MILF uses child warriors

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — ALLEGATIONS about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) employing child warriors have been aired in media by the Armed Forces of the Philippines who has been complaining about the practice prohibited by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, a spokesman for the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said evidence shows young recruits training from a captured rebel base in Maguindanao.

The Commission on Human Rights has sent a fact-finding team to probe the allegations. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the accusations.

For journalists who were fortunate enough to visit Camp Abubakar, the former sprawling headquarters of the MILF in Maguindanao, the issue on child warriors has been a proven fact and integral part of the MILF system.

I personally saw child warriors as young as nine-years old when the team of former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. visited Camp Abubakar thrice in late 1997 and early 1998. De Venecia, who was then running for president, made a series of visits to kick off a series of meetings with the MILF hierarchy led by their chairman then, Hashim Salamat, his successor Al Haj Ibrahim and Ghadzali Jaafar, chief of the political affairs of the secessionist group.

The meetings later on paved the way for the beginning of a GRP-MILF peace negotiations restarted by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

I was with the group of a few newsmen who accompanied De Venecia in these visits.

Unlike my foray in New People’s Army camp in Marag Valley in Cagayan in 1991 through the help of a non-governmental organization (NGO) and in the bailwick of Abu Sayyaf led then by Abdurajak Janjalani, the older brother of Khadaffy Janjalani, who was himself slain in an encounter with the Army in 2006 through the facilitation of local leaders in Basilan, my stay at the MILF camp was virtually stress-free except from the time when MILF fighters surrounded our vehicle as it made way out of the camp.

The glitches turned out to be a miscommunication as the order for our safe passage came late to the MILF manning the camp’s entrance. The lone car trying to came out also made them suspicious as we decided to go ahead of the group and headed to Cotabato airport enroute to Manila.

From my observation, the child warriors are part of the MILF Army who maintains them to keep their strength. The AFP estimates that the MILF keeps 11,000 armed regulars, a good number of them can be classified as children.

Young Muslims carrying firearms taller than them were paraded by the MILF military commanders right before our eyes. Some were lugging the signature firearm of the MILF-homemade grenade launchers.

We were treated to the gun wizardy of the young rebels who will put to shame much older soldiers in assembling the various parts of firearms in the fastest possible time.

The child warriors were as zealous and determined as their older colleagues.

These young combatants were obviously deprived of their childhood to achieve their burning desire of seeing a Moro homeland someday.

Another observation I made during my tour at Camp Abubakar was the residential houses inside the sprawling camp. MILF leaders said these are owned by the families of their fighters.

No wonder there are always reports of civilian casualties whenever the AFP attacks MILF lairs.

They are there awaiting to be hit.