‘We do not want to justify the deaths’ – Zambo mayor

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Almost a full year after the siege of the city by rebels, Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle "Beng" Climaco said there is no justifying the rise in deaths among the internally displaced. 

“We are not very pleased with the number of deaths that is why we have to work very hard to ensure these deaths are diminished,” the mayor told reporters during an interview in front of the city hall Monday, September 8, a day before the anniversary of the siege of Zamboanga. 

On September 9, 2013, a group of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels marched into the city, catalyzing an urban battle that killed 38 civilians and security personnel and at least 153 rebels from the MNLF. (Editor's Note: We previously reported that at least 158 MNLF rebels were killed. We regret the error.)

Climaco was responding to concerns that the rise in civilian deaths among internally-displaced people (IDPs) still living in emergency shelters across the city may become higher than casualties of war.

An August United Nations OCHA monitoring report quotes the Zamboanga City Health Office’s account of 158 recorded IDP deaths, an increase from 147 in July. Fifty percent of the casualties among children under 5 years old.  OCHA says the emergency threshold of deaths for children under age 5 – more than two cases per 10,000 per day – was breached 6 times last year.

Internal monitoring reports have listed broncho-pneumonia and diarrhea as major causes of death, although logs also show lapses in recording. The death of 65-year-old woman from Sta. Catalina on August 13, for example, was listed as “complicated.”

The mayor however added that the rising number of post- siege deaths was due to the longer time period.

“In terms of the civilian deaths compared to the siege, it’s because the siege has lasted 28 days and the rehabilitation is lasting more than one year.”

Safety guarantees

Climaco also said that she is asking the government to secure critical areas with military and police presence “so we can avert the responses of threat groups in the city.”

The mayor assured the public that Zamboanga “is rising again.”

“We are now back in city hall, we like to let the people know that thank God, under one flag, one nation, one Zamboanga City, Christians, Muslims, Lumads. We're working very hard to protect our people and prevent the siege from happening again, and we are back to work.”

The wounds may be fresh, said Climaco, but they are healing. Climaco said the September 2013 siege can be described in the city’s history as “days of infamy and remembrance.”

“The city hall is open. After one year we were able to stand up again and slowly we are rebuilding our city.”

The city government offered recognition to “the men and women in uniform who selflessly, honorably and gallantly protected Zamboanga City.’

Selection of beneficiaries

Zamboanga City lists almost 10,000 homes burned down from the siege, with 22,196 families – 122,226 individuals – displaced by the conflict.

Complaints over the situation of the internally displaced are rife, particularly among the 2,304 families still living in the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex.

Climaco says the delay in relocation “really has to do with documentation,” but promised to meet the deadline set by the Department of Social Welfare and Development set by Secretary Dinky Soliman on December 15, 2014.  

“We have to build 5,000 housing units, so it will be based on category and the city government is really coordinating and we hope and make sure that houses for all the displaced will be provided particularly those that have been tagged as invalidated evacuees that have lost their homes.”

The plan for only 5,000 new housing units will necessarily leave a large percentage homeless. The City Housing and Land Management Division says almost half of the families staying at the Enriquez Sports Complex were not displaced by the September 2013 siege.

The city government has prioritized housing for IDP’s “specifically those that have proven to show that they are house owners.”

Climaco says settlers are also provided with building materials by the city government “subject to what we call beneficiary selection and this has really gone through the process of selection.”

Many former residents from the villages of Rio Hondo, Sta. Catalina and Sta. Barbara, where the fighting took place, say they have been prevented from returning home due to pending government renovations.  Residents also claim that homeowners whose houses that were not burnt but were destroyed by mortar fire or are riddled with bullets have not been tagged as legitimate beneficiaries.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in an earlier report said the government’s interventions “are falling too far short, risking leaving thousands with no real options.” – With reports from Xeph Suarez/Rappler.com