“The ‘bakwit’ schools have been a way for lumad students to continue their education in places of peace and sanctuary.”
May 26, the Committee on Human Rights of the House of Representatives has called a hearing to investigate “the raid and mass arrest against lumad evacuees seeking sanctuary in Talamban, Cebu by elements of police and military.” This inquiry was requested by Deputy Speaker and 1PACMAN Rep. Michael Romero who denounced what he described as “excessive force and inhumane treatment” to children during a supposed “rescue operation” staged by police operatives at the University of San Carlos campus in Cebu City last February.
As the lawyer for the lumad ‘bakwit’ schools, I have seen how over the past years, the number of attacks on lumad schools has risen and as more and more lumad schools have been closed down, a number of ‘bakwit’ schools have been established through a collaboration among lumad organizations and various schools, organizations, and churches. These ‘bakwit’ schools are makeshift mobile schools whereby lumad children are taught by volunteer teachers and are enrolled in and hosted by Dep Ed-authorized schools in Metro Manila, Cebu, and Davao.
The ‘bakwit’ schools have been a way for lumad students to continue their education in places of peace and sanctuary. Unfortunately, these schools have also recently become the target of red-tagging and violent attacks.
One ‘bakwit’ school was set-up in the Philippine Haran compound of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) in Davao City. The Haran compound of the UCCP has served as a sanctuary for oppressed lumad evacuees in Mindanao for decades. In January 2020, at least 500 lumad, including 236 children and infants were being hosted in Haran.
On 25 January 2020, about 50 members of the Alamara attacked Haran, tearing down its gates, destroying property within the compound, and sowing fear among the lumad families inside the property. The Alamara eventually backed down after continued protests from the lumad evacuees and the administrators of the Haran compound.
Another ‘bakwit’ school was set up in Cebu City in 2019. The students of this ‘bakwit’ school were scheduled to return to their different communities in Mindanao after their moving-up ceremony on 4 April 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent travel restrictions caused the students to extend their stay in Cebu. About 42 ‘bakwit’ students, teachers, and volunteers took refuge in the Retreat House of the University of San Carlos – Societas Verbi Divini (USC-SVD) in Talamban, Cebu City, where they were invited to stay until they could safely travel back to their homes.
On 15 February 2021, the USC-SVD Retreat House was raided by members of the PNP’s Central Visayas office, accompanied by members of the Alamara, the DSWD, the Municipal Local Government Unit of Talaingod, and the media. At least 26 teachers, volunteers, and students were taken into custody by police and interrogated.
The minors who were taken by the police were brought to Skypark Pensionne in Barangay San Antonio, Cebu City and kept there in rooms closely monitored by the police from 15 February to 21 February 2021. Here, the children were interrogated by the police, and threatened with punishment if they tried to leave their rooms.
On 21 February 2021, six minors were transferred from Skypark Pensionne to the Crisis and Intervention Center of the DSWD in Barangay Carreta, Cebu City, where the children were kept under 24/7 guard and were forbidden to contact their parents. On 12 March 2021, one of the minors was released after the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City granted the Petition for the Issuance of a Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by the minor’s father, and ordered the DSWD to release the child. The court’s order stated that the DSWD was without legal basis to detain the children. However, the five remaining minors are still currently being held in the custody of the DSWD.
Of the adults who were detained on 15 February 2021, seven (the “Bakwit School 7”) were charged before the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Tagum City, Davao Del Norte for alleged kidnapping, child abuse, and trafficking of the ‘bakwit’ students. In a Resolution dated 5 May 2021, the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor noted that no witnesses were able to identify the participation of the accused in any of the alleged crimes, and that the existence of the elements of the alleged crimes was not supported by sufficient evidence. The said Resolution dismissed the cases against the Bakwit School 7 on the grounds of insufficiency of evidence, lack of probable cause, and being outside the territorial jurisdiction of the Prosecutor’s Office.
On 19 May 2021, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) released a statement announcing that it will persist in the persecution of the Bakwit School 7, despite the dismissal of the cases filed in Tagum City. The NTF-ELCAC declared its intention of questioning the dismissal or re-filing the dismissed criminal cases, as well as filing new criminal cases for alleged violation of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act.
With the harassment continuing, we hope that the Committee on Human Rights, ably led by its chairman, Representative Jesus Manuel Suntay of Quezon City, will hold the concerned government agencies and officials accountable and leave the lumad schools alone so that they can carry on in educating their students.
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