Senate probe on deaths of refugees in Zamboanga hailed

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Various sectors have welcomed a senate resolution that would investigate the deaths—due to diseases—of many war refugees in government evacuation sites in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines.

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Alarmed by the rising casualties, Senator Nancy Binay has filed Resolution 566 urging the Senate to investigate the reported deaths and look into the health of children living in evacuation centers and many of these are filthy and lack medical and emergency facilities.

One leader of the refugees, Gamz Hassan, said they welcome the senate probe and called on Binay to come to Zamboanga and look into the heart-breaking plight of those living in evacuation areas. “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 pins his hope to the new Archbishop of Zamboanga, the Most Rev. Romulo dela Cruz, to 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,” he said.

He 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,” Hassan 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, where thousands of people displaced by fighting between rebels and security forces in September last year are struggling to survive.

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 diarrhoea and other fatal diseases among children and adults in evacuation camps. Diarrhoea 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,” she said, adding the health of the displaced persons is a paramount concern and the reports of continues deaths of refugees in Zamboanga has alarmed the senator, who is also the daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay.

Reacting to the reports on Binay’s resolution, a local resident, Juanito Delgado said: “With all the health facilities available in Zamboanga, all the money profited from the September 9 rebel attack in this city should be enough to pay for the health care of these war refugees. These war refugees are actually hostages of the government, and are used to justify the continued solicitation and recipient of millions of pesos in rehabilitation work for Zamboanga. Ours for a Better Zamboanga at the expense of these war refugees dying within reach of withheld medical help.”

Another respected politician and civic leader, Nung Ajihil, said: “Such probe will also determine and find out so far what the local government headed by Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar have done to address the problem she has been tasked as both Chief Executive of Zamboanga City and also chairperson of the Crisis Management Committee (during the rebel siege).”

“People would like to know the truth. This is in order and the right thing for the Senate to undertake showing they are concern of the sad plight of poor victims of unwanted war as IDPs wallowing in squalor for more than six months already.”

More than 100,000 residents in 15 villages here were displaced by three weeks of street battles between Moro National Liberation Front and security forces that killed and wounded over 400 people.

Majority of those displaced by the fighting have 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 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.

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

Aquino, who was then accompanied by Salazar, said the government already spent some P273.8 million in relief aid and cash-for-work program for over 120,000 people displaced by the fighting and that he allocated an additional P3.5 billion for the rehabilitation efforts here. These were on top of the millions of pesos in cash and aid that the provincial government of Sulu has sent to Zamboanga to help feed the refugees. The provincial government of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi also sent some aid to refugees in Zamboanga. Al Jacinto

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