COMMENTARY: HANGING ON A LAST STRAW: An Open Appeal on behalf of the Sama-Dilaut and other displaced residents of Zamboanga

Today is the second month since the Zamboanga Violence that started in September 9, 2013. I am writing on behalf of my friends and beloved community of Sama Dilaut and other Muslim residents of Barangays Rio Hondo and Mariki of Zamboanga City. Madam, Sir, I have no personality to approach you except for being a humble servant of Allah who is stricken by love of my people especially the displaced women and children who day by day have to languish in a subhuman situation that has virtually become their death-camps and tomb for the living. I am talking about the much congested evacuation centers of Joaquin Enriquez Grandstand and the Zamboanga Cawa-Cawa Boulevard of Zamboanga City. This is the 60th day in evacuation already, and to date, 29 have died inside the evacuation centers and 18 were infants and children. Even to claim their burial assistance of 1,000 pesos from CSWDO (City Social Welfare and Development Office) takes at least a whole day with an inch-thick paper to process. In this latest death of two male heads of family, I bumped into Mariki Barangay Chairwoman Hadja Ayang Muksan Mukarram, looking spent and exhausted. She was staring helplessly at the door of a government office that had closed just as when she arrived from a hike shuttling from one office to another, and all she could do was sadly sob, “Maba’lus in mayat” [the cadaver will become stiff and stale] before it can be given the honor of the last rite for Muslims.

We have brought our issues to the attention of the City Mayor and her Crisis Management Committee since three weeks ago. We have signed petitions on paper and online. We have sent out Communication to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. We have written press statements, news articles, drafted resolutions and checked and counterchecked affidavits. Bare and naked, without institutional cover or security insurance — we have fought against our own fears of threats or lurking dangers of ‘government intelligence-at-the-loose’ and shook aside every activist’s perennial paranoia of assassins or summary executioners yet still keep pushing our friends and ourselves to face the cameras and grab the mics for TV and Radio interviews, local, national and international, whenever opportunity comes. Our broken English and Tagalog are of no consequence to us, nor do our broken voices, they could not be more hurting to us than the embarrassment of not having done the best we can for our Muslim brethren whose voice’s only cry is La ilahah illa Allah [There is no god than Allah] and they are driven from their homes. And so we chorused with them to call for a “No to Relocation, Yes to Redevelopment” and “We Love Sambuwangan”. Through the Darul Ifta Crisis Management Committee, the voices of the people of Barangay Rio Hondo and Mariki together with their local government leaders have joined with the rest of conflict-affected barangays calling for immediate return to their homes.

Almost everyday I am at meetings in hotels and in the Mayor’s Office being invited if not by the Mayor herself, by some government line agencies and civil society advocacy groups who must think I can help them lessen their headache in understanding the quite paradoxical “Bajau” or Sama Dilaut, whom everyone suddenly find perplexing as they defy every possible statistical tools of demography or bio-engineering devices and plans designed with such scientific precision and sophisticated technology. In this crisis situation, it is amazing to see there is so much enthusiasm in systems and things complicated it seems, in their language, “garbage-in-garbage-out”. And the passion is quite admirable. But our people are kept waiting on the 60th day already with a giant typhoon looming around. The thing is, our needs are simple, we only need to eat ‘panggi’ [cassava] and broiled fish, exquisite dishes do not fill us and all we want for Christmas is our two posts to pitch a tent or lean-to in our own lands. Anytime the government wants to, their bulldozers and backhoes could come in and we would dismantle our tents and move to the side and let them in.

But except for more paperwork that are thrown at us, the Mayor’s Crisis Management Committee has done nothing substantive that has redounded to any concrete relief of the situation of the Internally Displaced People [IDPs] in evacuations. I have volunteered as part of the Technical Working Group member for the Crisis Management Committee of Darul Ifta’ Region 9 and Palawan and since then has been psyching myself and trying my best to pull myself together and forget about my own personal trauma and depression over the sad situation. To be true to my pledge I have decided to indefinitely postpone my departure for Indonesia where I am enrolled and supposed to be finishing my graduate program. On my own resources, I have to continue attending every meeting and coffee-table gathering with only one purpose in mind: to see my friends safely returned back in their homes and that the community of Rio Hondo and Mariki would be back on its feet again.

The City Mayor could not give us a categorical answer of her plans. Are we to be returned to our lands, or are we to be relocated elsewhere? We hear ambivalent responses, sometimes conflicting pronouncements with what is actually happening on the ground. Newspaper reports say that “War Refugees” have “finally returned home” yet we are continually being barred from entering the premises of the charred remains of our homes by military guards and, for the two days we were allowed, we had to leave before 5:00PM. Newspaper reports say government‘s plan is to relocate the evacuees en masse to far-away Tulungatung [15 kilometers from the City center] and Taluksangay [12 kilometers away]. Some selection criteria have been drawn. It will be one without any distinction of barangay the evacuees belonged, nor regard for their ethnicity or religion. They will be using “politically-blind” selection criteria. Said national agency that developed this criteria complete with a software and computer program endorses the selective relocation process but has washed its hands off the issue of specificity of site relocation as something domestic, which is actually most crucial in this effort of early recovery process as it amounts to the very crucible for healing and confidence-building hence “recovering”. And the UN Human Rights standards where this office draws its lifeblood affirms the rights of minorities and indigenous people to a “community” and the preservation of its culture, that governments must guarantee it by making sure that development projects must not contribute to the destruction or dissolution of such collectivity.

