Rally over plight of Zamboanga war refugees

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ZAMBOANGA CITY: Around 300 people held a rally on Wednesday to protest the government’s failure to facilitate the return of war refugees staying in filthy evacuation camps to their villages.

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Many refugees and protesters, some of them Christians, carry placards, streamers and a coffin as they marched from a mosque in Santa Barbara village to Plaza Pershing in downtown Zamboanga where their leaders and Islamic preachers spoke about the poor plight of the evacuees.

Gammar Hassan, one of the refugee leaders, said more than 100 people died from diseases the past months in evacuations sites and the more are dying due to poor health services, malnutrition and lack medical and emergency facilities there.

Senator Nancy Binay, who was alarmed by the rising casualties in refugee camps, has filed Resolution 566 urging the Senate to investigate the reported deaths and look into the health of children living in evacuation centers.

More than 120,000 had been displaced in September last year following attacks by about 400 Moro National Liberation Front rebels in Zamboanga City.

The violence sparked three weeks of street battles that killed and wounded over 400 people. At least six villages were burned to the ground during the fighting, although there were unconfirmed reports that arsonists were behind some of the burning of houses in predominantly Muslim villages even after the fighting stopped.

President Benigno Aquino said the government already spent P273.8 million in relief aid and cash-for-work program for those displaced by the war. He also allocated an additional P3.5 billion for the rehabilitation efforts on top of the millions in cash and aid that the provincial government of Sulu has sent to Zamboanga to help feed the refugees. The provincial governments of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi also sent assistance.

But Hassan said the government has prevented the refugees from returning to their villages and has forced them to far-flung areas. He said majority of the refugees opposed the government’s relocation plan to put them in other areas saying it would be extremely difficult for them to rebuild their lives.

The refugees, many of them Tausug from Sulu, Yakan from Basilan and indigenous Badjao tribe from Tawi-Tawi engaged in fishing and other traditional livelihoods, were 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. Some female refugees have resorted to prostitution just to be able to survive because government aid has already stopped.

The government has built bunkhouses as temporary shelters to those affected by the violence, but it also warned that villagers who are not natives of Zamboanga would not be allowed to return to their former abode, unless they can provide certificates to show they are landowners.

While others protested the relocation plan, many also praised the local government for providing them a living quarter and were elated by their new bunkhouses houses, saying it greatly helped them in rebuilding their family and future. The P10-million bunkhouses, built by the army, were funded by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

“Senator Nancy Binay, we welcome you to grandstand in Zamboanga. Hoping for your fair and just investigation on the death in our evacuation centers, IDPs’ hope are on you now,” he said, referring to internally displaced persons at the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex.

Hassan also hopes the new Archbishop of Zamboanga, Rev. Romulo dela Cruz, will help them. “It’s a challenge to him as new church head in the city, since no Christian communities and churches reached their hands to us aside from some Christian families helping by bringing foods and clothing.”

Hassan also urged the local government to allow the refugees to return to their places instead of holding them in evacuation centers.

“Build back better till we all die in pain. Who will enjoy the promised development and rehabilitation? Send us home now, not tomorrow,” he said.

Even access to clean and potable water and portable toilets are also a huge problem in refugee centers, particularly at the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex.

Binay said: “The health of families, especially those of the vulnerable – children and the elderly – must be continuously monitored and evaluated by the authorities.”

Citing medical reports from Zamboanga City, Binay said many of those who died had suffered from diarrhea and other fatal diseases among children and adults in evacuation camps. Diarrhea is the leading cause of the children’s deaths while acute gastroenteritis and other respiratory ailments such as pneumonia and asthma leading to cardiac arrest are the primary causes of adult deaths, she said, quoting a medical report from Zamboanga.

“This is an alarming trend, as many people continue to stay inside the camps,” the daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay said, adding the health of displaced people is a paramount concern.

Just before Christmas, President Benigno Aquino flew to Zamboanga City and briefly inspected the temporary shelters of the refugees. He assured them of the government’s rehabilitation efforts, saying his administration is working closely with various agencies to rebuild houses destroyed during the war.

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