A year after siege, Zamboanga City evacuees still struggling
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—A year after Moro rebels attacked the renowned southern City of Flowers, Junior Santander Morte is still trying to put normalcy back to his life while more than 12,000 others are painfully struggling to cope with appalling conditions in evacuation centers.
Morte was one of the 198 residents taken hostage by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) since Day One of the siege of Zamboanga—Sept. 9 last year. He was able to escape from his captors seven days later.
A soldier-turned-businessman, Morte said he, his wife Quirina and five children were still living in constant fear, especially when they would see men in camouflaged uniform.
This, despite the assurance of Senior Supt. Angelito Casimiro, city police chief, that the provincial capital’s 98 barangays (villages) are in safe hands following the setting up of a comprehensive defense plan.
Called the Guardian Shield, the plan serves as protection to Zamboangueños from possible attacks, but Casimiro refused to give details.
Morte said “good intelligence work,” not the number of uniformed personnel patrolling the streets, would thwart any possible attack.
“I remember last year, the city had enough security forces but the rebels managed to penetrate the city and everyone was caught flat-footed,” he said, referring to the deployment of soldiers to vital installations following the declaration of independence by MNLF leader Nur Misuari at his house in Barangay San Roque.
Barely a month after Misuari’s declaration, residents woke up to a fire fight and reports of armed men taking hostages in Barangays Santa Catalina, Mampang and Talon-Talon. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said 198 people were taken hostage and used as human shields by the attacking forces.
Senior Supt. Chiquito Malayo, former acting city police chief, last year told the Inquirer that about 200 to 300 MNLF rebels attacked the city, occupying some areas near the shorelines of Talon-Talon, Mampang, Rio Hondo, Mariki and Kasanyangan, and the mainland areas of Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the fighting had left 20 soldiers and five policemen dead, and 194 wounded on the government side. Zagala said 208 MNLF members were killed, including their leader Habier Malik, while 294 others were captured. Twelve civilians were killed, including four hostages, while 79 residents were wounded.
The DSWD said 118,819 people, or 23,794 families, were displaced during the fighting. Some 2,304 families, or 12,476 individuals, are still in ragged tents at Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, which has been turned into a makeshift evacuation center.
Appalling conditions in the facility and other smaller evacuation sites have resulted in 167 deaths from diseases and malnutrition in the past year, prompting concerns from local and international humanitarian groups working in the encampments.
Zagala announced Sunday that the AFP and law enforcement agencies were putting up a detachment near the seaside Rio Hondo, where the fighting last year was centered. He said the Zamboanga City government had offered a piece of land at Rio Hondo, which had been reduced to ashes.
There, the military, the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fire Protection can set up its offices, he said.
“We will have an area which will have joint law enforcement agencies stationed there that will contribute to the normalization, at least in the security and law enforcement aspect,” he added.
“It’s still a long road but we are getting there; I am talking about normalization in terms of law enforcement and security…. On the security side, we have some detachments in place so we have access there, unlike before when there was none. Before, lawless elements can do whatever, but not now,” he stressed.
Zagala said law enforcers were close on the heels of Misuari. “Misuari’s faction was heavily debilitated as a consequence of their failed attack on Zamboanga City. Right now, he is in hiding and eventually, the law will catch up to him,” he said.
The AFP spokesman commended the heroism and sacrifices of government troops who valiantly defended Zamboanga.
“We all witnessed the restraint and focus of our soldiers, who successfully rescued the civilians being used as human shields. This manifests the maturity and professionalism and respect for human rights of our soldiers,” he said.
September to remember
Jimmy Villaflores, village chair of Santa Catalina, said that as barangay folk prepared for “September to Remember,” an event commemorating the siege, they wanted the “healing of minds and hearts” of those who went through the experience “so our people can start to move on.”
“Every time our people hear about talk of an attack or reported movement of armed men or suspected MNLF forces, they panic and become so afraid,” Villaflores said.
Santa Catalina and neighboring Santa Barbara village were the hardest hit during the standoff.
“It was not just burning. Houses were destroyed by bombs, bullets and looting,” Villaflores said. “We want to remember how it was and how we can stand up, rise again and restore normalcy in our day-to-day living.”
Villaflores said Monday’s event would be capped with sharing, prayers, vigil, Mass and candle lighting.
Habib Mudjahab Hashim, commander of the MNLF Islamic Command Council, told the Inquirer by phone that there would be no more such incidents.
“We have learned our lessons. It was not a siege. It was supposed to be a peaceful caravan to manifest displeasure with the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro [that the government signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front]. Unfortunately, it resulted in the standoff and fire fights,” Hashim said.
The MNLF rebels claimed that they were supposed to march to City Hall to hold a rally. They were, however, armed when they arrived in the city from the provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga Sibugay.
Peter Medalle, assistant regional state prosecutor, said all captured MNLF members were still awaiting court proceeding for charges of rebellion and violation of international humanitarian law, particularly the use of civilians as human shields.
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