MIDSAYAP, Philippines (Reuters) - Displaced farmers in the southern Philippines returned home to rubble and ash on Friday after fierce fighting between government troops and Muslim separatists destroyed their villages.
“It’s been like this as far as I can remember, we build houses then fighting occurs, we leave and return home and build our houses again.” said Rogelio, whose house in Midsayap town, around 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila in North Cotabato province, was burned down.
“Being alive after all the troubles just makes me thankful despite the difficulties,” said the 45-year old farmer, who declined to give his last name.
Around 160,000 people fled their farmlands in North Cotabato and adjoining areas to escape four days of military airstrikes and mortar fire aimed at Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels holed up in the area.
Analysts have said both sides were flexing their military muscle after yet another setback in long-running talks to end a separatist conflict that has killed over 120,000 people and made the country’s most resource-rich region dirt poor.
Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic Philippines have been fighting for some measure of independence since the late 1960s in one of Southeast Asia’s most intractable conflicts.
Military operations in North Cotabato ended on Wednesday.
Displaced families have started to go home but many, discovering their houses in ruins, have headed back to evacuation centers or the homes of relatives and friends.
Jesus Sacdalan, governor of North Cotabato said almost half of some 20,000 families had gone home but some were returning to evacuation centers “because there’s nothing to go back to”.
Most of the displaced live off subsistence farming and their homes were made from light materials such as bamboo and coconut leaves.
The government said it was still assessing the cost of rehabilitating the affected communities.
In Manila, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro has given the military the green light to purchase $38 million worth of munitions for 105mm howitzers, mortars and helicopter-fired rockets to replenish its stockpile after this week’s battle, documents seen by Reuters showed.
Manila launched its attack on the MILF after accusing the rebels of occupying Catholic villages in North Cotabato. Six civilians were estimated to have been killed in the fighting while 46 rebels and five soldiers were estimated to have died, according to the military.
The MILF has said nine of its members were killed.
Hopes of a breakthrough on a territorial deal between the MILF and Manila were dashed last week when the Supreme Court temporarily halted the agreement after Catholic politicians in the south accused the government of treason.
The Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on the deal on Friday. Legal experts expect it to rule the territorial agreement unconstitutional, forcing both sides back to the negotiating table.
Additional reporting by Manny Mogato and Karen Lema; Writing by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by David Fox