A year on, Zamboanga’s tragedy continues

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What has come to be known as the Siege of Zamboanga started exactly a year ago today, when heavily armed men materialized seemingly from out of nowhere and began to march to Zamboanga’s City Hall. The gunmen had planned to raise the flag of the Bangsamoro Republik, proclaimed in Sulu several days earlier by the founder and former moving spirit of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari.

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Misuari had sent fighters from his faction in the MNLF to Zamboanga to force a confrontation with the Aquino government, which was working on a peace agreement with the MNLF’s archrival, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Misuari was chafing at his being shoved off the stage of Mindanao politics, and wanted to prove that he still wielded enough power and influence to challenge the government.

Recovering from their initial surprise, government troops and local police managed to stop Misuari’s followers from reaching City Hall. The group retreated to four villages in the city and dug in.

For the next 18 days, Zamboanga City became an urban war zone as government forces tried to dislodge the gunmen from their entrenched positions. The fighting forced thousands of residents out of their homes, closed shops, offices and schools and brought the city to a standstill.

Attempts to broker a truce failed, and Misuari washed his hands of the incident, claiming his ground commander in Zamboanga was acting on his own.

The government did not want to be faced with a prolonged standoff. On September 12, Malacañang issued an ultimatum to Misuari’s men to surrender and warning them that “the state will not hesitate to use its forces to protect our people.”

The MNLF fighters ignored the ultimatum, and the clashes became more intense.

Government forces used mortar and attack helicopters to pound MNLF positions, but Misuari’s men hung on.

The fighting continued until September 28, when Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declared that the Zamboanga siege was officially over.

The costs of the conflict were high: Close to 250 people killed, 12 of them civilians, over 100,000 people homeless, a city on its knees.

But a bigger tragedy loomed for Zamboanga. The government had announced elaborate plans to help the residents who were displaced by the fighting rebuild their homes and their lives. There were pledges to help the city recover from the devastation, and plans were laid out to build a new and more beautiful Zamboanga.

That was a year ago. Today the city is still coping with a massive humanitarian crisis. About 11,000 Zamboangueños remain in a sports stadium that has been converted into a makeshift evacuation center.

The center has deteriorated into a slum community. Tent shanties have sprung up. There are not enough toilets. The lines at the water faucets are long. The squalid conditions have spawned health issues. Pneumonia, dysentery and other diseases have killed 168 people.

Social malaise is also slowly creeping into the center. Reports that some of the girls at the center have turned to prostitution is cause for alarm. Crime has become a major concern.

In its Zamboanga Action Plan, the United Nations painted a dire picture of the situation in the city’s two evacuation centers. “Prolonged displacement in overcrowded conditions without adequate sanitation and nutrition or protection from abuse and exploitation continues to pose health and protection risks…” the UN reported.

The UN is seeking $12.8 million from humanitarian partners to complement the government’s recovery efforts. But the organization acknowledges that a lot still needs to be done.

Zamboanga highlights the government’s woefully inadequate response to a major humanitarian crisis.

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