For since when has it become a crime for a group of farmers to gather and stay overnight at a kamalig (hut)?
Well, maybe starting 5:00 am of Nov. 21, because on that time and date, elements of the 19th Infantry Batallion of the Philippine Army attacked 46 farmers in Bgy. San Agustin, Palo, Leyte, who had stayed in their communal kamalig since the night before to prepare for collective farming.
According to Richard Margallo, leader of the 46 farmers who are all members of the Bgy. San Agustin Farmer Beneficiaries Multipurpose Cooperative, they were there to tend the fields of a 12- hectare plot of land already granted them by the Dept. of Land Reform (DLR).
The Army assault was vicious. Five grenades were lobbed at the hapless civilians who were armed only with bolos and hand tractors for farming purposes. They were shot at for a seemingly eternal thirty minutes. One of the farmers, Richard’s brother in law, was hit immediately and died instantly.
“We repeatedly shouted at the Army: “Tama na po! Hindi po kami lalaban! Wala po kaming armas”, shared Richard to the Citizens’ Congress for Truth and Accountability (CCTA). But the Army had other things in mind.
All in all, five lay dead after the grenade explosions and gunfire ceased. The luckier ones successfully escaped by creeping away from the kamalig.
No effort was immediately made to bring all victims, dead or wounded to the hospital.
Some of the survivors were later hit by rifle butts for making wrong answers to the queries of the Army men. One of those who made repeatedly wrong answers had bloodied eyes due to repeated hits by the Army men’s rifle butts.
The repeated question: “Why were you armed?”, their repeated answer “No sir, we are not armed.”
Richard said that an Army man later brought a sack to the kamalig which yielded World War II vintage carbines, pistols, home-made shotguns and even paltiks. He denied and continued to deny owning or using or even knowing those weapons. (These weapons, observed several media persons, can’t be considered as such. They were so old and rusty that no one in his right mind would dare depend his life on them.)
Most probably due to the Army’s obvious disinterest to rescue the wounded, two others died on their way to the hospital later. Good for Richard, he was hit by sharpnel only on one of his thighs and three other minor parts of his body. He was able to bring himself and another farmer to the municipal hall. But due to the lack of an ambulance, they were bought on a single improvised motorcycle to Taclocan City for treatment.
Two women were among the total seven casualties: one of them pregnant with child, and another a senior citizen.
Richard also identified those jailed and slapped with rebellion charges as genuine farmers.
This, briefly, is the story of the Palo, Leyte massacre committed by the 19th IBPA which clearly and brutally interfered in yet another land dispute, only a little over a year after the carnage at Hacienda Luisita.
The DLR should be ready to come out, confirm the reality of a land dispute in San Agustin and grant with finality the land ownership certificates to the embattled farmers.
The good mayor of Palo, who has refused to buy the false stories of the Army that Richard was among NPA’s they engaged in a gunfight, should help ferret out the truth and more importantly lead the clamor for the removal of the 19th IBPA from his otherwise peaceful area.
All friends and supporters of Filipino farmers should come to the aid of the Palo massacre victims. We should condole with the families of those who perished in this act of military brutality, and help in the rehabilitation of those injured. Let’s add our voice in pressuring the DLR in finally granting their just demands. We should also help put up a fund for the multiple counts of murder, frustrated murder, physical injury, false charges (against those illegally detained and charged with trumped up charges) and other cases that the farmers should file. Other land disputes should be decided in the interest of authentic democracy and equity: land to the tillers, democratize the nation’s wealth by empowering the landless majority through actual land distribution.
No ceasefire should be necessary to stop the killings of activists who are all civilians, unarmed and non-combatants. It is against the law and a crime against the people of the Philippines to commit murder, especially multiple murder as what happened in the Palo massacre.
Finally, let’s put Gloria Macapagal Arroyo accountable for the terrible war she is unleashing on civilians and non-combatants who merely exercise their rights. Mrs. Arroyo should debate and fight activists on the political plane. The military’s firepower should be directed at its armed and combatant opponents and no one else.
There is no higher tribute to the massacred farmers of Palo other than continuing their fight for land and life.
Photo credit: Taipei Times and AFP.