ZAMBOANGA CITY: I re-visited a few days ago this southern jewel, which was ravaged by a three-week conflict triggered by marauding elements of Moro National Liberation Front’s Ustadz Habier Malik. Even when I was a kid, I knew it as Zamboanga “Hermosa.” And yes, it is still an alluring hispanic city in the south.
Now two months after the siege ended, my visit coincided with the lifting of the curfew and the celebration of Mindanao’s “week of peace” upon invitation by Claretian Fr. Angel Calvo of the Zamboanga Peace Advocates.
A quick drive inside the Zamboanga sports grandstand grounds in muddy strips of what were before rubberized race tracks was an agony. Thousands of families were still in makeshift tents, sheds in squalid conditions waiting—not in vain, I hope—for relocation and rehabilitation. Outside the sports grounds, in the street islands facing the sea, what was before a fashionable boulevard was now sprouting with new sheds. Ironically, a fiesta atmosphere was evident. Then I noticed many small, rickety boats docked across the breakwater. I was told that even after the siege, boat loads of “instant evacuees” also started arriving from nearby islands, joining in the mad scramble for free food and goodies. An opportunity for the needy.
In Taluksangay, a community of indigenous Sama Bangingi tribe about 20 kilometers away, some makeshift bunkers were being built hoping it could accommodate some of those who lost their homes during the conflict. About 10,000 houses were destroyed and some 120,000 persons were displaced. Close to 400 died and wounded.
Todate, things are still on standstill. This is worsened by the fact that some evacuees, mostly the sea-faring Badjaos refused to be relocated “inland” and far from the sea.
When I visited Taluksangay, news greeted me that Congress-woman Lilia Nuno just hurrriedly left for Manila checking on flash reports that President Aquino’s promised P3.8-billion rehab funds were nowhere and could be lost in the maze of rehab work also in the Visayas.
During the “week of peace” program in Taluksangay, I took special note when the Muslim students did a native dance to the tune of a popular Chavacano song—a very poignant message to all that there is need for all Zamboanguenos, whether Muslims, IPs or Christians to have “inclusive” feelings to one another to heal the “polarization” and distrust that was unfortunately spawned by conflict. Zamboanga badly needs social cohesion and unity amidst diversity.
As I left for the airport, I bumped into a long time friend and Mindanao worker, retired Westmincom commander, Gen. Rey Ardo. I then thought he could make a good rehab czar for Zamboanga. Just thinking aloud. Then at the Garden Orchid hotel, I spotted so many Caucasian-looking guests coming and going. No, not tourists but mostly international humanitarian aid workers who had flocked to this place to give aid and comfort to the unfortunates. Zamboanga must rise from its ashes but it cannot do it alone by its lonesome self.
By all means, let’s all help the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. But let’s not forget Zamboanga “Hermosa.”
(The author was formerly presidential adviser for Mindanao and peace adviser. He is presently head of the Philippine Press Institute and Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc.)