DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 25 September) — President Benigno Simeon Aquino III flew to Zamboanga City on Friday, September 13, vowed to talk peace with those who want peace, said ending the then five-day old standoff without additional loss of lives was “the priority” but assured the public that government would not hesitate to use force, “if necessary,” against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces under Nur Misuari.
The safety of the hostages was “paramount,” he said. “Siguraduhin na walang unnecessary loss of lives” (make sure there is no unnecessary loss of lives), he promised.
It was the first time in the history of the Philippines that a President stayed in Mindanao, continuously for ten days, supervising a war that civil society leaders say could have been avoided.
By the time the President left on Sunday, September 22, he was not able to announce “mission accomplished” or “it’s over” because the standoff continued (the standoff entered its 17th day on Wednesday, Sept. 25), at least 20 of the estimated 170 hostages still remained in captivity, and the death toll as well as evacuee count continued to rise by the day.
When the President left, Zamboanga City was down on its knees with a humanitarian crisis of a scale never before experienced (see MindaNews tables on figures from Sept. 13 to 22 when the President was in Zamboanga City): 110,000 of its 807,000 population displaced from their homes; the death toll at 104 from 18 on Sept. 13; the wounded at 192 from 52; the houses burned at 10,160 from 500 on Sept. 14; nearly a billion pesos in unrealized incomes for the business sector from Sept. 9 to 18 alone.
Thousands of workers have been rendered jobless due to the closure of establishments and offices from September 9, Day One of the standoff; thousands of residents are queuing at money remittance centers for financial help from relatives outside the city. Cost of relief assistance had reached P76.56 million as of Sept. 22, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and at the very least, an estimated P3.89 billion has been pegged for rehabilitation, as of Sept. 19.
There is no estimate as yet on how much has been spent in the military operations against the MNLF and how much the MNLF has spent as well in its operations against the government.
Cases are being prepared against Misuari and his men. Curiously, the usually media-savvy Misuari has granted no interview to any media entity since Sept. 9.
“Worse than burning of Jolo”
“This is worse than the burning of Jolo,” said Claretian priest Angel Calvo of the Peace Advocates Zamboanga (PAZ) who recalls visiting Jolo a few days after the February 1974 burning.
Calvo and other civil society leaders in Zambaonga City had repeatedly called on both government and the MNLF to “immediately effect a humanitarian ceasefire” and on Saturday, September 14, continued to push for it “to allow the release of civilian hostages, especially the children, the elderly, the persons with disabilities, the curing of the sick, and the burying of the dead.”
But “talking peace” and the cries for a “humanitarian ceasefire” were drowned out by the calls for an all-out offensive against the MNLF.
The possibilities for a ceasefire, one on Day 5, September 13 and Vice President Jejomar Binay’s brokered ceasefire on Day 6, September 14 (see other story) were thumbed down and civil society’s urgent call for a ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ in the afternoon of September 14, a reiteration of an earlier call, ignored.
The Aquino administration turned down suggestions to use the “Cabatangan formula” or “Cabatangan template” in November 2001 when MNLF forces also under Misuari, were being flushed out of the Cabatangan complex also in the same city and were given a safe conduct pass. The Arroyo administration paid too high a price for all the flak it got for “escorting” the rebels out of Zamboanga City. But the formula saved the lives of some 60 hostages, did not displace thousands of residents and did not paralyze the city’s economy as the 2013 standoff has.
The Aquino administration, however, did not want a repeat of Cabatangan even as the number of hostages now – an estimated 170 as of September 13 – was far more than that in 2001.
“We have already spoken. We have sent people to talk to Nur Misuari. Obviously, Nur Misuari was thinking of something else. He wanted a safe conduct pass. Is that something acceptable? If you look—you take the statements of Secretary Voltz Gazmin when he said, ‘If I know the President, he will not agree to a safe conduct pass,’” Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told the Malacanang Press Corps on Sept. 17.
“A crime has already happened. We were… If they intended to do a Cabatangan template in 2001, that’s something that they underestimated this administration,” he said.
The Aquino administration, however, did not offer a new formula that would secure the release of the hostages through peaceful means and at the same time satisfy the demands to hold the rebels accountable to avoid a repeat of Cabatangan 2001.
Instead, the Aquino administration used the military option, a “solution” that has, in Mindanao’s long history of armed conflicts, repeatedly been disastrous.
The “Cabatangan template,” said Jesus Dureza, who was Presidential Adviser for Mindanao when the Cabatangan crisis happened, “saved lives and spared Zamboanga City from becoming a battleground.”
