiers were there "to protect the community not harass" people.
"Our troops are in the area because of threats from communist rebels who constantly conduct visits and endanger these communities," Balagtey said.
He said local government leaders requested the presence of the military through a resolution passed by the council to address the insurgency problem.
Balagtey dismissed claims of "massive displacement of tribal people," saying photos circulating on social media were taken in 2015.
"There are only about 100 people who are supposed evacuees and they came from different places, far from the village where our troops are staying," said Balagtey.
A dialogue with government and military officials was held on July 11 where tribal leaders expressed their "need to evacuate for safety reasons."
"We were threatened with criminal charges if we pursued our plan to leave our villages and seek sanctuary in the town," said the leaders in a statement.
Father Raymond Montero-Ambray said Tandag Diocese will open its churches "as sanctuaries and safe havens" for displaced people.
"The indigenous peoples had to flee because they fear for their lives. It is valid and no one can deny them of their rights to protect their children from armed elements," said the priest.
It was not the first time that these tribal people had fled their villages for fear of their lives.
On Sept. 1, 2015, at least 4,000 people left their homes after paramilitary groups killed three of their leaders.
Tribal leader Jalandoni Campos said mining companies have been trying to enter their village since the 1970s.
"This is the very reason why there are military operations and army camps in villages," he said.
Father Ambray said the government has been tagging tribal leaders and local communities as communists or rebel supporters because of their stand against mining.
"It is unfair to brand these tribal communities as enemies of the state because they are asserting their rights over ancestral lands," said the priest.
Katribu, a national alliance of indigenous peoples organizations, says at least 25,000 people have fled their communities since July 2016 due to the government's anti-insurgency campaign.
The Save Our Schools Network reported that at least 11,000 tribal students have been affected by forced evacuations due to military activities in Mindanao.