The bigger battle a year after the Zambo siege

Karlos Manlupig

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Thousands of people displaced by the conflict are still in crowded, makeshift shelters, where many have died of malnutrition and illnesses

COMMEMORATION. Zamboanga residents commemorate the siege of the city one year later. Photo by Karlos Manlupig/Rappler

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – As the sun rises on Tuesday morning, September 9, Lustre Street in Zamboanga City bustles with life as students walk to their schools, and employees take tricycles or jeepneys to go to their workplaces.

It is a totally different scene from the 9th of September 2013 when the streets were occupied by armed Moro National Liberation Front rebels and government soldiers playing hide and seek, and a few residents running in the maze of alleys in search of safer ground.

Residents who have returned to their damaged houses in the area go on with their usual daily tasks, including cooking breakfast and cleaning their front yards, some distance from the hulking figure of the bullet-riddled KGK Building in Lustre Street.

The building was used by the rebels as one of its strongholds during the siege. Their snipers were perched on its rooftop. (WATCH: Hostage: A Rappler documentary)

Today, Mr KGK, the owner, is back to personally manage the commercial spaces in the ground floor and the rented residential spaces in the second and third floors.

Inside the building, spray-painted “MNLF” tags and images of a kris remain on the walls, alongside spray-painted insults against the MNLF made by government forces who would also occupy the building, after driving away the rebels.

In a patch in the neighborhood where several houses survived the bombs, bullets, and fires, the sound of pounding hammers can be heard. Residents explain that this is the sound of people trying to bounce back after the war.

Somewhere in the city, a restaurant is filled with a very diverse set of customers. Cops drink coffee in one table, while a group of Army Special Forces and a team of Coast Guard personnel eat tinolang isda in other tables. At the center, some government employees have just finished eating while behind them, elderly Muslims are eating their arroz caldo (rice porridge).

Everyone is busy chatting and laughing – a very different scene from last year when everyone was silent because of fear and worry.

New homes

To mark the commemoration as a step forward towards rebuilding, the local government along with concerned national government agencies led the official turnover of 120 newly constructed houses in Sta. Catalina for families whose houses were destroyed by bullets, artilleries and fires.

In the nearby Buggoc site, Badjaos happily built houses on stilts as their transitory homes after months of staying in makeshift tents along the road in Cawa-Cawa Boulevard. (READ: In photos: The Badjaos of Zamboanga one year after)

ADJUSTING. Kids enjoy their new homes post-Zamboanga. Photo by Karlos Manlupig/Rappler

Kids laughed as they chased each other through wooden planks serving as bridges that connect houses together.

Solemn remembrance

During the evening, the local government led by Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco laid a wreath along with the officials of the military, navy and police at a marker bearing the names of security forces and civilians who died during the siege.

In a very solemn ceremony, the names of the soldiers and the civilians who died were read to honor them.

Hundreds of government employees, government security forces and residents then gathered at the front of the City Hall and lit candles to commemorate the siege, to collectively express their yearning for inclusive peace.

GRATEFUL. Zamboanga residents celebrate a second life a year after the Zamboanga siege. Photo by Karlos Manlupig/Rappler

In her speech, Climaco noted that the commemoration and the gathering symbolized that the people of Zamboanga believe in the principle of one city under one flag.

Candles were also lit outside private establishments and residential houses all over downtown Zamboanga City. 

In a city resolution, the local government officially declared September 9 as a day of remembrance for those who sacrificed their lives to defend Zamboanga.

‘More serious battle’

A more serious battle is still being fought, however. It is in the same city but on a different front.

At the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, at least 12,000 internally displaced residents are still staying in crowded and muddy makeshift shelters with a foul stench hanging in the air.

About 167 evacuees, mostly children, have already died because of malnutrition and illnesses inside the evacuation centers and transitional sites.

Talking calmly with tears in her eyes, Normalin Baridji shares how her 7-year-old daughter died in July after getting dengue at the evacuation center.

“Just 3 days after we noticed the symptoms, my child already died. I do not want to blame anyone for the deaths. But more children can be saved if we will already be given decent relocation. No child should grow here,” Baridji says.

Aside from the cramped space, dirty water is not properly disposed. The camp has pools of stagnant and muddy water.

“We have to endure the bad smell, the muddy water and almost everything bad in the world here. Please help us return to our homes. We do not need big or concrete houses. We just need a hut and the sea because it is our source of life and income,” Baridji says.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said 26,000 people are still displaced with at least 12,000 staying in several evacuation centers. The rest are in various transitional sites.

In its bulletin, the UNOCHA said 50% of the recorded deaths are children under 5 years old.

“The emergency threshold of deaths for children under age 5, (more than two cases per 10,000 per day), was breached 6 times, most recently in June 2014,” the UNOCHA said.

The UNOCHA noted that “access to healthcare remains a critical need amongst the displaced population.”

PRAYER. Residents of the city come together to pray for those who died in the siege. Photo by Rappler

“Of the 158 recorded deaths, 65% died outside of health facilities. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death which claimed 32 lives since September 2013. The prevalence of acute gastro enteritis (AGE), an indicator of poor standards and conditions of water and sanitation, claimed a further 23 lives,” the UNOCHA said.

The UNOCHA commented that the “insufficient numbers of medical staff in evacuation centres and transitional sites, and the limited supply of medicines, are some of the main concerns of health actors on the ground.”

“In response, authorities are trying to reach out to traditional midwives and provide training in maternal and child health. IDPs receive free medical services from the Zamboanga City Medical Center and the City Health Office set up a temporary clinic in Masepla transitory site in Mampang barangay (village), staffed by medical personnel on a rotational basis. Mobile clinics were created with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), rotating twice weekly between the Grand Stand evacuation centre and Masepla transitional site,” the UNOCHA said.

Many of the displaced residents say they still have some patience to spare but others say theirs is already running thin.

“We are really praying hard that the government would hasten the rehabilitation. I do not want to lose another child,” Baridji says. –

All photos by Karlos Manlupig  

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