RESCUED IP CHILDREN. Lorena Bangoy (left), a Manobo staff member of the Municipal Social Welfare Office of Talaingod town in Davao del Norte, speaks to the Cebu media as Police Regional Office (PRO-7) chief, Brig. Gen. Ronnie Montejo looks on during a press briefing on Monday (Feb. 15, 2021). Earlier, 19 minors from an indigenous peoples (IP) community were rescued from a retreat house in Cebu City. Right photo shows a parent of one of the children during the press briefing. (PNA photos by John Rey Saavedra)

CEBU CITY – Some 19 minors belonging to an indigenous peoples (IP) community were rescued Monday by social workers from the retreat house of a university here where they have been held since March last year.

The seven persons, reportedly Salugpungan teachers who were with the children at the University of San Carlos-Talamban campus, will face criminal charges, the police said.

Police Regional Office (PRO-7) chief, Brig. Gen. Ronnie Montejo, said they will work closely with the local authorities in Davao del Norte and Sultan Kudarat in filing the cases against the suspects who are teachers of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanogon school in Mindanao.

The suspects will be charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention in relation to Republic Act 7610 or the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, violation of RA 9208 or the Anti-Human Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, as amended by RA 10364.

“The fact that the victims are minors in this case, and they had been subjected (to) various types of exploitation, a violation of the Anti-Child Abuse Law may also be filed against the suspects,” Montejo said in a press briefing at the PRO-7 headquarters in Camp Sergio Osmeña Sr. on Monday.

The children – 13 from Talaingod town in Davao del Norte and six from different towns in Sultan Kudarat – were rescued by social workers of the Cebu City government here, after a staff of the Municipal Social Welfare Office (MSWO) of Talaingod, Davao del Norte sought their help.

Reports said three other minors from Talaingod were allegedly brought to the University of the Philippines in Metro Manila to work with left-leaning groups.

No consent

In a press briefing, Lorena Bangoy, a staff of Talaingod’s MSWO, said the parents approached the Talaingod local government after their children were taken away from their houses in 2018 by members of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanogon “without their knowledge and consent”.

She said Davao del Norte Gov. Edwin Hubahib paid for their boat fare after seven parents, who are members of the Ata Manobo tribe, received information from other children taken by Salugpungan teachers but were able to go home, that the other children were brought to Cebu.

The parents were accompanied by Bangoy, their tribal leader Ogita Sakulabon, and purok chairman Etim Dagwa-an to Cebu to get back the children.

Upon their arrival on Monday morning, Bangoy coordinated with the Cebu City Department of Social Welfare and Services, which in turn sought assistance from the Women and Children Protection Center Visayas Field Unit, Women and Children's Protection Desk of the Cebu City Police Office, PRO-7, and other government agencies in planning the rescue operation.

Lost for 3 years

Lorua Sambeyang, one of the parents who came to Cebu to rescue her 15-year-old daughter, said she is very happy that she has now reunited with her child who was lost for three years.

She said she and other parents were promised by Salugpungan teachers that their children would be brought to Davao City for studies and would be allowed to come home every month but never happened.

Mao na nagsige na sila adto sa munisipyo nagpatabang pangitaon ila mga anak (That was the reason they went to the municipal government to seek help in finding their children),” Bangoy told the Philippine News Agency in an interview.

She said she heard some parents saying that they saw their children on television while joining anti-government rallies.

Sakulabon said the parents could not bear the pain of being separated from their children for three years.

Victims of indoctrination

“They are victims of indoctrination and recruitment by the communist terrorist groups (CTG) and exploitation by the Salugpungan, as they were used during protest rallies against the government. They also asked for donations using the IP minors,” Montejo said in a statement read during the press briefing.

Salugpungan schools, an alternative learning hub run by communist groups that were ordered closed by the government in 2019 for failing to secure permits, are reportedly being used as breeding grounds for the radicalization of tribal children.

Still hopeful

Bonbon, 14, who was among the IP minors rescued, said he would seek government scholarships to achieve his dream of going to college.

He said he did not have a plan to join the Salugpungan but was forced to go with the teachers, thinking they would help him finish his studies.

School liability

Montejo told the media here that while the investigation against the seven Salugpungan teachers is ongoing, the children will remain in Cebu.

The city government provided the children with 20 sets of t-shirts and pajamas while the financial assistance for their travel back to Mindanao is still under process.

The city will also coordinate with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)-Region 7 for their temporary shelter.

“A “thorough investigation” will determine the liability of the University of San Carlos (USC) Talamban campus “for housing the IP minors and the suspected members of the Salugpungan school,” Montejo said.

USC statement

However, in a joint statement, Society of Divine Word southern Philippines provincial superior Fr. Rogelio Bag-ao and USC president Fr. Narciso Cellan said the “SVD Community has since sheltered the delegation at its retreat house, providing them with comfortable accommodation, and allowing them the use of its facilities for the IP children’s recreation” after the city government was placed under strict community quarantine due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

They admitted that they hosted 42 students since March 11, 2020. The students were “accompanied by five teachers and three community elders (Datu), while four other educational institutions in Cebu hosted the same.

“The delegation was supposed to complete their modular schooling on April 3, 2020, after which they would have returned to their respective indigenous communities” but could not travel back due to the pandemic, the statement posted on the USC website read.

It added that because “the return necessitated logistical preparations to be made and entailed costs such as those relating to the swab tests, fare and food allowance, the travel of the delegation was planned to be carried out in batches”.

“At least four of the delegates have so far returned to their place, and another batch was scheduled to return this week,” it added. (PNA)