Philippine conflict’s ‘collateral damage’

One survivor of last month’s deadly Zamboanga siege says both hostages and hostage-takers are victims of circumstance.

When I visited Juan Santander Morte in his home, he was playing solitaire.

“This is a game of chance,” he says. “It takes my mind off things.”

He is one of the survivors of the deadly Zamboanga siege by alleged fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

He showed me a video of him tied up with a rope and used as a human shield by MNLF fighters.

Hit by a shrapnel on the head and back, he says the videos of the Philippine military allegedly shooting at hostages waving the white flag are not fabricated.

I asked him how he feels every time he sees the video. He doesn’t blame anyone, not the Philippine military. Everybody is a “collateral damage” of war, he told me.

To accept Santander’s current disposition, one must first understand his past.

He grew up in the midst of war.

Once a member of the civilian auxiliary force in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, he fought against the MNLF during its struggle for independence in the 1960s.

But 45 years on, he faced them again. This time, as their hostage.

Subjected to their will, he felt powerless.

Christian or Muslim?

MNLF fighters in combat uniforms and firearms came knocking at Santander’s door on September 9.


He didn’t answer.

“Christian or Muslim?” the fighter asked.

Christian, he answered.

“Then you better come with me.”

Santander finally managed to escape when fighting broke out in one of the villages where he was holed up.

He says civilians were caught in the crossfire.

But curiously enough, he feels no hate towards the MNLF fighters who took him hostage.

“We are all victims of circumstance, Jamela. For what good will hate bring me? So best to just accept it. This is Zamboanga – I was born here. We are used to armed conflict.”

Injustice is a tragedy that has long plagued this region of the southern Philippines.

Decades of poverty and militarisation had fuelled suspicion particularly in this area of Mindanao.

Corrosive animosity

Muslims in the Philippines are a minority, representing only five percent of its predominantly Roman Catholic population.

Religious nimosity has isolated communities and marginalised tribes, and has been long been the cause of the Moro people’s fight for self-determination.

The MNLF led the Muslim rebellion in the 1960s. It signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. But that peace agreement was never fully implemented.

Now, it is opposing peace talks between the Philippine government and another breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

A few months ago, its founder, Nur Misuari, announced that he was forming an independent republic that will govern over the Moro people in the southern Philippines.

The message was ominous, but it was largely ignored by the government.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino had always described the MNLF as a spent force.

Then the Zamboanga siege happened.

Killer bullets

At a press conference, I asked Aquino about the videos and the allegations that government bullets may have killed innocent civilians.

“MILF is used to propaganda,” he told me, implying that this one is no different.

He also reminded everyone that it was the MNLF that first violated the rules of war by using civilians as human shields.

Nur Misuari is known to be a chief propagandist. A political chameleon who has manoeuvred through countless administrations.

But it is hard to drown out the testaments of many civilians who have survived the siege.

They say the military’s use of force had put their lives in added danger, while some say they witnessed civilians being killed by military bullets.

Over 8,000 government troops surged into Zamboanga during the 19-day siege.

But no clear negotiation with the Philippine government took place and, in the weeks that followed, the city became a battlefield.

Squalid conditions

Over 120,000 people have been displaced. Thousands of families live in evacuation camps under squalid conditions.

There is barely enough food to eat and drink while government resources to provide for these residents are stretched.

Some residents are now slowly being allowed to return to their communities.

They say though they are grateful, now they are faced with another dilemma: how to pick up the pieces of their lives back again.

They come back only to discover they no longer have homes to return to, while others found out that their belongings had been stolen and began to accuse some members of the Philippine military of looting.

One resident told me he can no longer recognise the city he grew up in: he has lost everything except one thing, he says – his dignity.

It is a narrative of a people forced to face a painful reality.

The streets of Zamboanga are littered with stories of loss, anguish and trauma. And also of bravery, of people steadfast for the sake of their families and for the Zamboanga they still love.