(UPDATED, with latest details) Various groups under Save Our Schools (SOS) Network Cebu are calling for the immediate release of 26 Lumads or indigenous people (IP) from Davao del Norte who they claim were “illegally seized” by police authorities in an SVD-owned retreat house at the University of San Carlos-Talamban campus (USC-TC) on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.
The SOS Network Cebu, composed of church-based groups, academic institutions, militant organizations, and members of civil society said while disguised as a rescue operation to save indigenous children allegedly held in the USC campus without their parents’ consent, the police operation was nothing but a “raid” and an “illegal seizure” of the “Lumad 26.”
Fr. Rogelio Bag-ao, provincial superior of the SVD Philippines Southern Province who manages the retreat house inside the USC-TC, denied the children were at the Bakwit School without parental consent.
In a press conference, Bag-ao said the children even had video calls with their parents and he, himself, followed up with the students.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), in a statement, also said written authorizations were provided by parents of the Lumad students to join the bakwit schools.
The NUPL said no coordination was made nor any document presented by law enforcement authorities to retreat house administrators before the police operation was conducted.
“The violent manner of taking custody over the Lumads despite the presence of social workers and a specialized PNP unit catering to women and children’s needs may have caused distress and trauma to them, especially since the majority of the persons taken were minors,” the group said.
NUPL spokesman King Anthony Perez said the lawyers’ group visited the office of the PNP Anti-Kidnapping Group Visayas Field Unit on Tuesday, Feb. 16, to determine the conditions of the teachers and Manobo tribe elders.
Perez said NUPL had yet to decide on what case to file against those involved in the operation as they have not yet secured the police report and received the official complaint against their clients.
Police authorities and members of the social welfare department swooped down on the retreat house after six parents of Lumad minors sought the assistance of the Municipal Social Welfare and Services in Talaingod, Davao del Norte, about their missing children.
A total of 26 Lumads composed of 22 students, two teachers and two elders or datus were taken under police custody as a result of the operation.
In an interview, a mother, who requested anonymity, claimed a group approached their tribe and took their children away to continue their studies in Davao City after their school was shut down by the Department of Education.
However, she said their children have not returned home since they left in 2018.
The parents first sought help from their tribal offices and other government agencies in Davao del Norte after their children went missing for years.
Contrary to the statement released by the SOS Network, the lumad parents said they had not given consent for their children to be brought to Cebu City.
A parent claimed that they were asked to sign a document by a certain “Ariel,” but they did not know what the document was about.
The parents also belied the claim of Fr. Bag-ao that they were able to contact their children through video calls, saying they did not know how to use cellphones and there was no signal in their area.
One of the lumad parents who sought help from authorities after their children went missing reportedly also died of stress while waiting for her children to be found.
In a press conference on Feb. 16, other lumad parents said they were relieved and thankful to the government for rescuing their children.
“It is very clear that these parents have been looking for their children for quite some time. It is called a rescue because in the first place, these children were there without consent, without any authorization from them,” said Marlon Bosantog, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) director.
“That is a serious illegal detention. That is kidnapping. That is human trafficking,” he added.
The children were also allegedly used to join rallies and scam international donations.
Those involved in the alleged abduction could face charges of kidnapping with serious illegal detention, violation of Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Human Trafficking in Persons Act and child abuse, as these children were also taught to handle firearms, Bosantog claimed.
Bosantog said if USC is found to be complacent in hiding and detaining the children, cases will also be filed against the university.
The USC administration said the SVD on March 11, 2020, hosted a delegation of 42 students accompanied by five teachers and three community leaders after four other educational institutions in Cebu hosted the group.
Regletto Imbong, convenor of SOS Network Cebu, explained that when Lumad communities in Mindanao experienced threats of aerial bombings and community-built schools were shut down, they were compelled to evacuate.
He said the Lumad Bakwit School launched at the University of the Philippines (UP)-Cebu in October 2019 was an effort of the Lumad community to continue their children’s education despite the “militarization in their communities.”
He said among the various activities the Lumad students attended since their arrival in Cebu in October 2019 was a visit to various schools and universities.
Meanwhile, Jake Lanes of the Mindanao Indigenous People’s Council of Leaders in a press conference with the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, said what happened in USC- TC on Monday was just the “tip of the iceberg.”
“It’s part of the school offensives of the New People’s Army which exploits and radicalizes the educational system targeting the IP youth,” he said in Tagalog. (RSR, AYB)