Out of Zamboanga siege, Soliman makes deal with God
For one whole week in September, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman had her hands full dealing with not just one but two crises—one manmade, the other a natural disaster.
Right in the middle of attending to the needs of the evacuees who fled the fighting in the coastal villages of Zamboanga City, Soliman was told that Tropical Storm “Odette” and the southwest monsoon rains had inundated Zambales, Batangas, Laguna, Cavite provinces and Metro Manila.
Soliman, 60, was unperturbed, methodically going through the details of each incident.
When someone asked why those things have to happen at the same time, she said she just hoped God would spare the country the ravages of a major typhoon in December.
Of Zamboanga City’s over 50,000 families, half of them were driven out of their homes—or literally lost their homes—in the intense fighting between government security forces and fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari.
That’s about 118,000 people, 23,000 of whom are children. The United Nations itself has declared a humanitarian crisis in the city because of the sheer number of evacuees.
Soliman had been in Zamboanga City for 15 days when the Inquirer met with her. The trademark red streak on her bangs had faded. She had become a bit darker and was already nursing a cold.
Just like the other government officials working round the clock during the siege, Soliman had gotten very little sleep. But she said she had her own “energy boosters” that staved off the exhaustion.
Aside from prayers, Soliman said her own crew of social workers who had been working since Day 1 of the armed conflict had kept her spirits up.
“I keep on telling them to go home and take a rest but they keep on coming back to work because they really feel the (people’s) need,” Soliman said.
She was also overwhelmed by the expression of support she got from Manila, people who congratulated her for the untiring work of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
A lot of her friends sent her sugar-free food from Manila (Soliman is diabetic) the whole time she was in Zamboanga.
But what counts the most for Soliman was the appreciation shown by the evacuees themselves for the government’s work. Despite the uncomfortable stay at the evacuation centers, the residents never complained to her, Soliman noted. At most, they just raised their concerns.
“Basically, you see God in them. You just keep moving. They are very resilient,” she said.
Soliman has dealt with the needs of displaced people in the past, notably after Typhoon “Pablo” last year, Tropical Storm “Sendong” in 2011 and the military offensive in Buliok Complex in North Cotabato in 2003.
The Zamboanga siege was unique because it was an armed conflict right in the heart of a highly urbanized city.
Security was tight in evacuation centers to ensure that MNLF fighters could not infiltrate them. Police had arrested a couple of suspected MNLF rebels who managed to sneak into an evacuation center. One had concealed a knife between his legs.
A young evacuee was killed by a stray bullet and people had to deal with incidents such as a car bomb exploding near Ateneo de Zamboanga, mortar fires and another bomb exploding at a bus station in one of the nearby towns. There was a palpable fear in the city, even as it was slowly going back to normal.
Soliman herself was under heavy guard by the Presidential Security Group (PSG) whenever she visited the evacuation centers—the first time she was assigned military escorts in her three-year term as DSWD secretary.
As Soliman’s staff updated her on the massive flooding in Luzon and Metro Manila, military helicopters roared over the DSWD headquarters overlooking the Basilan Strait. Then a loud explosion was heard from the combat zone. Soliman hardly flinched. She was used to it, having worked in Bukidnon, a province in northern Mindanao, during martial law.
“There is a sense of deprivation (among the Zamboanga evacuees) because of an internally generated or a manmade conflict as opposed to a natural disaster,” Soliman explained.
“We need to ensure an understanding among the people why this happened and who’s doing what. You cannot take away the fact that we have what we call sympathizers on the cause that the MNLF was saying,” she said.
Soliman said there were those who fell for the rumor that it was the government that burned down their homes because they were being driven away.
“(After) years of oppression, the years of injustice, in fact generations, they find it so easy to believe that the government is still marginalizing them,” Soliman said.
Help them ‘dream again’
Beyond providing the evacuees hot meals and basic necessities, the DSWD helped them deal with the trauma the conflict has caused them.
The social workers also help them “dream again,” she said.
Soliman was part of the daily security briefings in Zamboanga. She laughed at the realization that after listening to the President, the military officers and the defense chief almost every night to discuss the military action, she now knows the kinds of guns and bullets used by the security forces, as well as the different acronyms of the military units.
She also developed respect for the military officers and the ground troops. She was particularly moved by the story of Army Lt. Florencio Mikael Meneses who insisted on returning to the combat zone despite a severe injury. Meneses later died in hospital.
The decision of President Aquino to rescue each hostage opened her eyes on the value of human life.
“The discussion was precisely, you use the bullets and everything that we have in a calibrated manner to ensure the safety of the hostages and the civilians,” Soliman said.
She said that in the debriefing sessions with the released hostages, she learned that a 3-year-old captive had learned to say “ceasefire!” and wave a white flag because he was taught to do so by the MNLF fighters. It was the time the captives were being used as human shields.
Soliman also related the case of a girl held captive who slapped an MNLF sniper who made a pass at her and other female hostages. They all felt that justice had been served after seeing him killed by government troops.
Soliman said that at the debriefing session, the girl and her fellow young captives who were students at the fisheries school in one of the coastal villages were “very cool.”
“They would say that they were OK. They would narrate what happened to them and they were just cool,” Soliman said.
But she said they all broke down “like small children” when they saw their parents and were finally safe in the arms of the people they loved.
Soliman paused to dry her eyes, too.
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