Zamboanga siege: stories of despair

One year after the rebel attack, thousands of displaced people continue to struggle in makeshift camps.

After 19 days of siege, the Philippine military declared victory in Zamboanga against fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front.

But at what price?

More than 300 people were killed. And hundreds of thousands were left homeless.

Hundreds of evacuees continue to live under squalid conditions. Many of them deeply traumatised by the fighting. Their horror continues, they tell me, because the situation in the camps had stripped them of their dignity.

Over 150 people have died in the shelters, more than half of them are children. Most of them dying of respiratory and water-borne diseases. Medical and food rations have dwindled. More than half of the children are out of school.

Ayana Sabturani’s infant son was one of the children who perished. She was pregnant when she started living in this camp, her baby was born here. After three months, her baby died of pneumonia. She told me her story under a makeshift shelter of carton and wood, clutching my hand while she cried.

Ayana’s other malnourished children stared blankly at their mother. They were half-naked and had what looked like skin infections on their faces and chests. Their hair was patchy, scabs covering their scalps and their extremities.

Very little food

The mayor of Zamboanga tells me her government is doing everything it can.

“Conditions here are getting better and they will continue to improve, inshallah,” she said, smiling to me sweetly.

But did she think I couldn’t see? You can barely call these shelters. The camps are horrid. There is very little food.

What passes for sanitation facilities are about a dozen filthy portalets for the thousands of evacuees in the camp.

There is barely any electricity in this evacuation area. Water rations are low, a result of the lack of electricity.

Refugees here tell me they sacrifice sleep to await the water deliveries. When the water delivery comes, these evacuees get what they can, not knowing when the next supply will arrive.

Every day for 19 days of that siege, I was doing live reports hourly.

Thousands of young soldiers kitted out in brand-new gear were deployed into the streets.

Some of these soldiers looked inexperienced to me, like they’d just come out of the academy.

Pillaging and burning

They were tripping in their combat boots, clumsily holding their helmets as they took orders from their commanders.

For weeks, the fighting continued. So did the pillaging and burning of neighbourhoods.

From my live position, I made a tally: Santa Catalina was razed 17 times in one day. Who was setting these blazes? The rebels? The soldiers?

At one time a grenade was lobbed at us from the frontlines. I was crouched behind a parked vehicle, writing my script so I remained unscathed.

A few feet away from me, the Red Cross volunteers were hit in the body and face, possibly by shrapnel.

The soldiers had lost control. They were retreating while spectators kept at bay a few hundred feet away surged in. It was utter chaos. We were told that it was a misfire from the soldiers stationed just across the street.

There was so much destruction: Plumes of fire, dead bodies. After weeks of covering the siege, I had so many questions. I was already on the edge.

‘Conflicting messages’

In one of his press briefings, I asked Interior Secretary Mar Roxas what his end game was.

“The vice-president says a new ceasefire agreement has been made, and yet your defence secretary denies it. There is disunity within your government and it is sending conflicting messages on the ground,” I said.

There is no disunity, Roxas told me.

“Are negotiations even under way?” I asked

He gave no direct answer. Nobody knew what was happening, not even the mayor of Zamboanga or the defence secretary. It seemed, all they knew was this: The president was in no mood to negotiate.

It was obvious they had no exit strategy. In the days that followed, they were more than willing to trumpet their victory, if indeed it was a win.

Like a predator displaying its kill, some soldiers paraded the bodies of dead Moro National Liberation Front fighters before me. “Snipers,” one of them told me.

The alleged rebels’ bodies were already decomposing.

A wedding ring

One body stood out more than the others: She was young, not more than 18. She was clad in MNLF combat camos and sported a wedding ring.

The left side of her face had been torn away by bullets or shrapnel. Her dried brains were splattered on the floor.

Yet she still had one of her pearl earrings in her right earlobe. On display beside her was whatever was left of her possessions, wrapped in a handkerchief: A small bag of rice, sachets of instant coffee mix, candies and pictures of her children.

I burst into tears. Here was the last few days of this woman’s life, all reduced to a pitiful pile of sundries.

What pushed this young girl, this wife and mother, to leave everything behind her to kill, to fight? Was it the promise of a better life?

Was she seeking hope through the crosshairs?

The soldiers with me sneered at them, the dead young men and women they called the “enemy”.

Yet they are Filipinos, after all that was said and done.

Still, after more than 20 days, they declared victory. They raised the flags outside Zamboanga City’s halls. The bad men are gone.

The rebels lay defeated, they said, the hostages were released.

And yet, the whole operation failed to address the single biggest problem that many Muslim-dominated areas are faced with – the issue of perceived injustices.

Muslims say discrimination against them has intensified and that they have never felt more vulnerable.

Misuari still at large

One year on, Nur Misuari is still at large and his faction remains a threat to the very fragile peace in the region.

Zamboanga City is recovering, slowly.

It has striven economically and politically, just like any other thriving city. But even its best areas continue to bear deep scars.

You see the truth told by shattered windows, abandoned neighbourhoods. You see it in the haunted eyes of the city’s orphaned children.

President Aquino told them to be patient: “You can return to your homes next month.”

But nobody knows when, exactly “next month” is.

Tanks were replaced by tents and the guns now lie silent.

One year after the siege, the struggle of those left to cope with the aftermath continues. The majority of those still in the camps are Muslims caught up in a war they knew nothing about.

This place is an expanse of the dispossessed. Here are a people whose lives have been interrupted, who are waiting with waning hope.

And it is in this kind of situation that proves that war has absolutely no moral justification. Here, in this desolation, refugees say they no longer believe their situation will improve. It is just too bleak.