MANILA -- Over 200 families displaced by skirmishes between government troops and local bandits in Patikul, Sulu have returned to their homes after more than five years, with the last batch arriving last week.
Residents of Sitio Darayan, Barangay Buhanginan in Patikul finally set foot again in their village last Nov. 25 after staying in neighboring municipalities.
The entire village was deserted after a series of encounters between the military and the Abu Sayyaf Group in 2016 forced residents to flee their homes for their safety.
Nunihar Cabusas, a resident of Sitio Darayan, said they were traumatized and refused to go back for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. She wan't able to hold back her tears as she recalled how their mother sacrificed to feed them in a place far from their home and livelihood.
Barangay Buhanginan Village Chief Nijar Omar recalled how difficult it was for his constituents when they had to transfer to safer barangays at the height of the encounter.
"Super ang hirap namin doon sa Barangay Bangkal kasi wala kami mga kubo-kubo na. Nag-produce lang ng tent, tolda para sa atip namin," he said.
(It was so hard for us staying in Barangay Bangkal because we didn't even had huts to live in. There were just tents, with tarpaulins for our roof.)
Omar expressed his gratitude to the military and the local government units for making sure they could come home to a better and safer barangay.
"Sa pagbalik namin dito, namunga na ang mga durian namin at mangosteen. Kaya yun ang kagandahan sa pagbalik namin, ma-harvest na namin lahat," he said.
(When we came home, our durian and mangosteen trees bore fruits already. That is one of the good things during our return, because we can harvest them all already.)
"Dati, walang kalsada dito. Rough road lang. Ngayon, dalawang lanes na. Malaking pagbabago ito sa Patikul. Naalis na 100 percent ang mga lumalaban sa gobyerno."
(We didn't have paved roads here. It was just a rough road. Now, there are two lanes. There is a big change now in Patikul. Those fighting the government have been totally cleared.)
The military assured the residents that Sitio Darayan is now rebel-free.
Lt. Col. Vicente Mabborang of the 45th Infantry Battalion said that prior to allowing the residents go back to their village, they held a series of conferences, planning and coordination meetings with the provincial, municipal and barangay local government units.
The military units also conducted patrols and established detachments in the barangay. They recruited residents to be part of the civilian auxiliary unit to assist them in securing the place.
The return of the residents of Sitio Darayan is the last part of the Balik Barangay Program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Sulu, which started in February 2020.
Displaced residents of seven other barangays in Patikul have also returned to their respective homes after being displaced for years.
The Balik Barangay Program is in partnership with the International Organization for Migration and US Armed Forces.
"Hindi maaring masira ang buhay ng libo-libong mga Tausug dahil lang sa iilan na naghahasik ng terorismo," Joint Task Force - Sulu and 11th Infantry Division chief Maj. Gen. William Gonzales said in a statement.
--report from Queenie Casimiro