Rebuilding shattered lives in the Philippines

Tens of thousands of Zamboanga residents still struggle with the effects of the deadly 2013 Muslim rebel siege.

Zamboanga, Philippines – One year after Muslim rebels laid siege to this bustling port city in the southern Philippines, misery and death continue to stalk tens of thousands of war displaced who are struggling to rebuild their shattered lives.

Of the more than 100,000 who fled when rogue members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) took over sections of Zamboanga city last year, about half remain homeless, many of them crammed in squalid evacuation sites and in transitory shelters. Water and sanitation are major problems, and the threat of disease outbreaks are an ever-present danger, aid workers say.

For Jubaira Arsad, a 54-year-old grandmother, every day is a constant struggle to feed her household of 16 people sharing a makeshift shelter of wood, tarpaulin and tin roofing no bigger than a garage.

The challenge now is on the government side to fast track rehabilitation. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to get these people to permanent shelters and give them back their dignity.

by - Gabriel Daclan, Zamboanga International Committee of the Red Cross

Arsad said she and her family escaped their seaside home as the MNLF fighters took control of the community, taking scores of hostages and later razing to the ground more than 10,000 homes.

After three days of walking and sleeping on the road, the family sought shelter in the city’s main sports stadium, which by that time had been transformed into the main emergency shelter. A year on and she still calls this home – one where the situation has gotten bleaker each passing day.

“We escaped with just our clothes on our back. We had to carry my sickly husband,” she told Al Jazeera. “We arrived here, but there was nowhere to go. We pitched a tent under a tree.”

Her husband’s health deteriorated, however, and within days, “he simply gave up and died”, said Arsad, who has found a job paying $4 a day as a sweeper in the muddy grounds, a small but crucial amount that’s only enough to buy a day’s ration of rice.

“NGOs give us water and food, but I hope we can finally go back to rebuild our homes because if you look around, it is very dirty, it smells and it is bad for my grandchildren,” she said of the stadium.

Around the camp, grime-covered, naked children play in the mud near overflowing latrines. Many defecate openly, shame having long taken a back seat to more primal, human needs, even as camp managers constantly warn them of potential disease outbreaks.

Rebel march led to violence

Fighting erupted on September 9 last year when heavily armed MNLF forces attempted to march on city hall to hoist their flag as a sign of protest over the Philippine government’s decision to sign a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a group that had broken away from their ranks in the 1970s.

MNLF fighters led by veteran mujahidin Habier Malik accused the government of reneging on its own peace deal with the MNLF in 1996 because it had offered an expanded autonomous region to MILF, which would effectively relegate the former to the sidelines.

The violence underscored the difficulties faced by the government in ending a highly factionalized Muslim rebellion that began more than four decades ago – one of the longest and bloodiest insurgencies in Asia – that has left about 120,000 dead.

A teenager walks inside the San Joaquin Sports Complex in Zamboanga [Jeoffrey Maitem/Al Jazeera]

In the days of fighting that followed, black smoke shrouded the Zamboanga skyline, the city of one million was shut down, and the air and seaports ground to a standstill, leading to an unprecedented economic loss. The fighters dug in for three weeks, with rebels engaging troops in gunbattles that were the most intense seen in the volatile southern region in recent years.

More than 100 MNLF fighters were killed, while dozens of soldiers also were slain and wounded. Malik, a hard-line Islamist loyal to MNLF founder Nur Misuari, was wounded but escaped. Both men remain at large and fears remain they could once again launch another assault as the government prepares to submit to Congress a self-rule bill for its rival, the MILF.

“Some families have returned and everything is slowly going back to normal, although it remains a struggle,” said Jimmy Villaflores, village chief in Santa Catalina, a densely populated Zamboanga district where nine out of 10 homes were burnt down.

“I’ve been asking my neighbours about their situation and they have been telling me … they are finding it very difficult because they do not have power yet, and water supply remains an issue,” he said.

Recovery painfully slow

The government has built some shelters and provided building materials for some of the displaced people, but not everyone has been given access to this, and there are concerns that progress has been painfully slow.

Just around the corner, Marines have taken over a destroyed civilian home, cautioning everyone to remain alert and report unfamiliar faces acting suspiciously. The soldiers patrol the coastal area, giving residents who have returned some semblance of security.

“The government must ensure that it steps up its intelligence gathering so that this will not happen again,” said Villaflores, who at the height of the conflict was trapped at his home for 20 days, but who also helped guide the soldiers to the rebel position.

“The children are still traumatised. They will never live normal lives again,” he said.

The government must ensure that it steps up its intelligence gathering so that this will not happen again. The children are still traumatised. They will never live normal lives again.

by - Jimmy Villaflores, village chief

Armed forces spokesman Colonel Ramon Zagala said troops were closely working with the communities to ensure the crisis would not be repeated as the city moves towards full normalisation.

“Misuari’s faction was heavily debilitated as a consequence of their failed attack on Zamboanga city,” he told Al Jazeera. “Right now, he is hiding and eventually the law will catch up to him.”

At the evacuation camps, aid workers too, are struggling under the weight of the humanitarian crisis. There have been many reports of children and women being sexually assaulted, and of many forced into prostitution to survive.

Disease outbreaks have also taken its toll on the vulnerable, with the International Committee of the Red Cross and local officials reporting more than 160 people have died because of disease at evacuation sites, the majority children.

“The conditions that we have here is really a challenge considering the number of displaced people,” Gabriel Daclan, an ICRC representative in Zamboanga, said. “We are trying to educate the people to help improve their living conditions, but as you can see, sanitation remains a huge issue.”

He said the government planned to resettle those in the evacuation camps by December, and move them to better-managed “transitory sites” around the city, where they will await final resettlement. However, the aim is to give everyone permanent housing by July next year – nearly two years after the siege.

“The challenge now is on the government side to fast track rehabilitation,” Daclan said. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is to get these people to permanent shelters and give them back their dignity.”

As for Arsad, the grandmother, only one question needs to be urgently answered at the moment: “Can anyone tell us when we can go back to real homes?”