In Philippines, US fights militancy with new classrooms
US troops in the southern Philippines work to undercut militancy with projects such as better roads, fatter cattle, and a new school, which opened last week.
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“If you go and build a school and walk away, it’s just going to be a madrasa,” or religious school, says a US officer who also served in Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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A year ago, Kagay was a virtual no-go zone, under the watch of insurgents. Elementary school students crammed into two rundown buildings; teachers taught two grades in the same room. The school, like the rest of the village, had no electricity or piped water.
The Philippine Marines moved in first, eventually bunking down in the old school buildings, while US Navy Seabees began work on the new facilities. The dirt road to the coast was improved. Security got better, and the village head asked the troops to do more for his community.
Then, in September, acting on intelligence reports, the Philippines conducted a successful artillery and aerial strike on a nearby Abu Sayyaf camp. Villagers began to flee as fighting intensified in the area. But US soldiers continued to work on the school.
On Sept. 29, a US Humvee in a convoy bringing supplies to Kagay hit a roadside bomb. The explosion killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Shaw, Staff Sgt. Jack Martin, and Philippine Pfc. Jewin Estrada, who were in the vehicle. Two other Philippine soldiers were injured.
US troops were grounded and aid projects suspended as security was reassessed. Within weeks, though, work restarted in Kagay, even as insurgents continued to blow up infrastructure in the area.
In a sign of local complexities, Philippine and US officials blame the Moro National Liberation Front, another rebel group, for the bombing. The MNLF has a base in the area where Abu Sayyaf had sought sanctuary, but which Philippine troops are not allowed to search without consent under a peace deal with the government.
New school: a threat to militants?
The school was finally completed in December. While Abu Sayyaf has razed schools and abducted teachers in other districts, residents play down fears of similar attacks. “They won’t burn this school,” says Hasan Annuari, an engineer who worked on the project, citing local respect for the village head.
Last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony didn’t signal the start of classes. These won’t resume until July, says a teacher. Some villagers are wary of moving back after the recent fighting. And there is still no electricity, though the school will have a generator.
US commanders say a planned extension of the road to the island’s capital, Jolo, will benefit the area as more government services are restored. They argue that Abu Sayyaf attacks on infrastructure show that the group feels threatened by economic development that undercuts its reign of terror.
But that seems to offer only limited comfort to the residents of Kagay, who wave as the commanders’ convoy grinds down the hillside, past coconut groves and banana trees, back to the relative safety of Jolo’s tropical coastline.