ADVOCACY MindaNOW: Yolanda stole the show from Zamboanga ‘Hermosa’

ZAMBOANGA CITY  (MindaNews / 17 Nov) — I had that eerie,  weird feeling scanning the destroyed houses as we “toured” the other day  the so-called “ground zero” where Ustadz Habier Malik and his MNLF armed force engaged government forces for about three weeks last September in downtown Zamboanga City. Hundreds lost their lives there. Blood spilled freely on those grounds.


The tall building topped by a fluttering Philippine flag was almost skeletal, the hollow-block walls smashed and blistered by bullet or cannon holes –mute witnesses to what happened. No wonder Malik prolonged his “occupation.” His was a  high vantage ground for combat.


My thoughts immediately went to  the many lives of soldiers and policemen  and civilians and the MNLF — all victims of this madness. I was told Malik finally  escaped with his remaining nine close-in  henchmen, badly wounded, although the military hinted about his possible death in combat. But another  reliable source claimed he died from those wounds being a diabetic  days after he breached the security cordon and escaped.  Others whispered about him still up and about, badly bruised and wounded but  planning another “Part 2.” I guess legends just don’t die easily.


TALK MINDANAO. Our trip to see what was left of the war-zone came as an off-shoot of a small group meeting during the day convened by Undersecretary Nabil Tan, a high- ranking Tausug in Malacanang and  former ARMM vice governor. He now heads the  newly formed Mindanao Monitoring Office lodged in the office of Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa. (Nabil was my USec at OPAPP years back). The forum was to re-visit the issues about Mindanao and of course the Zamboanga incident was No. 1 in the list.


Banker Ms. Teresita Uy-Sebastian,  an articulate and outspoken Zamboanguena  business leader was forthright on her thoughts about how the three-week carnage and nightmare could have been avoided. But that was wishful thought at this juncture.  OPAPP USec.  Joe Lorena, an old hand in peace work starting from his MNLF days,  gave context to the MNLF related updates  while PNP Director Manuel Barcena (DIPO Eastern Mindanao)  was passionate in this new  advocacy for jointness and convergence in the AFP/PNP security sector. From the ulamas and religious leaders, NUCP representative  Alih Aiyub  gave the perspective of coherence in approaches while DPWH representatives Abdul Pandapatan and Nenita Robles gave inputs on the infrastructure sector.


Businessman Vic Lao, representing the Mindanao Business Council, championed the concept  of “inclusiveness” as a paradigm in the peace and development work and argued that this all boils  down to economics and improving lives of people. He   proposed  a “national guard” force ( like those federal units in the US)   to be first responders and vanguards in view of recent events of calamities and national emergencies. My former “girl friday” Diosita “Jojo” Andot, culling from her long experience in peace and development work in Mindanao, assisted by young demure OPAPP lady Vanessa Pallarco steered the forum.  DILG Director Paisal Abutazil gave inputs from the governance perspective. Army Col. Rodrigo Gregorio Westmincom U7 gave us an update on the military campaign and the latest on the security situation and then showed us the sites of the combat zones.

RUINS. Now on  Ground Zero. At our first stop at the bridgeway junction of coastal Barangays Mariki and Rio Hondo, veteran   business-stalwart Vic Lao  first gazed at a tarpaulin in Chavacano warning about unexploded bombs or ordnance still lying  somewhere around. The warning had   the last word ‘MUERTE” — meaning “death”.  I pretended I did not  see or understand.


Almost 10, 000 houses laid in ruins in the several affected  barangays, although the numbers in Mariki and Rio Hondo had still to be validated. Still languishing in the Zamboanga sports “grandstand” were about 118,000 evacuees still waiting up to now for “deliverance”. No final word up to this day  on what fate awaited them on their “return” or “relocation”. For one, designated Task Force head DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson, for all his competence and good record is just too overwhelmed with his other tasks but everyone is still  waiting for him to move.


The master plan for relocation and rehabilitation was supposedly done and laid out but everyone’s anxiously waiting for its roll out. Nothing is moving up to now. There had been meetings we were told but nothing definite still (ho-hum..yawn!)  Evidently, the bureaucratic maze and the disagreements exacted  a toll on this urgent matter.  The political leaders, notably Mayor Beng Climaco, were perceived — rightly or wrongly — as  hesitant to take decisive steps, trying to walk the tight rope of playing to the political gallery of whichever side fearful perhaps that some political costs hang in the balance. So things appeared to be in a gridlock.  Then everyone was still looking for and asking about  the P3.8 billion that President Aquino promised when he was there to take care of long term rehab. And worse, no one seems to be in full charge of the situation. All anxious eyes are still directed up north  to far-away imperial Manila.