“First, let us save more lives, minimize destruction,” retired professor Ali Yacub, President of the Golden Crescent Consortium of Peace Builders and Affiliates, said.
“Military solution will not help,” Yacub said, as he lamented that their calls for ceasefire were “rejected outright by the President and the Crisis Management Committee.”
He said those calling on the MNLF to surrender, particularly the Tausugs, should be aware that “there is no word ‘surrender’ in the Tausug vocabulary.”
Yacub wants Congress to investigate what he said were “bunglings” in handling the crisis. “There is more than meets the eye here,” he said, adding there have been criticisms that this is a “fake war, game of the generals, a political cover-up so people will forget the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) scam.”
“Cabatangan was a win-win formula,” a senior military official who was involved in resolving that crisis in 2001, told MindaNews.
Initially, he said, Mayor Maria Clara Lobregat who was head of the Crisis Management Committee then was against the idea but acceded when the options were presented to her.
“The primary consideration was saving lives and property and removing immediately the physical threat to Zamboanga City. It was explained to her that the hardline stand would transform the city into a battleground, would cause so much loss of lives and property. What we feared would happen in Cabatangan in 2001 we are seeing that now in Zamboanga. And since they have chosen the military option, there is no turning back now,” he said.
Force was also used in Cabatangan as air strikes pounded on rebel positions to pressure them into negotiating but “it was a combination of force and diplomacy.”
“Between the most benign and the most violent, we had to find another way of resolving the crisis. In the end, it was ‘win-win.’ We lost some, we gained some,” he said, adding, “you can always fight them (MNLF) in another arena elsewhere. But you spare the city from becoming a battleground.”
More deaths, more displaced
On the day the President arrived in Zamboanga City, the Crisis Management Center recorded only 6,024 families with 23,584 dependents in 26 evacuation centers. It was a big leap from the estimated 10,000 a day earlier. The rise in number is attributed to the Crisis Management Commmittee’s Resolution 1 on Thursday night, September 12, recommending a forced evacuation in the then six conflict-affected barangays and neighboring areas.
From 23,000 on Sept. 13, the number of evacuees rose to P62,000 on Sept. 14, the supposed start of the ceasefire Binay brokered, and 110,000 by the time the President left for Manila on Sept. 22.
The death toll rose nearly six times between Sept.13 and 22: from18 on September 13 to 51 as of noon on September 14 and 104 as of September 22: three police personnel, 11 soldiers, 10 civilians and 80 MNLF, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).
The number of wounded increased nearly four times from Sept. 13 to 22 — from 52 on September 13 (six police, 28 soldiers, 18 civilians) to 78 on September 14 (12 police, 38 soldiers, 28 civilians), according to the military spokesperson during the press conferences on September 13 and 22, and 192 as of September 22 (13 police personnel, 131 soldiers and 48 civilians), according to records of the NDRRMC. Neither the military nor the NDRRMC has a record of the number of wounded MNLF.
Visible, invisible costs
But more than the visible costs of war – the number of dead, wounded, houses burned, economic losses, etc.. — the invisible costs of war are the most difficult to quantify and address.
“We are back to the dark ages,” said Grace Rebollos, former Western Mindanao State University president. Rebollos, a member of the Inter-religious Solidarity for peace and regional convenor of Bantay Bayanihan, said the community has once again been polarized and teachers are worried over reports that children are sending hate messages by text.
Zamboanga City’s “Week of Peace,” celebrated every year since 1996, inspired the Bishops-Ulama Conference to do a similar celebration, the Mindanao Week of Peace that is celebrated every last Thursday of November to the first Wednesday of December.
As announced in August, this year’s theme for the Mindanao-wide celebration is “Dialogue and Hope: Our Key to Peace.” In Zamboanga, the theme is “Heal our land.”
Dureza said it will take a long time to “clean up the mess left by the Zamboanga incident.”
“After the smoke clears, it is important to pinpoint responsibility and accountability on those who have ‘blood in their hands.’ But the difficult part is how to help Zamboanga and its people rise from the ashes. Rebuilding destroyed structures and homes can be done but at considerable cost and effort. Grieving for the dead and nurturing the wounded will also take some time. Then rebuilding social cohesion and healing amongst us Mindanawons will necessarily follow — although this one is difficult to do. And hard to measure. I refer to the anger, hatred, animosity that break the social bond that tie us with and amongst the other diverse peoples of our island region. We have to heal the social wounds between and amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)