ZAMBOANGA CITY: Three governors of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have pledged anew to assist Zamboanga and its war refugees in an effort to hasten rehabilitation and rebuilding of the country’s third largest city, attacked by separatist rebels in September.
The governors—Totoh Tan, of Sulu province; Nurbert Sahali, of Tawi-Tawi; and Jum Akbar, of Basilan province—were also supported by lawmakers Maryam Arbison, of Sulu, and Ruby Sahali, of Tawi-Tawi and their mayors. They also vowed to uphold the rights of thousands of displaced Muslim villagers in Zamboanga.
Tan said they are ready to help the refugees in Zamboanga and would coordinate closely with the local government and various agencies to ensure the welfare of the refugees. Tan was among the first to respond to post-crisis emergency by donating over P3 million in cash and relief aid for the victims of the war in Zamboanga.
He again vowed to extend assistance to Zamboanga’s refugees. Sahali and Akbar also pledged to help Zamboanga deal with the problems brought about by the displacement of tens of thousands of people who are still in evacuation areas.
The pledges were made following a regional summit attended by over 200 leaders of various Muslims and Christian groups in Zamboanga City. The conveners of the meeting dubbed “Confidence building, Reconstruction and Healing: What Muslim and Christian Leaders Can Do Together,” were the Darul Ifta, the City Government of Zamboanga and the Archdiocese of Zamboanga.
The summit discussed the plight of the refugees who are still in various evacuation sites here. They were displaced by three weeks of street battles between government forces and hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front rebels who occupied villages in a failed rebellion.
Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi assistance
Vice Gov. Sakur Tan of Sulu said that Muslim villagers have sought the intervention of the governors and Muslim religious leaders to stop the relocation of the refugees and to allow them to return to their original villages.
Tan said they are working in close coordination with the Sulu Provincial Women’s Council and different civil society groups, among others to send more aid for refugees, especially the women and children, in Zamboanga City.
“We are here to help our refugees and we shall continue helping them in coordination with the Zamboanga City government headed by Mayor Beng [Maria Isabelle] Climaco [Salazar], and of course the various groups which share our humanitarian advocacy,” the vice governor said.
Mayors of Sulu and members of the provincial board were also present during the meeting, but notably Gov. Mujiv Hataman of ARMM, who is a native of Basilan province, was not around, and none from his office also represented him, although there were some members of the Regional Legislative Assembly.
In his speech, Tan emphasized that they are not intruding into the affairs of Zamboanga, but just wanted to help the local government solve the problems of the refugees.
“We do not want to be misconstrued as intruding into the affairs of Zamboanga, but we thought we are obliged as well to help address the concerns of those people who have been affected by the siege that took place on September 9.”
“We have seen how much suffering the people in the Visayas have gone through as the result of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), but the whole world is providing that much attention, so I would rather that we do not turn our backs to our people here in Zamboanga and we are very appreciative of the efforts of the people of Zamboanga headed by no less than Mayor Beng Climaco [Salazar],” the vice governor said.
“Pinagusapan namin ito kung paano kami makatulong dito sa Zamboanga City at nakikita namin ang kahirapan and we feel that it is also our obligation kasi unang-una our people come to Zamboanga for their medical requirements, our people come to Zamboanga for education, our people come to Zamboanga for their livelihood kaya tingin namin kailangan namin tulungan ang Zamboanga, alagaan ang Zamboanga at hindi natin puwedeng pabayaan ang Zam-boanga,” he added.
He also cautioned the participants against those who are trying to sow confusion or hatred between Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples, saying, all three groups live harmoniously in Zamboanga.
“We need not emulate what others are doing in other countries. Dito sa atin, we are very open. Mixed marriages are not uncommon, mixed marriages between the two faiths—the Christians and the Muslims—look at other territories or other areas in other parts of the world ano ang nangyayari di ba pahirap ng pahirap. Kaya kailangan dito sa atin—they be Christians or they be Muslims, let us be one, we cannot live alone, dapat magsama-sama tayong lahat at magtulong-tulungan tayo,” he said.
Tan, who vowed to support Salazar’s efforts in rehabilitating and rebuilding Zamboanga, was many times interrupted by applause from the participants of the summit, including representatives of refugees and Muslin religious leaders and Catholic priests and peace advocates and members of the civil society groups, among others.
The Darul Ifta of Zamboanga, a grouping composed of Muslim leaders, also vowed to support the efforts in protecting the welfare and well-being of the refugees. Its leaders told Salazar that at least 47 mostly children had died in evacuation centers due to respiratory diseases.
In an emotional speech, Salazar, who nearly broke down, has apologized for the deaths of the children and said they are doing everything to stop the spread of deadly diseases in refugee shelters. She said they are closely working with various health and humanitarian agencies to prevent the diseases. She also ordered the quick release of assistance to families of those whose poor children had perished due to sickness.
She also thanked the three governors and all those who helped Zamboanga during the humanitarian crisis and praised the various Christian and Muslim groups, especially the Darul Ifta and peace advocates and Muslim leaders and the Archdiocese of Zamboanga for their support to the rehabilitation efforts of the local government.
Refugees have previously protested the relocation plan of the local government, saying, it would be extremely difficult for them to rebuild their lives.
The villagers, many of them Tausug from Sulu; Yakan, from Basilan; and indigenous Badjao tribe from Tawi-Tawi province—engaged in fishing and other traditional livelihoods—were being relocated to the far villages of Tulungatung and Taluksangay from their original habitat in the coastal villages of Rio Hondo and Mariki and other areas.