CEBU CITY, Philippines — Police said it was a rescue operation, but for priests and administrators running the University of San Carlos (USC), they were surprised.
Officers from the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas (PRO-7) on Monday, February 15, conducted an operation aimed at ‘rescuing’ Lumad minors staying in a retreat house owned by priests from the SVD Philippines inside USC’s Talamban campus.
A total of 21 Lumads were escorted outside the university, 19 of whom happened to be minors.
Police Brigadier General Ronnie Montejo, in a follow-up press conference, said this stemmed from complaints of six Lumad parents from Talaingod, Davao Del Norte, who asked for the help of Davao Del Norte Philippine National Police, that their children were taken since 2018 with no consent from them.
Montejo also claimed that the children were allegedly being used for militant and leftist activities.
Montejo also reported that seven individuals would be facing formal complaints over the incident.
He said charges of Kidnapping and Serious Illegal Detention, violation of the Anti-Human Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 (Republic Act 9208), and Anti-Child Abuse law would be filed against them.
But priests from the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) Philippines Southern Province and executives from USC denied these allegations.
Fr. Narciso Cellan Jr., USC president, said in a virtual briefer on Monday evening that they were surprised by the incident
“We did not receive any information or coordination from any concerned government agencies prior to this,” Cellan said.
SVD Philippines Southern Province and USC also issued a joint statement, saying that that they hosted 42 students, five teachers, and three community elders last March 11, 2020 in support of the bakwit school program together with the Save Our Schools (SOS) Network.
The initiative, designed to help Lumad displaced in war-torn areas in Mindanao to continue with their education in safer areas, was also supported and referred to them by the Archdiocese of Cebu – Commission on Social Advocacies (COSA).
In a separate statement, the Save Our Schools Network condemned the government’s operations in USC-Talamban.
“Under the Duterte regime, 176 Lumad schools have been shut down by the Department of Education. It has been through the Save Our Schools Network that the Lumad continue their education and the protection of their ancestral lands,” the group said.
Save Our Schools Network refuted claims from the police that it was a rescue mission, saying it was pure harassment.
” The Lumad students were also on their way home to Mindanao, processing the necessary papers and requirements and even taking COVID-19 swab tests to be allowed to travel. They were on their way home, but the police arrested them. We do not believe it was to “rescue” them,” they added.
Cellan said the lockdown prevented some Lumads from returning home, and prompted priests and officials of USC to support their extended stay.
“We ferried them back to their hometowns by batches. This is why there are others who remained here. We shouldered expenses for their swab tests and other requirements… USC was their last stop. We believe a total of four universities and schools also hosted them,” noted Cellan.
In the meantime, Cellan said they were willing to coordinate with police and other concerned government officials on the matter.
Lawyer Joan Largo, assistant vice president for academic affairs in USC, also said the school body and SVD would be conducting their own investigation over the incident, including to shed light as to why police were allowed inside premises of a privately owned university.
“We will have to investigate and inquire about how they were granted access inside. How they were able to find the location they were looking for. We are yet to gather information on that,” said Largo.
But in the meantime, Cellan said they had not entertained any plans yet to take legal actions.
The priest said their priority, as of this point, would be the welfare of the Lumads, and assisting their travels back home.
“We could have appreciated it more if they (concerned government agencies) did not put us on the blind and all of a sudden conduct the operation without us being informed… But certainly moving forward, we would appreciate more initiative efforts from the government,” he added. /dbs