Priests hosting Lumad students and elders denied the police operation inside a Catholic-run university in Cebu City Monday morning was a rescue mission.
Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) Philippines Southern Province Provincial Fr. Rogelio Bag-ao, SVD and University of San Carlos (USC) President Fr. Narciso Cellan Jr, SVD said they are seriously concerned and surprised that the police alleged the incident was a rescue operation.
“[It] came as a surprise that reports about minors being ‘rescued’ surfaced today. While COSA (Cebu-Commission on Social Advocacies) mentioned that some parents were coming over to fetch their children, it did not dawn on us that the parents’ visit will necessitate the presence of policemen,” the priests in a joint statement said.
Bag-ao and Cellan denied the 24 Lumad as well as two volunteer teachers forcibly hauled from a retreat house inside USC’s Talamban campus to a police camp needed rescuing.
“Here, no rescue need ever be conducted because the presence of the lumads in the retreat house was for their welfare and well-being, and all throughout, they were nurtured, cared for, and treated with their best interest in mind,” they said.
Both explained that their hosting of the Lumad was in support of the bakwit (refugee) school program of the Save Our School’s (SOS) Network, along with Archdiocese of Cebu’s COSA.
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the closure and destruction of indigenous peoples’ schools since 2017, forcing hundreds of their students as well as their teachers to seek refuge in Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao cities.
The priests pointed out that the four other schools within the archdiocese have hosted as many as 42 Lumad students, five teachers and three community elders (Datu) in the past two years.
The refugees were welcomed at USC-Talamban on May 11, 2020 where they were supposed to complete their modular schooling on April 3, 2020 after which, they would have returned to their respective indigenous communities.
The Lumad were forced to extend their stay since the Cebu City government imposed travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the priests said.
“After being locked down, the SVD Community has since sheltered the delegation at its retreat house, providing them with comfortable accommodation, and allowing them the use of its facilities for the lumad’s recreation,” Bag-ao and Cellan narrated.
The priests said that four of the delegates have since returned home after quarantine restrictions have loosened while more are scheduled to leave this week.
In videos and photos posted on social media platforms, the Lumad students were shown to have been roughly treated by the police during its operation Monday.
Some were strangled from behind while some were handcuffed as they were hauled to the regional police camp.
‘NPA training inside a Catholic university’
In its News Brief No. 21-0261, the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Central Visayas bragged it rescued the minors from a “child warrior training” inside the university.
“Twenty-one Lumad children were reunited with their parents two years after they were ‘recruited’ by community organizers in Davao del Norte and brought to Cebu City to undergo revolutionary training as future armed combatants,” the police said.
PNP chief Debold Sinas further alleged that the Lumad children belonged to a New People’s Army front based in Talaingod, Davao del Norte.
“Police Regional Office 7 investigators are eyeing serious illegal detention, human trafficking, and violations of RA 9851 (IHL Act) and RA 11188 (Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict) charges against the arrested suspects,” the PNP added.
The police has yet to allow human rights lawyers to meet with the detainees, a full day after the arrests.
Demands for immediate release
The SOS in Cebu meanwhile called for the immediate release of the detained Lumad and their teachers, denying the students were coerced.
“The parents of the students provided authorization to the volunteer teachers to allow their children to join the Bakwit School. It is also the decision of the students themselves to take part in the Bakwit School,” SOS-Cebu said in a statement.
The group recalled the refugee schools hosted by schools and churches across the country were in response to the closure of 176 indigenous peoples’ school across Mindanao upon Duterte’s orders.
“It is then ironic for the police to claim to ‘rescue’ the Lumad when it is a truth that is widely known that it is the state forces that continuously harass and red-tag them. It is state forces themselves that continue to harm the Lumad,” SOS-Cebu said.
In Quezon City, the SOS Bakwit School at the University of the Philippines in Diliman led an indignation rally in front of the Commission on Human Rights along with indigenous peoples’ rights advocates Monday afternoon. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)