Crisis Not Over for Displaced in Zamboanga City

December 12, 2013

Tents for homeless victims of the siege line this street in Zamboanga City. Over 70,000 people remain displaced three months after the rebel attacks.

They rank last in the trio of recent crises crippling the Philippines. Sidelined first by an earthquake in Bohol, and eclipsed by Super Typhoon Haiyan´s rampage of Tacloban, the plight of the people of Zamboanga City has been buried in the avalanche of disaster coverage by international media.

Not that a 7.2-magnitude quake and one of the most destructive typhoons ever to make landfall aren´t hugely significant. But the misery inside Zamboanga has not magically disappeared either.

Two months have passed since government forces reclaimed this city on the southern island of Mindanao from Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels. The 20-day standoff left more than 100,000 people displaced and over 200 killed. The Muslim rebels also abducted about 180 civilians, including a pastor, and used them as human shields. The hostages were eventually released or escaped.

The worst damage to the city took place in the barangays (districts) of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Rio Hondo, Mariki, and Kasanyangan. Gun battles between the MNLF and government soldiers forced families to flee to emergency shelters and the city´s sports stadium.

Entire neighborhoods held by the rebels were burned, and 10,160 homes were destroyed.

As a result, an estimated ten percent of Zamboanga City´s population was displaced. Immediately after the conflict more than 102,000 residents were housed in 38 evacuation centers, many of them schools. Another 3,600 people were staying with relatives and friends.

Once used as a soccer field, the city sports complex has been transformed into an evacuee shelter until more permanent housing can be arranged.

Five days of heavy rain in early October added to the misery, as evacuees had to be moved from some of the water-logged shelters, including the stadium where many of the homeless had sought refuge.

Living conditions have not improved much since the end of the conflict. Over 70,000 people are still displaced in Zamboanga, according to a November 24 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Roughly 33,000 of these individuals are staying in 14 evacuation centers.

What to do with all of the homeless is a major and still unresolved issue. Finding available land for relocation sites is one of the biggest challenges. “In response to the need for relocation of IDPs [internally displaced persons], 12 sites are being considered: five transitory sites and seven permanent relocation sites. Bunkhouses have been constructed at three transitory sites with an accommodation capacity of 740 families,” the report said.

“Return is still not possible for families in the informal settlement of Rio Hondo and Mariki, where houses were burned,” the report also said.

Confident that security is completely restored, on December 2 the Philippine government lifted a curfew on the city that had been in effect since September. The city´s Crisis Management Committee originally imposed a 10-hour curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. The curfew was later shortened to six hours from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and then to four hours from midnight to 4 a.m.

Fighting broke out September 9 when armed rebels with the MNLF raided sections of Zamboanga City and clashed with military forces. The rebels dispersed into residential neighborhoods, where they took hostages and torched homes and businesses.

Filipino authorities believe the attacks were motivated by resentment over the government´s peace talks with a rival of MNLF—the Muslim insurgent group known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Leaders of the MNLF fear they will lose bargaining power and that any agreement reached between the MILF and the government will supersede the MNLF´s peace deal in 1996.

Clean water and improved sanitation facilities are among the many needs of displaced people living in the cramped quarters of makeshift camps.

The government is negotiating with the MILF for the creation of what Mindanao´s Islamic population hopes will become their own autonomous region. Separatists have sought to establish their own Muslim state on the island for four decades.

In a recent email to Christian Aid´s Southeast Asia director, a local ministry shared the following update on their outreach to Zamboanga evacuees:

About 60 families housed at the Bible school and seminary went back to their homes in November. Their homes were damaged and repairs were done before they finally moved back. About ten families whose homes were burned are still living in the church compound. There are still some evacuees living in the house compound of a missionary. They are waiting to be relocated soon. Many Christian organizations and some private organizations are debriefing the children and adults. I go with the Widows for Christ to have debriefing sessions and to share God´s Word with the evacuees. I am trusting that the Word of God they hear will speak to them. Let us continue to pray that the remaining evacuees still at the sports complex will be relocated soon. Our prayers for the evacuees are needed.

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