LITTLE PEOPLE WAGING BIG BATTLES: A HealthGov Story

Take this recent small battle to access health services, for instance. In May 2007, a local NGO working with Sama Dilaut communities in Zamboanga and Basilan villages, brought to the attention of the Zamboanga City health office rampant incidents of measles and chicken pox among infants and school-aged children in one of its partner communities in Barangay Rio Hondo, particularly in Sitio Hongkong which is mainly populated by the Bajau families. At the time of reporting, six children had already died and more kids were stricken, lying in tattered mats beside the dead fishes left out to dry, high fever and oozing sores ebb in and out in rhythm with the crests and troughs of the troubled seas. The CHO did send out some staff from the barangay health center to investigate but curiously they did not ask questions from any of the victims’ families (which was understandable, since barangay staff would not dare risk limbs and neck, crossing the ‘dangling bridge’ made out of a narrow strip of wooden plank or two pieces of rotten bamboos flimsily bound by straw hoisted up on stilt posts). Later during the week, some barangay health personnel were seen distributing “some kind of tablets” to a handful of onlookers, reported the Bajau mothers, of what must be free antibiotics or cough suppressants or colds remedies, who knows? But no doctors came to do the medical rounds.

On June 15, this same NGO was invited by the GRP-MILF International Monitoring Team assigned in Zamboanga to attend a conference with the city mayor. IMT-3 was proposing to the city government a possible medical mission in Rio Hondo and three other barangays in the city where Moro Muslims are mostly found. The city health officer, seconding the Mayor, brushed aside the suggestion and said that Rio Hondo had been served by MEDCAP and that IMT should take the mission to other “unserved” barangays. IMT-3 had reason to choose Rio Hondo as the site of its “winning the confidence of the community” project, of course, which must be the same rationale for picking out Baliwasan, Flamingo (Malagutay) and Kampung Islam. All these are Zamboanga City’s squatters’ community of mostly ‘paguy’ or war evacuees from many wars as far back as the 1970’s siege of Jolo and the succeeding Sulu conflicts (this author included in this wave of Zamboanga invaders) to the present-day victims of AFP-Abu Sayyaf-Moro liberation fronts’. And surely, the former Vice Mayor (now Representative) who was responsible in identifying and recommending to IMT these communities, apparently knowing her constituents better than other city officials, had precisely understood the context of the mission. But the local chief executive and his health officer had other priority areas in mind.

For Sama Dilaut and other Moro ethnic communities in Zamboanga City to be publicly disclaimed by the Local Chief Executive in his ‘patutsadas’ has been routinary, especially when he minces no words in public meetings, conferences, and his media pronouncements usually consisting of an announcement that “Los Moros” squatting in his city of flowers are all from Sulu and Tawitawi and ending with an encore of appeal to Zamboanguenos to please spare no efforts in convincing these people to go back to Sulu and Tawi-tawi. That he has been very vocal in his resistance to anything to do with the Mindanao peace processes has at least recorded to his credit successful campaigns of, one, repudiating to amend RA 9054 and negating the inclusion of Zamboanga peninsula in the ARMM. Two, reclaiming the Cabatangan complex (which saw the Ramadhan dawn carnage of MNLF integrees). Three, his support for Estrada’s All-Out-War, and, four, more recently his disapproval that the IMT office be stationed in his ‘ciudad de paz,’ that had caused the latter to confine its men to the barracks.

Bearing up with the animosity of the peninsulares alcalde, is one thing. (Historically, Moros have erstwhile been a headache to the Spaniards, why should it be any different with the mestizos?). But listening to fellow Moro city hall staff and locals echoing such discriminatory ‘sentimientos de gato’ is difficult to take. In a recent media interview DOH officer reported over TV Patrol Chavacano that the Bajau patients and victims that the NGO reported to have allegedly died of measles and chickenpox in Rio Hondo were not actually residents of Rio Hondo but were from Sulu and Tawi-tawi and were only in the city to seek out medical services, one-breath short of saying that the CHO services are exclusively for Zamboanguenos.

