‘Killing us slowly’
Half a year after the rogue Nur Misuari faction of the Moro National Liberation Front began what is now commonly referred to as the three-week-long “siege of Zamboanga,” the list of casualties from that crisis continues to lengthen. According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the fighting in September 2013 claimed the lives of 23 soldiers and policemen, some 100 MNLF-Misuari combatants and nine civilians. Since then, however, at least 102 civilians have died in the evacuation centers of Zamboanga City. This is a horrifying statistic, an indictment of both the Aquino administration and the city government—and a national outrage.
The siege, and especially the burning of some 10,000 houses, displaced an estimated 116,000 residents. As an Inquirer special report this week showed, about half of these internally displaced persons or IDPs have since returned home, about a third are staying with friends or relatives, and around 20,000 are housed in nine evacuation centers. The 102 deaths happened in these evacuation centers; mainly, in the words of the special report: “among the seafaring minority groups in the encampments—the Badjao at the bayfront Roseller T. Lim Boulevard in the area known as Cawa-Cawa, and the Tausug at Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex.”
The Badjao in Cawa-Cawa number 4,300 persons, about 850 families in all; the Tausug at the stadium number about 13,300 persons, or some 2,300 families. The 102 dead fell victim, not to gunfire, but to disease. The conditions in the two encampments are appalling.
A Badjao leader in Cawa-Cawa, Jalnari Hadjirul, did not mince words: “They are killing us slowly by keeping us here. I think they should send us home now, or we will all die.” At the stadium, volunteer aid worker Munib Kahal described the scene in stark terms: “This is a death zone.”
Dr. Rodel M. Agbulos, the city’s health officer, agrees with the consensus that the evacuation centers should be immediately decongested, but offers a different perspective on the death toll: “There are some weeks and days when we don’t have any mortalities. The 102 deaths reported are a cumulative number, meaning counted since September. This did not happen in one day, but over a long period.” He is right, but only up to a point. The reality is that, over the six-month period, two evacuees died every three days. And in February, the mortality rate reached an alarming high: two deaths for every 10,000 evacuees.
Bagian-Aleyesa Abdulkarim, a sociology professor, suggested that religious prejudice may have played a role in the unwitting brutalization of the evacuees: “Maybe it’s because they’re Muslims. If they’re Christians, they would probably be out of the evacuation centers now. That’s the feeling of the IDPs.” But Kahal, himself a Tausug, said that was overstating the case: “Zamboanga as a whole is not prepared for this kind of tragedy.”
The city mayor certainly knows whom to blame. “I hold the MNLF accountable not only for the deaths during the siege, but also for the deaths that will happen,” Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said.
“They have displaced their own kind, Muslims, Christians and lumads. The ones that caused the problems were not Christians. They were privileged Muslim intellectuals and leaders.”
She is right, but also up to a point. But it has been six months since the siege. When the controversial decision was made to prevent the return of displaced families to territory considered as environmentally protected areas, the city government should not have merely waited for the national government’s housing relocation program to materialize. Even a cash-strapped government can still use its considerable suasive powers to generate contributions from the larger community: more latrines, more medicine, more food. The worst thing that Misuari’s latest outrageous caper can lead to is a general feeling of acquired helplessness, a sense of victimhood.
Zamboanga hermosa can do much better.
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