An up-close look at the ongoing siege and conflict in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga

By Father Angel Calvo, C.M.F.| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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On Wednesday, September 18, the 10th day of the ongoing siege by rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on Zamboanga City, the official government figures of casualties were: 93 rebels dead along with 11 soldiers, three policemen, and seven civilians. Among the wounded were 86 soldiers, 12 policemen, and 67 civilians. More than 170 MNLF soldiers have surrendered, and 152 hostages have been freed from the rebels with fewer than 100 people still captive, at the time of this writing.

More than a thousand houses and small business shops have been razed to the ground in over 25 fire incidents. More than 110,000 evacuees are being sheltered in 25 evacuation centers located in the city’s sports stadium and public schools, with the numbers expected to swell further. Most of the evacuees are poor Muslim families from the conflict, urban, and coastal communities. Those include a few hundreds “boat people” called Badjaos now sheltered in tents set up in urban beaches.

The response to this huge humanitarian crisis has come mostly from the majority Christian population. Individuals, businesses, and civic organization have been contributing money, manpower, and goods for relief. The local government spearheads a Crisis Management Committee focused on assisting the evacuees, with national government agencies assisting in terms of food, emergency shelter, medical, and health services. Civil society groups are also on deck, like the Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance, Inc., which has teamed up with the St. Anthony Claret Parish in extending food, clothing, and psycho-social counseling, especially to children. Even upland farmers are donating vegetables and fruits.

The damage to the city is tremendous and mounting. Aside from the burned and damaged properties, the economy has been largely paralyzed—the airport, seaport, main public market, and large department stores have been closed. Since the city is the economic hub of the region, the economy of surrounding cities and provinces has also been adversely affected. Public transportation services are nonexistent; all schools are closed, and most work in public offices and private companies has stopped as well.

With hostilities continuing today, Friday, September 20—we had to evacuate the children from our own Street Children rehabilitation center because about eight bullets fell inside the center; and another four rebels were reported killed today—it is still too early for an in-depth assessment of the current situation.

As always, truth has been the first casualty of war. But certainly the social wounds are very deep already, and this conflict has further increased the mistrust between Christians and Muslims, not only in Zamboanga City, but in the surrounding areas as well. The large quantity of rebel logistics and ordnance indicate long advance preparation for this attack. Where did all that materiel and financing come from? Are there now radical Islamists in the ranks of the MNLF, ready to wage a longer campaign, partly because of the presence of American troops headquartered in Zamboanga since 2001?

After the siege ends, the task for the city will be three-fold: First, to strengthen internal security; second, to heal the social wounds and rebuild social harmony and intercultural relations; and third, to help the ongoing peace process—which in October 2012 had led to a peace accord between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a different and the country’s largest Muslim separatist group—be more clearly and convincingly inclusive of all Muslim tribal and political groups.

Throughout this crisis, the government—with President Benign S. Aquino III himself directing military operations in his capacity as commander in chief—has shut the door on any civil society dialogue or consultation, since it has declared that it will not entertain any ceasefire with the rebels, but only their total annihilation or surrender. And so the shooting around us goes on.