This ‘hugas-kamay’ attitudes of many a government servants is almost natural for the Moros in Zamboanga City seeking access to health and other services. At one health conference, one public health personnel even used this excuse to drum-up her petition for additional budget for anti-malaria and contra dengue programs, saying that migrants from the southern islands of Sulu and Tawi-tawi are infesting the province, carriers of the malaria and dengue plague. The usual candid rendition of blaming the victim would almost always end up with the condescending advise to sick persons that they should have sought the attention of health officials in Sulu and Tawi-tawi before coming to Zamboanga.

So this out-of-the-blue media pronouncement from the health department came quite late as far as the grieving Bajau families are concerned. One mother, refusing to talk or name the child that perished, Juksiya fatalistically declared, “Let it be, The child is gone. Let it rest.” (The same echo heard sometime last year of six widows grieving the death of their men out in the seas, to pirates, who sought help from the welfare office, to bury their dead, and got used clothes and cans of sardines instead). Yet the media interview may just be on cue, what with IMT and CHO now finalizing plans for that medical mission, expectedly, sans Rio Hondo, to take off this week.

Invisible people need not be told that little people like them should expect little. Yet they, too, are ardent in waging their own battles. In recent months early this year, a small inter-island cargo vessel bound for Jolo, overloaded with Coca Cola and also ferrying passengers, capsized somewhere between Basilan and Zamboanga islands. This is one of few remaining fishing ground frequented by Sama Dilaut fishermen. One Sama Dilaut diver confided that at the height of the tragedy he saw that women and children had been wailing for help, but none of the Bajau fishing boats approached the distressed ship until the last of the screaming was silent. On some occasions, these little people have to pretend to be daft or dead, deaf and blind. That way, they ensure their own survival, too.

A few hours later, Turadji and other fishermen witnessing the catastrophe had shrugged off the evening chill, bit off the nagging compassion at the tip of their tongue as they held the hose-pipe between their teeth and sucked at the bitter-sweet air that tasted of Snowbear candies and Red Horse beer, a concoction invented by the Bajau to enable to breathe longer underwater, sealed off in a make-do “komplesol” (compressor) carved out of gasulito LPG tank.

Turadji had calmly dived and swam alongside the cadavers, he recalled, women and children, most of them, but his mind was focused on only one mission, to rescue the sunken bottles of Coca Cola.

Many of the itinerant Bajaus fight their battles in much the same way, albeit in different strokes, such as begging in the streets or fishing out carcasses of dead and mangled fish from the trash of big fishing boats, Basnig . Where government development priorities and international civil society and humanitarian missions have all set their eyes in the uprooted people in the ‘conflict-affected areas’ in the region of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), particularly in Ampatuan-kingdom of Central Mindanao, those forgotten victims and survivors of the horrid wars who chose not to defend themselves with more guns and bombings have been deleted from memory.

Invisible and forgotten, indeed, the battle of the little people must be fought on their own, at their own terms.

(This was first published online in Kaliyawan, a Sama Dilaut or Bajau expression. The root word really is quite controversial, but my theory is that it came from the word 'aliyaw', lit. ‘vanishing’ or ‘unseen', as in the metaphysical spirit world. The Sama Dilaut believe in some saitan or malevolent sea spirits who would, for some reason, make people disappear, in indigenous language 'aliyaw.' It is an expression used both positively and in negative sense. When the Sama Dilaut express joy they'd cheer the person with "kaliyawan!" and everybody laughs. My sense is that, this expresses their awe about something, an act or deed that is out-of-this-world. Hence, an expression of joy and glad-tidings, as well. Kaliyawan! is also an expression of malevolence, anger or disgust, as when older people reprimand the young ones from committing mischief they also shout in an angry tone 'kaliyawan!' which is as though wishing the poor child to be 'aliyaw'. So this compendium of stories and anecdotes that Lumah Ma Dilaut publishes in my name then appropriates this term “Kaliyawan!” both as an expression of praise, hope, cheer, rage, disgust, rant with what's going on in Mindanao and Sulu…and especially a critic on the worsening situation of discrimination and impoverishment that render indigenous and minority communities such as the Sama Dilaut voiceless and invisible by pushing them more and more to the margins).

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