ZAMBOANGA CITY : “We live by the sea and we belong to the sea.”
Thus spoke Musa Bulahaw, a member of the indigenous Badjao tribe who now lives in one of 23 classrooms that have been converted to temporary shelters for war refugees in Mampang Village.
Bulahaw is one of dozen of refugees who have been relocated by the government on Friday after they were found living in tents in a filthy evacuation area. Like others, the refugee leader is not happy with her new home and vowed to resist further relocation efforts.
The reason: the refugees want to return to their warn-torn villages to rebuild their lives and preserve their future.
Bulahaw said living in temporary bunkhouses in the villages of Mampang, Tulungatung and Taluksangay is difficult because they cannot fish which is their sole means of livelihood.
“If they relocate us in those areas, our livelihood would be greatly affected and our families – our people – would go hungry because fishing is the only livelihood we know.
We live by the sea, we are Badjao, and we belong to the sea,” he said.
Bulahaw lives along Roseller Lim Boulevard with his 65-year old mother Kim who suffered a stroke and cannot walk. The classroom they live in can accommodate at least 2 families or about 15–20 people.
“Look at her. She cannot walk. She is paralyzed and the poor condition we are in makes it more difficult for her to live. We have been appealing repeatedly to the government to send us back home to our villages. If they use force to evict us, then blood shall be in their hands if anything bad happens here,” he said.
Hundreds of Muslims have protested the government’s failure to facilitate the return of refugees to their coastal villages. The refugees – many of them Tausug from Sulu; Yakan from Basilan; and the Badjao tribe from Tawi-Tawi province – depend on fishing for their livelihood but were relocated to the far-flung villages.
The local government said it has the approval of the Department of Education. Refugees would stay there until new bunkhouses are built far away from their original habitat.
Police closed the stretch of the boulevard and guarded the transfer of refugees. Some of them favored their relocation and thanked the local government for assisting and transporting them to Mampang and other sites. However, they also asked for livelihood skills training.
The United Nations has expressed alarm over the poor conditions of tens of thousands of war refugees living at filthy evacuation centers and transition sites here. More than a hundred refugees have died from diseases and the number is increasing due to the lack of sufficient medical and emergency facilities.
The refugees were displaced by rebel attacks mounted in September by the Moro National Liberation Front under Nur Misuari. The attack sparked three weeks of street battles that killed and wounded over 400 people and displaced some 120,000 villagers.
“There is an urgent need to find shelter solutions for these people,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, at a press briefing in Geneva.
Citing current figures from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Laerke said the refugees currently lack access to safe water and sanitation. Many are sick and suffering from acute respiratory infections, diarrhea and skin diseases due to overcrowding in the two largest evacuation centers that houses some 20,000 refugees.
“There is, for example, a need for 940 extra latrines to meet global standards. There is also a water shortage because of rationing imposed last month as reservoirs were low in the dry season,” he said, adding that food distribution to the affected people ended in December 2013.
Gammar Hassan, another refugee leader, said he misses his old home. “Who will enjoy the promised development and rehabilitation? Send us home now, not tomorrow,” he said.