On the day President Aquino appeared on TV being interviewed by comedian Vice Ganda—in his Malacañang office yet, and apparently on the strength of a case of extraordinary access to his schedule generally unavailable to many media persons and other parties—the Inquirer came out with a report by its Mindanao Bureau that prostitution has become rampant among desperate people living in squalid conditions in an evacuation center in Zamboanga City. The report draws on the accounts of a woman who was forced to sell sexual services to support her seven children and ailing husband, and of Nisa Ul Haqq fi Bangsamoro, a nongovernment organization that researches on and documents the plight of internally displaced persons (or refugees) in Mindanao.
The President’s interview with the popular comedian was taped weeks ago, of course, while the alarming report on the Zamboanga refugees was prepared over a period of days and weeks. Still, in terms of optics, their coincidental appearance on the same day could not but highlight how Malacañang, while playing the public-relations game to the hilt in the wake of polls showing a renewed bounce in Mr. Aquino’s effectivity rating among the public, has been criminally neglectful and indifferent in far more important and urgent areas.
The ordeal of the Zamboanga refugees qualifies as one of those, principally because their case has dragged on for an unforgivably long time—a year and three months. In September 2013, armed men identified with Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari attacked Zamboanga, rounded up civilians for use as hostages and human shields, and proclaimed the independence of a so-called Bangsamoro Republic.
Misuari was chafing at the historic talks already well underway between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and in his resentment at the prospect of being marginalized, the disgraced former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao had his men rampage through Zamboanga, an important economic hub in the region. The resulting firefight with government troops led to 45 casualties, plus some 100,000 residents displaced from their homes and 10,000 houses destroyed.
We repeat: That was over a year and three months ago. In the aftermath of the fighting, evacuees were housed in cramped shelters in Zamboanga that would soon turn to hellish places due to congestion, the lack of basic sanitary amenities, and the frustratingly slow response of the government to the residents’ requests that they return to their homes. Eight months after the siege, the European Union was sufficiently alarmed and dismayed at the conditions in the camps that it announced a fresh infusion of P14.8 million to help families it described as “still living in very difficult conditions,” on top of the P17.76 million it had originally donated for relief efforts.
The EU’s humanitarian aid and civil protection department specifically noted that with some 3,800 families still jammed into rudimentary emergency centers, “some 9,000 children have no access to regular schooling, making them susceptible to abuse, neglect and violence.”
The EU’s fears have come true, but the abuse and violence have not been confined to children. Nisa Ul Haqq fi Bangsamoro has documented cases of prostitution involving men, women, gays and children happening inside and outside the Don Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in Zamboanga, where hundreds of residents have to make do with shelters made of sacks, tarpaulin and scrap lumber.
As with “Karina,” the washerwoman who had to feed seven kids and a sick husband, the reason is the lack of food. The evacuees have apparently been left to their own devices to look for their daily sustenance, so some have turned to selling themselves out of sheer desperation. The drug trade has also reportedly proliferated in the sports complex, with the traffickers succeeding in turning parts of the place into sex and drug dens.
Where the hell is the government in all this, and why is it taking this long to return the evacuees to their homes? But way more basic than that, why are these victims not being fed enough and taken care of enough, that they now have to resort to the most miserable measures to survive? One year and three months on, and they have apparently been completely forgotten by the government. Where is the mayor? The social welfare secretary? The housing czar? Where is the President?
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