The other face of abuse: tribal children taken away from school
Police raid San Carlos University in Cebu to “free” children who had found refuge after their village schools were closed, allegedly for supporting communist rebels. Father Peter Geremia (PIME) wonders how children can be seen as terrorists.
Cebu (AsiaNews) – The Philippine government's campaign against the Marxist New People's Army (NPA) also targets tribal schools, small educational establishments in villages isolated in the forest, where public education has not arrived. Thanks also to the work of missionaries like Father Fausto Tentorio, PIME missionary killed in Mindanao in 2011, these schools have become places where tribal identity is valued, where the indigenous people of the archipelago learn to defend their rights.
The Philippine military views this kind of place with suspicion; for this reason, it is closing many of them as part of its operations against the NPA, claiming that they are places of recruitment for the guerrillas. Father Peter Geremia, a PIME missionary in Mindanao, speaks about a group of tribal children from North Davao district who, after their school was closed, were welcomed by San Carlos University in Cebu, a Verbite missionary institution, to pursue their education. Recently, police “freed” them by force claiming that they were victims of “kidnapping and indoctrination”.
The Lord Jesus said: “If anyone causes scandal to any child, it would be better for him to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea” (Matt 18:6).
We usually associate scandals to sexual abuse, but it can be equally applied to violence.
Last February 15 there was a raid of a group of tribal or Lumad children holding class at the San Carlos University in Cebu. I saw some videos: an excited crowd of armed police, military and tribal warriors with the DSWD[*] personnel running until they cornered a group of scared children holding to each other screaming and crying. The bigger ones were pulled to the ground and handcuffed and all 26 were arrested or placed under the custody of DSWD.
Why? They had no weapons nor drugs or anything illegal. They were only holding class peacefully. The police called the raid a rescue, but the videos convict the attackers as criminals.
That was a scandal of terrifying violence against children.
This happened because of the government’s campaign to close free tribal schools because of the suspicion that some tribal children may be taught to join the rebels. Many such schools have been closed by the military, especially in remote areas. Some students transferred to other schools, but many stopped going to school. A few asked for the chance to continue classes in church buildings like at the San Carlos University, and some ended up stranded because of the pandemic.
But I wonder why the police, the military, and the DSWD conducted such a violent raid against children. How could they forget all the laws for the protection of children and due process? Maybe, they got used to doing that because they were ordered to do so and were told that those children were already classified as terrorists. How did they develop that way of looking at children, particularly tribal children?
Few community leaders, even clergy or pastors, can dare to report or denounce such incidents for fear of being marked by red-tagging. But if we witness such abuses, we feel the pain of the victims. Can we also find ways of healing the wounds and trauma, and ways of preventing such incidents?
Jesus used a shocking image in order to open our eyes “it would be better for them to have a large millstone tied around their neck and be drowned in the deep sea”. I don’t think Jesus meant this literally because He also taught us to condemn the sins but to love the sinners. He certainly warns us to remove our dark glasses and to be able to see and respect the innocence of children.
There are so many scandals that can shatter the innocence and the idealism of the young, like shattering the mirror reflecting God’s image which is the special treasure granted to all children at birth.
Can the Cebu scandal affecting tribal children challenge all to rediscover or to continue to protect the innocence and the dreams of all kinds of children, no matter what their color or dress?
Jesus also said: “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brethren, you do unto me…” (Matt 25:40)
[*] Department of Social Welfare and Development.