DAVAO CITY, Philippines – At 4 am on Saturday, October 11, Rolando Dagansan, 48, and his son Felix, 16, were hiking back to their village in New Bataan town, Compostela Valley, after a long day of harvesting in the cornfield.
Using flashlights, the father and son, who were members of the Mandaya tribe, were marching through the darkness, clueless of the impending tragedy that they would face.
The silence in the hills of Sitio Taytayan in Barangay Andap was shattered by rapid gunfire. When the firing stopped, two bodies were found. The faces of Rolando and Felix – members of the Mandaya tribe – were disfigured and their bodies dismembered by the impact of high velocity bullets from automatic rifles.
A military report admitted that a platoon from the 66th Infantry Battalion (IB) was responsible for the incident. The soldiers were patrolling the area to secure it for a military medical mission in the nearby village.
"At around 4 am, while traversing the trail of the previous encounter site, the lead soldier was taken by surprise by two flashlights that were beamed at his direction at a distance of 5 meters, followed by voices shouting, 'Sundalo! Sundalo! (Soldier! Soldier!)'" 66th IB commander Lieutenant Colonel Michael Logico said.
"The lead element, blinded by the light, sensed instant and overwhelming danger to his life. Perceiving no other option to save his life and his comrades, he opened fire at the general direction of the light. Seconds later, the platoon leader ordered a ceasefire and search. Two bodies were recovered and no firearms were found," he continued.
The military explained that after the soldiers realized that the people they just shot and killed were civilians, they immediately contacted and sought the help of the local government to help identify the bodies.
"We are deeply saddened by the circumstances that transpired, and more so because the very reason the soldiers are in the area is to protect the people," Logico said.
The military Eastern Mindanao Command directed the 10th Infantry Division to immediately conduct an investigation in cooperation with the Philippine National Police and provide help for the family of the victims.
"We want to extend all the support we can give the family of the victims. We also want to give our assurance that there will be no cover-up. We will cooperate with the investigation of the PNP and will take appropriate action based on their findings," Logico said.
NPA blamed for military presence
While they apologized, the military blamed their mistake on the New People's Army (NPA). They said the reason the soldiers were in the mountains was in response to the communist insurgency.
"It is very saddening that this 45-year conflict brought about by the NPA’s insistence on an armed struggle continues to claim lives. For 45 years they have deceived youngsters to toil and die [because of] their ambitions, and for 45 years they have robbed the Filipinos in the countryside of a normal life. Those who died while directly involved in the fighting, those who died as a result of stray bullets, those who died of landmines and mistaken identity – the root cause of all these is this armed struggle that the Communist Party of the Philippines continues to espouse," Logico said.
However, the NPA said that the revolutionary movement exists because of social injustice and human rights violations like what happened to the Dagansans.
Roel Agustin, spokesman of the NPA's ComVal Davao East Coast Subregional Command, said it is also for the same reason that they had to respond immediately and heavily to the killings of the father and son.
Hours after the incident on Saturday, an NPA unit detonated an explosive near the headquarters of the 66th Infantry Battalion while a separate unit ambushed soldiers from the 67th Infantry Battalion in Kusunugan, Barangay Mahan-ub in Banganga, Davao Oriental.
"Five soldiers were killed and two M16 armalite rifles were seized by the NPA in these two ambushes," Agustin said.
Meanwhile, human rights group Karapatan-Southern Mindanao Region, reminded both parties to strictly adhere to the protocols of war and the International Humanitarian Law.
Hanimay Suazo, spokesperson of Karapatan-SMR, commented that the military should stop blaming others for the incident and face it without cover-up.
"What the military did is a crime and they should be accountable for it most especially that it is a violation of the International Humanitarian Law. Their apology and pledge for financial support could not bring back the lives of Lando and his son," Suazo said.
Suazo added that the Armed Forces, if it is sincere in ensuring a just process, should surrender to the police the soldiers involved and their direct officers so that they "would face their crimes without any special treatment."
There were other incidents of soldiers mistakenly firing at residents.
On April 3, 2013, 8-year-old Roque Antivo was killed while his brothers 12-year-old Earl and 13-year-old Jeffrey were wounded after a group of soldiers allegedly fired on their direction while they were walking back to their home from harvesting vegetables in Barangay Anitapan, Mabini, Compostela Valley.
On March 31, 2007, 9-year-old Grecil Buya was killed in an exchange of gunfire between communist guerrillas and soldiers while she was taking a bath in a river with her brother in Barangay Kahayag, in the same town where the Dagansans were killed.
The military admitted that they were forced to fire at Buya because she was also allegedly firing at the soldiers using a rifle. Buya was presented by the military as a child-soldier of the NPA.
The military later recanted their initial statement while the Commission on Human Rights included Buya in the long list of collateral damage. – Rappler.com