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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
Mindanao's Muslim refugees
In the conflict between Muslim rebels and the military in the southern Philippines, the biggest losers are the civilians living in the firing line, says BBC East Asia Today's Orlando de Guzman.

In the conflict zones on the island of Mindanao, refugees are everywhere.

Forced to flee from their homes, many have pitched bamboo tents along busy highways, under trees, and even inside a small mosque.

The vast majority of those who have been displaced in this conflict are Muslims.

Young refugees in Mindanao, southern Philippines
There are tens of thousands of refugees in Mindanao
When fighting broke out in north Cotobato province, 40,000 villagers were forced to leave their homes - many of them ending up in an old rice warehouse.

That was two months ago - and many of them are still there.

It is a miserable life. Rain cascades through a gaping hole in the roof, leaving everything ankle-deep in water. Last month more than 12 children died of dysentery.

One of the refugees, Fatima Alipio, said that while she was fed up of living in the warehouse, now was not the time to go home.

"We're very scared," she said. "We will only go back to our homes if the soldiers pull out."

"Our hearts are full of fear when we see the soldiers. When we meet them again, what will happen if they decide to pick on us?" she said.

The people in these refugee camps share a deep mistrust of the military. They see it as an extension of the predominantly Christian Philippine Government.

Civilians, especially Muslims, have been caught up in the Islamic insurgency - caught between rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ( MILF) and the military.

'Tasteless' games

But in some areas, the military is trying to win back the support of Mindanao's Muslims.

At another of the island's teeming refugee camps, Filipino soldiers have started entertaining crowds with magic tricks.

The military even sponsored a sack race. The refugee who won got a packet of instant noodles.

Not everyone is amused though.

One woman said the games were tasteless, at a time when most refugees were struggling to survive.

"I feel sorry for everyone here," she said. "They are made to dance around like animals before they are given little scraps to eat."

"If the government cared about these people, it would really support them - and give them back their homes and their livelihoods."

There is a critical lack of food at the camps.

International agencies have found it too dangerous to work there, and many refugees have been forced to return to their homes to scavenge for crops they left behind.

But their villages are still active combat zones, with tanks carrying troops to the nearby front lines.

I witnessed one incident when, during a lull in the battle, a group of refugees negotiated with the soldiers to go in to harvest some corn.

One of the soldiers replied:" You are free to move around here. Just don't go too far or you might get shot."

He added that the troops had left everything on the ground exactly as they had found it.

But a short walk into the village told a different story, with 90% of houses burned to the ground.

"I don't know why this happened," one refugee said.

"The soldiers told us they did not burn any of our houses, but now that we are here, we see that our houses are burned to ashes."

The United States is training Filipino troops to contain the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao - often referred to as the second front on the war on terrorism.

But scenes like these only stir up Muslim anger and dissent - sentiments which can only add to the island's already escalating conflict.

The Philippines' MILF rebels
06 May 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Philippines rebels call ceasefire
28 May 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Philippines strikes at 'terrorists'
18 May 03  |  Asia-Pacific

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