ZAMBOANGA CITY: It has been a while since I visited this city once known for its beautiful girls and bountiful harvests from the sea, especially the famous coconut crab, Curacha.
On Sunday, after a long drive which took us from Davao City to Butuan City, Cagayan de Oro City, Iligan City, Pagadian City and finally, Zamboanga City, I asked the staff to come with me to SM Zamboanga to buy some things for the Federalism Forum at the Astoria Hotel here where Davao City Mayor Rody Duterte was be the main speaker.
Google Search said there is an SM Mall in Zamboanga and I thought that would be the best place to go.
“No hay SM aqui, Sir,” the hotel concierge told me. The biggest mall is still being constructed, the KCC he added.
“Okey. Could you please call a taxi to bring us to the place where I could buy some computer gadgets?” I asked him.
“No hay taxi. Tricycle lang, Sir,” he replied.
There used to be a taxi company which operated in Zamboanga City years back but I was told that it has ceased operation and the common transport within the city now are the old jeepneys and the reliable tricycles.
As the three-tired vehicle brought us around the city in search for the things we needed, it was evident that people walked with fear and anxiety in their eyes.
The car bomb which exploded last Saturday along a major road of the city killing two, wounding over 50 others and destroying business establishments seemed to be a constant reminder for people that tragedy could befell on them at any moment.
On September 9, 2013, Zamboanga City woke up to the bursts of gunfire as heavily armed members of the rogue Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who were reportedly angry that they were left out of the peace deal of the government with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) penetrated the city unnoticed and wrought havoc, burning houses and shooting it out with government troops.
Scores of civilians were killed, 19 government troops died in the battle, the 500 armed attackers were routed with 208 of them killed and over 24,000 families were dislocated.
Until today, some of the families whose homes were burned during the attack, still live in tents and the fear that it could happen again still haunt the people of the city.
Last Saturday, Jan. 24, the city was terrorized again as suspected members of the terror group Abu Sayyaf, based mainly in the nearby island province of Basilan, attempted to spring their comrades from jail by staging a car bombing.
Computer technician Rodney Omictin said life has been hard for the people of the city because business has not been doing well.
Once known as the barter trade center of the Philippines where business was brisk, businessmen today shy away from this troubled city and the best proof to that is the absence of the big malls found in other cities, like SM and Robinsons.
“Mahirap talaga ang buhay dito, Sir. Maski anong oras, puedeng may mangyari,” said the tricycle driver who brought us around the city.
Zamboanga City, once considered as the Queen City of the South, is now plastered with streamers pleading “No Te Vayas de Zamboanga.”
“Please do not leave Zamboanga,” is a poignant message from a city which girls decades ago did not want their boyfriends to visit because they might be enamored with the beautiful Chavacanas.
“Don’t you go, don’t you go to far Zamboanga., where you may forget your darling…” the lines of the old song said.
Caught in the middle of a restive Moro group seeking recognition as a nation different from the rest of the Philippines and fighting for self-determination, and a government which could not seem to discover the best formula to resolve the unrest, the people of Zamboanga have become the helpless victims of violence.
“Tanggap na namin ito. Diyos na ang bahala,” said the tricycle driver.
Could things change for the people of Zamboanga?
There is no clear answer as yet. This was evident in the empty faces I saw in the dusty streets of this once romantic city of Mindanao.