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Victims of Asian Wars Lack Protection, Hope

Civil Strife Creates Internal Refugees

Wednesday 2 July 2003, by NAKASHIMA*Ellen

PAGALUNGAN, Philippines — Insecurity and fear gnaw at Basaluddin Gialodin. Insecurity because he and his family have been forced out of their home and are living in a makeshift shack with a tarp for walls. Fear that if they go home, they will be killed in the battle between the government and Muslim rebels.

Gialodin, his wife and six children have been displaced since February, forced out when a government attack on rebels in the southern Philippines destroyed their home for the second time in three years.

They live in an "evacuation center" with 5,700 other people on the edge of the war zone in Maguindanao province. Around them lie listless men, too despondent to flick away the flies flitting about their faces. Row upon ragged row of tents built of bamboo sticks and tarp or thatch are separated by lanes of mud. Corn and coconut husks smolder in open fire pits.

It is squalid, but preferable to the threat of living in a war zone. "If we go back," said Gialodin, a 35-year-old farmer, "we cannot trust that fighting will not break out again."

Across Southeast Asia, more than 1.5 million people live the life of refugees, but are denied the protections of refugees because of a technicality: They have not crossed an international border. They are casualties of conflict, but their plight is often obscured by governments and news media focusing on the battles themselves. They live in tents, shacks, warehouses, wherever they can find shelter.

They have fled conflicts between government troops and rebels, or between Muslim and Christian militias, or between warring ethnic groups. Afraid to go home, they are the region’s "internally displaced people," refugees in their own land.

According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 25 million such people worldwide, almost twice the number of refugees. The number fluctuates as people are uprooted and, sometimes months or years later, make their way home.

At the end of last year, Sudan, Colombia, Angola, Congo, Iraq, Burma and Indonesia had the highest numbers of displaced persons, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees.

Although refugees can seek protection from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, internally displaced people do not have such safeguards. They are not protected by international refugee law and many are inaccessible to outside monitors.

During war, civilians are supposed to be protected under international humanitarian law, but in today’s conflicts, in which civilians are frequently targeted, the law often does them little good, said Marc Vincent, an adviser on internally displaced people with the United Nations in Geneva. "It’s a global problem," Vincent said. "But ultimately the responsibility rests with the governments concerned."

In a typical tale of upheaval, Majria Hehanussa, her husband and four children find shelter in a plywood stall in a converted exhibition center on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, the former Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia. They have fled two conflicts. The bloody 1999 violence in East Timor sent them to Seram island in the Moluccas, then the brutal sectarian conflict there sent them to nearby Ambon, where a peace agreement was signed last year.

Although the conflict in Ambon has officially ended, they are among thousands of families afraid to go home.

In another part of Ambon, Max Reawaruw recalled wistfully how he used to live in a four-room house on 100 acres of land bursting with papaya, coconut and clove trees in the village of Waai. Today home is a 9-by-12-foot plywood stall in a former clove warehouse that he shares with his wife, two blind daughters and three other children.

Although the warehouse is only 13 miles by paved road from Waai, Reawaruw has not been back since he fled in 1999. "I’m afraid of the jihad fighters," he said, sitting on a wooden bench, his face gaunt and furrowed. "They say that they have gone home, but I know that they are still there."

Now, at the northwestern end of the Indonesian archipelago, another battle has uprooted more than 35,000 people since it erupted in May. The conflict between the government and Muslim rebels in the northwestern province of Aceh has gone on for more than a quarter-century.

In the Philippines, the three-decade conflict between the government and rebels on the main southern island of Mindanao has claimed at least 120,000 lives and displaced more than 3 million people — mostly Muslims, but also Christians and indigenous peoples, according to aid organizations.

In fighting in dozens of towns since February, 400,000 people were displaced. Despite two unilateral rebel cease-fires, 200,000 people still have not gone home, including the Gialodins.

On a recent day, Gialodin was sitting with several men on a bench under a shade tree, despairing that he was not able to tend his corn and rice crops. Although he is Muslim and generally sympathetic to the rebels, he said he would not want to fight with them. "I have many children, and am obliged to care for them," he said.

He would like to return home, as he has in past conflicts. But despite assurances from the local government that it is safe to do so, "soldiers are still in the villages," he said. He was waiting, he said, for a "genuine cease-fire."

A few miles west along the highway, up a dirt path, lies a village inhabited by 40 Christian, Muslim and indigenous families, whose spirituality is rooted in the land. It was declared a "sanctuary for peace" after the families, assisted by a Catholic priest, won agreement from the soldiers and rebels that the site would not be a battle zone. During the day, the men work the crops. At night, they return to sleep in their homes in the forest clearing.

A conflict in 1997 forced many people living there to flee. They returned, but fled again during a battle in 2000, which the Filipinos refer to as a war. Such is their sense of humor and the impact of the conflict on their lives that children born during that period were given names such as Eva May, for evacuation in May, Eva Kate, for evacuate, and Gym Boy, for the gym in Pikit town where Gym Boy’s family took shelter for two months in 2000.

Maxima Alim, 68, an indigenous woman, still shudders when she recalls the whizzing sound of bullets. She blames Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels for the conflict. In her mind, the soldiers are protecting the civilians. But rebels aside, she has nothing against Muslims. "Those who do not join the fighting are good people," she said.

As she spoke, standing outside her home, where a water buffalo slumbered under a tree, Tessie Cedeno and two friends walked by. The women, all Christians, greeted Alim warmly, a sign of friendship forged of the shared trauma of displacement. Cedeno, 43, was displaced in both 1997 and 2000.

Although she lives in a sanctuary, Cedeno is nervous. "I’m scared to the bones, especially in the evening," she said. "There are rumors that ’elements’ will attack the village. We don’t know if they are soldiers or rebels."

Fed up with the seemingly endless cycle of flight and return, with the crops wasted and schooling interrupted, 8,000 displaced people last week staged a rally to urge an end to the conflict. They held signs along the highway for two hours each day: Cease-fire Now; Stop the Hatred, United for Peace. They hailed passing buses, trucks and "tricycles" — working-class taxis fashioned out of a scooter and sidecar festooned with a riot of colorful streamers, plastic flowers and designs.

The military said it was trying to support their return home. "But if these armed groups are conducting operations, we have no choice but to enter those areas," said Chief of Staff Narciso Abaya in a telephone interview.

The Moro front, too, expressed sympathy. "That’s unfortunate," said Mohagher Iqbal, the group’s chief information officer, in an interview in a house near Cotabato. "We do not want that to happen. But in war, that is always the case."

The government has helped 222,000 people return home and has spent $1.4 million on food, sanitation and supplies since January, according to Corazon "Dinky" Soliman, the Philippines’ secretary for social welfare and development.

The long-range plan, she said, is to promote land ownership among Muslims and to fulfill the terms of a 1996 peace agreement that includes establishing courts based on Islamic law, or sharia, and giving Muslims in southern Mindanao authority over political institutions.

"The most important thing is to address the root cause of the conflict," she said, "and that is to reverse the government’s neglect of Muslim Mindanao."

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