WALK-OUT, ALMOST. Interestingly, I was told of one meeting where, at the height of the siege,  the President was reportedly just rambling and his thoughts disjointed that only due courtesy to the highest official of the land prevented some disappointed Zamboangueno attendees from “walking out”.  Obviously,  the magnitude of the problem could disorient or shock even the best of  presidents. So no big deal.  But it was  talk  of the town —  although in hushed tones.  I also  heard the interesting  story about the displaced  lowly native  Badjaos momentarily rejoicing over their new fate in evacuation centers,  being fed now with Jollibee hamburgers and fries for the first time  ever in their lives.  But after a few bites, they decided to barter or sell away their handout burgers and freebies in exchange  for their more accustomed palatable  fare — the ordinary  “isda”. (I guess, our well-heeled children must learn a lesson or two  from  our simple but robust brother Badjaos  on not craving for that unhealthy  junk food. Just a thought. )

RELOCATION “BLUES.” The recurring pending issues appeared simple — but actually deep and complicated. Take the example of  the issue on “relocation.”

Most  local,  displaced residents who are now agonizing in evac centers, prefer to go back to the sites of their destroyed  houses or whatever were  left of them,  citing an old presidential proclamation reserving their localities as resettlements. They openly rejected relocation somewhere else. They opted for on-site rehabilitation and not to be moved somewhere inland where their indigenous ways and culture could not jibe and adjust to. The sea is home to them and nowhere else.


But some in government and the distrustful public insisted otherwise, perhaps fearful that restoring them to their original enclaves would still make the places vulnerable as continuing sanctuaries for the bad. Others talk about real estate speculators cashing in on the deserted site. Others dream of transforming  what was once a squatters colony into a boulevard of dreams as  the city’s aesthetic seaside promenade. This  option, by the way, may give credence to   the whispered “tsismis”    that the unnecessary burning and destruction of some houses towards the tail end of the stand-off  was part of a  sinister plan for long term  security considerations, to clean and clear  the area and not allow a return of the residents  for good. The growing chasm of distrust feeds on this rumor all the more.


Then the matter of the curfew. For those traumatized and distrustful, the 12 midnight to 4 a.m. curfew is reassuring. To the security forces, it makes  life    and work simpler. Anybody who moves in-between hours is suspect. But to those who wish that Zamboanga starts  towards early normalization, especially  the businessmen who need the additional hours  to generate some business, an end to the curfew, —whether total or in phases — is most desired. But I was told city hall would have  none of this at this time.


WHY SILENT.  But to me, and forcefully articulated by Ms. Tess Sebastian,  the most serious to be addressed is the unfortunate    polarization of the Muslims and the Christians as an aftermath of the bloody siege.  This is not without reason. Some ordinary folks I talked to said the non-Muslims and the Muslims  nurtured  quiet distrust at each other worsened poignantly by the incident. When I asked why, they said Malik et al targeted only non-Muslims  as hostages. Muslims or those who pretended they were by speaking Tausug, although non-Muslims,  were released and allowed to go home. The christians were restrained and became hostages, unwilling   pawns in the deadly game of Malik’s brinksmanship. This seething distrust and the tearing apart of social cohesion is the most tragic. Rebuilding relationships is a must for  Zamboanga to survive. Only the locals , Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can do this, to speak with one voice and espouse unity again, diversity notwithstanding.  Unfortunately, no one is paying attention to this. There’s a communication flow gridlock. Everyone seems to be playing safe. No one is talking. No one. “Nada.”  None yet anyway.

RISING FROM ASHES. And now, with all this still hanging, tempest “Yolanda” suddenly descended upon us and “stole the show”   that could obviously eclipse  and wipe out  Zamboanga from the national radar screen. For a brief shining  moment of international focus and attention,   Zamboanga is now so suddenly forgotten.  If this shall come to pass, then this will become more tragic than the actual   firefight  and the bombing and the burning. So sad. To survive, Zamboanguenos must now wake up and move. And make some noise to recapture national attention and get urgent intervention.


Let us not forget that the onus of the burden of solving this and cleaning up the mess rest squarely on shoulders of the President of the Republic no less who personally made that judgment call to resort to the use of force than consider a peaceful option at the crucial moment — not to mention the fatal miscalculations in the handling  of the peace process  that eventually led to the siege. Include in this the locals, both in government and in the private sector  who joined in  that judgment call.  Too early yet to say though whether that judgment call is correct. Time and events later will tell. But  the tragic social costs are now staring us right on our faces. Almost two months after the siege, the thousands of innocent victims are still suffering and crying for deliverance! There is no escaping!

Make another judgment call Mr President! Now please,  not tomorrow, By  all means let’s all help deal with Tempest Yolanda but let’s not forget Zamboanga ‘Hermosa’.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was Presidential Adviser for Mindanao for former Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria M. Arroyo. He was also involved in the peace negotiations in the talks with the MILF and the CPP-NPA-NDF and initiated, while Presidential Peace Adviser, the Tripartite Review of the 1996 MNLF Peace Agreement. He is currently President/Chair of the Philippine Press Institute. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW).