Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declared “mission accomplished” in Zamboanga City on Friday with the rescue of the remaining hostages of Habier Malik’s band, but the conflict that started on Sept. 9 has resulted in what the United Nations termed a “humanitarian crisis.”
How are the 118,819 men, women and children displaced by the fighting and crammed in 35 evacuation centers to pick up the pieces of their lives? For an idea of the extent of the residents’ suffering, at one point in the three-week conflict more than 50,000 people packed the city’s Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, the biggest evacuation center, presenting a logistical nightmare to the Department of Social Welfare and Development and local and international humanitarian agencies.
Late last week, Luiza Carvalho, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, issued a statement expressing her agency’s “increasing alarm” at “the situation and the growing needs of the people caught up in the violence.” She said the UN was “particularly concerned for the most vulnerable, especially the wellbeing of women and children.”
The UN has reason to be alarmed. The fighting between government troops and the Malik-led renegades belonging to the Misuari Group of the Moro National Liberation Front has forced the displaced families to make do with the barest of provisions and sanitation facilities. The miserable conditions inevitably led to the spread of disease—notably measles and chicken pox, extremely communicable diseases especially in dense populations—at the sports complex. Last week, a two-month-old baby died from severe dehydration at the complex, according to Fr. Eduardo Vasquez. “Even the mother could barely walk, probably out of exhaustion,” he said.
“We are particularly concerned that aid is delivered in an impartial manner, with the needs of the most vulnerable met and those outside the evacuation centers not forgotten. The United Nations calls on all parties to uphold the principles of impartiality, humanity, neutrality and independence,” said Carvalho.
Expectedly, the schooling of some 12,000 public school children in Zamboanga has been badly disrupted. It will take three months for the schools in the war zone to resume regular classes, according to Assistant Education Secretary Rey Laguda. But he said the Department of Education would use “alternative delivery modes” for the four affected public schools and would immediately “take into account each and every learner.”
Officials say nine civilians (including children), 19 soldiers, five policemen, and 138 rebels were killed, and 57 civilians, 167 soldiers and 14 policemen were wounded in 19 days of fighting. The extent of the devastation is grimly illustrated by news photographs and footage showing soldiers wearing gas masks and residents overcome by the stench of decaying corpses. As many as 223 renegades have been captured and 52 have surrendered. And Zamboanga Hermosa lies in ruins, literally and figuratively, its future prospects in danger. “There’s only one word to describe what is happening in the city—catastrophic,” Zamboanga City Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Cholo Soliven has remarked. “[O]ur economy is bleeding.”
Gazmin said government forces had rescued a total of 194 hostages, with the troops now conducting a “direct action” to hunt down Malik and the rest of the renegades. Rebellion and other charges are being prepared by the Department of Justice against Nur Misuari and his commanders. But apart from these efforts, it behooves the government to also look into the renegades’ claims that they had been promised money and munitions to do havoc in Zamboanga. More important, where did the money to initiate and sustain the renegades’ incursion come from?
President Aquino is said to have earmarked P3 billion for the rebuilding of Zamboanga. “This is a huge challenge to us but the government is making sure that the early recovery and rehabilitation efforts are well organized and systematic,” Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman has said. But if the root of this crisis is not addressed once and for all, and if the parties responsible for this costly and unforgivable adventure are not immediately and justly punished, all those efforts will be for naught.