Tens of thousands of civilians uprooted during military offensives targeting militant suspects in three southern Philippine provinces were short on food, humanitarian aid workers told BenarNews as they delivered relief supplies to displaced people.
As the Philippine armed forces pounded remnants of Islamic State-linked groups in mountainous areas of Lanao del Sur province on Sunday, a convoy of trucks loaded with relief goods rolled into the town of Marogong, about 1,247 km (775 miles) south of Manila.
Hundreds of refugees then lined up to receive packets of food.
“That is enough for a family of five to survive for 15 days,” Zehabudin Guro, chief of the Iligan city office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told BenarNews, referring to the food packs that contained a bag of rice and 12 small cans of sardines each.
The relief goods provided by the ICRC also included non-food items such as hygiene kits, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, blankets and plastic pails.
But those supplies were not enough for tens of thousands of refugees who have fled their homes in Lanao and the nearby provinces, Bukidnon and Maguindanao, aid workers said.
Meher Khatcherian, the outgoing ICRC station chief in Iligan, said living conditions were difficult for those in evacuation centers.
“They have limited access to water and sanitary facilities,” he said. “Food is not sufficient.”
On March 22, the ICRC issued a statement that clashes between government security forces and non-state armed groups had displaced about 50,000 residents of the three provinces.
ICRC said it had distributed aid to about 1,800 families, or about 9,000 Lanao del Sur residents, who were affected by army operations against militants who may have fled during the 2017 siege of Marawi city.
A five-month battle between government forces and IS-linked militants who took over the southern city reduced Marawi to ruins before the fighting there ended in October 2017.
The battle left about 1,200 dead, most of them militants. It is not exactly known how many enemy fighters survived, but military intelligence reports said that a sizable number of pro-IS fighters were trying to recruit anew and launch fresh attacks in the Philippine south.
Affected families being served on Sunday mostly came from four towns in Lanao del Sur – where the military had been carrying out operations since late last year – Guro told BenarNews.
The violence did not end even although Muslims in the province and other parts of the southern Philippines had voted through a historic plebiscite in January in favor of a new autonomous region, which had been touted as an alternative to IS-inspired groups.
The Philippines is scheduled to hold local elections in May, and intense rivalries among political clans have led to a spike in violence in the south, locals said.
Dayan Ayonga, a 36-year-old mother of five, smiled as she struggled to carry the aid package she received. A male relative had to help her cart it to a waiting motorcycle.
Ayonga said local political rivalries were an added burden that forced many war refugees like her to walk several kilometers (miles) to reach distribution points for aid packages.
“I belong to a clan who is opposed to the town mayor. So I was not included in the master list of qualified evacuees of the town,” Ayonga told BenarNews.
Local politician Zia Adiong said the humanitarian situation was aggravated by a lack of funding for the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region on Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), now effectively controlled by former Muslim guerrillas.
Under legislation that created the new region called Bangsamoro, the rebels gave up their goal of creating an independent state in exchange for broader autonomy, including control over many local government functions such as taxation and education.
As part of the deal, the estimated 10,000-strong secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) formally assumed leadership of the autonomous region in February.
Adiong said the Department of Budget and Management had yet to release 31 billion Philippine pesos (U.S. $590 million) allotted for the new BARMM, a zone made up of at least five southern provinces where MILF will oversee self-rule.
“Right now, the towns under the new BARMM are living on a shoestring budget until the (government) releases the money,” Adiong said.
The referendum was the final step in a peace pact that MILF signed with Manila four years ago. It culminated decades of conflict that has killed about 150,000 people and stunted growth in the resource-rich southern region.
But, according to analysts and military officials, smaller Muslim factions that splintered from MILF have allied with the IS group, which has been trying to establish a home base in Southeast Asia after it lost territory in the Middle East.