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RIGHTS-PHILIPPINES: UN Study Gives Voice to Children in the Ranks

Stella Gonzales

MANILA, Dec 16 2007 (IPS) - For decades the Philippines has been embroiled in armed strife with communist and Islamist rebel groups resulting in the deaths and displacement of thousands. But the worst victims of these conflicts have been children, says a new United Nations sponsored study.

Released this month by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) the study titled "Unaccounted Lives: Children, Women and Conflict in the Philippines", brings out for the first time the enormity of the tragedy that has hit vulnerable sections of the people.

Conducted for UNICEF by the IBON Foundation, the study looked into the various ways the armed conflicts have affected children, women and communities in the countryside. It peeked into the issue of "child soldiers" within the ranks of the rebels. It also asked other children for their perspective of the conflict.

"The research…gives a voice to the millions of children and women living behind the frontlines. (It) documents their stories as seen from their own eyes and spoken in their own words. (It) presents undeniable realities of the human rights situation in conflict-affected communities in the country," said Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF representative.

The military, however, said UNICEF should have been more discerning and said the political orientation of IBON was suspect. Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres, army spokesman said the IBON Foundation is "widely believed to be allied" with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). He said the study ignored data from the government.

Calling the study one-sided, he said the military has "documents and living witnesses" to prove that the rebels exploit women and children, contrary to what the researchers were claiming.

IBON&#39s research head Jose Enrique Africa responded to the army&#39s attempt to link the foundation with the CPP, saying it only reflected &#39&#39the state of denial&#39&#39 within the armed forces. &#39&#39This only works against the well-being of the children, women and communities adversely affected by armed conflict,&#39&#39 he said in a statement.

IBON gathered data from eight communities in eight of the country’s 81 provinces for the study. The researchers said they did not interview military and police officials and personnel because of &#39&#39security concerns&#39&#39 given the "reputation for hostility" of military men towards fact-finding missions.

It is evident, the study said, that children are not spared from human rights violations that result from counter-insurgency operations.

The study said that from 2001-2006 the Children’s Rehabilitation Centre was able to document 800 incidents of human rights violations involving 215,233 children. Of this number, 58 were killed, another 58 survived attempts on their lives and 17 were subjected to torture and humiliation. It also said 10 children became desaperecidos (disappeared), five were raped by members of the military and 40 were victims of physical assault.

The researchers were able to interview children who said they were forced to act as spies or guides for soldiers.

Sam said that he was only 13 when he was brought from the central province of Mindoro Oriental to the military headquarters in Metro Manila in 2001. He said he was given 3,000 pesos (71 US dollars) and offered to be put through school. "They wanted me to spy on the (communist New People’s Army), to penetrate their ranks and find out where they usually camp, where they store their firearms and who their supporters are," the report quoted Sam as saying.

Romy said he and his 13-year-old brother were captured by soldiers in Surigao del Sur province in Mindanao in 2005 while they were fishing. He said they were used as guides and kept for three days before they were released. Romy was then 17. He said his father, another brother and an uncle who were also captured remain missing.

Ronald of Capiz province said a group of soldiers vented their ire on his family after government troops were ambushed by the NPA. "(They) held me and kicked me…three times on the chest," he told the researchers. Ronald, who was 12 at the time, said his mother, who witnessed the incident, remains a nervous wreck.

According to the researchers, not one of the more than a hundred children they interviewed expressed hostility towards the NPA or the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). And except for boys in some provinces who showed interest in weaponry, none indicated a liking for government troops.

The study said children willingly joined the NPA and MILF. It said it "found no direct or indirect evidence of any sort of forced recruitment of child soldiers by either the MILF or the NPA through coercion, compulsion or abduction."

It said the NPA now appears to be complying with its policy of recruiting only those who are at least 18 years old. The policy was handed down in 1999 but took years to implement. The researchers said none among the NPA guerrillas they encountered during the study was below 18, although "a few" were between 14 and 17 when they were recruited years ago.

The study said the MILF, which has an Islamic grounding, has a different standard of ascertaining the age of maturity. It said the MILF considers a child "mature" when he reaches 13 or 14. A MILF leader stressed, however, that young rebels are mainly given "auxiliary" roles and tasks assigned are essentially "non-combat in nature".

One of them, Amin, 16, told the researchers that he joined the MILF "because of what happened to my family". "We were bombed…without any defences… If I do not defend myself, I would face the same fate as my father and siblings," who were killed during a military bombardment.

The study found that children displaced from their communities, as a result of armed conflicts, are worse off than those who stayed on in their localities. It said that although evacuation centres provide safe havens, children become more exposed to poor diet, unsanitary conditions and disease in these places.

Most of the time, displaced children stop their studies due to various factors such as the uncertainty of the situation, the school is too far from the evacuation centre and their parents could no longer afford to send them to school.

Children are sometimes affected when their schools are converted into evacuation centres. There are instances when classes are suspended for up to a month in some areas because teachers refuse to return due to the fighting. Some children said their schools were burnt down during military operations. In some instances, schools were used as temporary military camps especially those located in strategic areas.

The study found that children living in conflict areas had "simple" dreams: finish their studies and help their families. But the researchers pointed out that these may not be so simple given their exceptionally difficult circumstances.

UNICEF’s Alipui said his organisation hopes that widespread dissemination of the study’s findings will ultimately result in "greater impetus to take collective action&#39&#39.

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