• Desperate Zamboanga war refugees fail to return home

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    ZAMBOANGA CITY: Hundreds of war refugees have failed to return to their homes in Zamboanga City, a month after street battles between security forces and separatist rebels ravaged their place.

    The villagers wanted to rebuild what was left in Santa Barbara, scene of three weeks of deadly clashes last month, after military offensive left the area burned and destroyed.

    Village chieftain Adbulhamid Irin also told residents that they can now return to the area after security forces cleared Santa Barbara and local government approved their safe return. Irin made the announcement at the dxRZ Radyo Agong, saying the assurance to return came from the two staffs of Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar.

    But troops and policemen prevented villagers from entering the village after Salazar told them that no clearance has been issued for civilians to return.

    A team from the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center was also in the area after receiving reports that residents have been allowed in the village. It said some 300 residents trooped to Santa Barbara hoping to finally return to their houses, but the number swelled to over a thousand people.

    It said Salazar sent Councilman Roel Natividad to talk to the villagers, but he was not able to manage the queries from the residents.  “Nonetheless, it was announced that the legitimate owners of the houses, apartments and other buildings will be given time to see their properties once the Crisis Management Committee gives the necessary clearance,” the human rights center said.

    Salazar also arrived later to pacify angry villagers. She said more work is needed in the village before residents are allowed to return.

    “We appeal to the people who really wanted to return home, you have to coordinate with the barangay officials because they will be the one to coordinate as to who can return because they know who the property owners are and we want to prevent looting. The military has been instructed by [1st Infantry Division commander] General Felicito Virgilio Trinidad that all personnel [troops]leaving [the village]will have to pass an inspection, shown to the public so they will know that there was no looting done by any military or police,” she said.

    The Department of Social Welfare and Development has allocated P10 million to fund the building of bunkhouses inside the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex where thousands of war refugees are now staying. The bunkhouses are only temporary shelters that will house several hundred people.

    The fighting, which killed and wounded more than 400 people, forced over 100,000 people to flee their homes.

    Just recently, the Refugee Welfare Committee of Settlement Scheme in Bahagia Village in Sabah’s Sandakan town has sent relief aid for the refugees through the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center in its Zamboanga headquarters.

    The humanitarian aid was collected from concerned citizens in Malaysia, particularly in Sabah, and sent here by boat. Committee Chairman Nasir Abdullah has sought the assistance of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center for the distribution of 86 sacks of relief goods. AL JACINTO

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