At any rate, “Relocation” or anything by any other name that means to uproot the people and transmigrate them somewhere outside of their homes has been a looming nightmarish scenario for many, nay, for everyone in the Grandstand and the Boulevard that like caged animals they are already rattling the bars and demanding their leaders to stop the forum-shopping in plush hotels and cease the coffee-drinking at the City Hall and attend to their pleas! And what is the Darul Iftah Crisis Management Committee or the local barangay leaders to do, if, astagfirullah [God forbid], those 100,000 strong would invoke their People’s Power and exercise their initiatives? We – the civil voices of reason and dialoguing – will all be crushed down in the stampeding feet of distrust and impatience, nauzubillah!

Of course the IDP s are fully supportive of the City’s plan to rebuild and make their communities orderly and systematized as against the former situation of Rio Hondo and Mariki being almost a squatters’ colony. After all Rio Hondo and Mariki are their ancestral homes, and they wish to have the next generation to continue thriving in it. What they are being opposed to is to be relocated outside of their original places. Relocation by any euphemistic name does not only mean being thrown away far and remote from the workplaces, schools and markets where they eke a livelihood, but also mean dispersal of the families from their original communities and the dissolution of their local governance structures. Not only would the duly constituted barangay authorities be dysfunctional, but the local indigenous system of governance – a’dat and shari’a – would also be dissolved as the community would be de facto non-existent.

And yesterday was a straw getting less and less tenable for me. Just like the 100,000-strong, I hear silent cage-rattling and bar-shaking inside me, and I asked myself, would I still have the gut to swallow more arrozcaldo with a growing lump in the throat choking? How many more cups of scalding coffee to sip and pretend that tears welling in the eyes are from the brew, and not the storm inside?

Yesterday, we presented a 12-page proposal to the City Mayor and her team. [Please see the attached copy]. It is about asking for temporary resettlement for the 3,000-4,000 families whose houses were burned to be temporarily resettled at the 25-hectare fishpond that has been idle for 30 years now. In the middle of my presentation, the City Mayor prompted the President of the State Institution who owns the fishpond to interrupt. The academic leader’s intervention was quite emotional and blunt, she whined: “Please do not take away our Fishpond from us. You are going to kill the fishes. And what happens to our experiments? The sea will become polluted and unfit for ‘study’.” At which part she prodded her scientist to explain how pollution correlates with salinity and Ph, but before the doctor could say a word, she again lamented, “And our poor students, they will have no Fishpond to study anymore.” And so we did not hear how human feces could make the sea-water more salty and acidic, at least the scientific dissertation of it, so that we might also understand why and justify how the Grandstand and Cawa-Cawa boulevard have become unfit for human living, that is, scientifically-speaking.

Quite taken aback, it hit me that we were in for a staged play. Suddenly the lights dimmed and all I could see are characters of us four women in a charade: The Mayor, The Academic Lady, The Weeping Barangay Chairwoman and the Angry-bird Me. With due respect for her stature, I am not faulting the Academic Chief Executive who was almost in tears pleading. I would have done the same in defense of my younglings and territory. I won’t mince words in saying though, that I couldn’t muster more than my worry over her mascara blotched and running from the lacrimal flows. Well, I, too, was well-made up that day. I have taken care creaming my face with Kris Aquino’s OLAY Total Effects. But I am quite sure my Seven Signs of Ageing were at their most murderous that cool rainy afternoon. And we were in this tableau, playing parts. And the lady was making us appear the villain, insinuating that we had the upper-hand of power to grab their land instead of the victims that we were begging for her mercy to let us ‘squat’ in her school property. The whole drama was making me feel queasy in my stomach and before my mind would bolt away thinking morbid thoughts, I had to ask the Mayor if I should continue presenting. And she smiled her sweet sorry smile and shrugged and said, “Just tell us of the salient points”. I stared at the sheaf of papers that had suddenly gone blurred and from my trembling hands words and bullets jumped out one after another wanting to be chosen as ‘salient’. But the salient point is that our people want to return to Rio Hondo and Mariki and be resettled there in-situ, albeit temporarily, whether it be at the Fishpond or anywhere near or within the original place. It is the local government who should remove all barriers to their eminent return since the Rio Hondo and Mariki is a Muslim settlement covered by Presidential Proclamations. Only its legal administrator, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos [NCMF] could have the prerogative to keep us away for a long time from it.

Ma’am, Sir, I am obviously taking you on the long route in explaining my mission because I want you to see how torturous the process we are undergoing in a dialogue with the authorities and the private vested interest groups. We are exhausting every civil means and peaceful ways possible to claiming what is humanly just for the people. But my only purpose in writing to you now is to respectfully ask and beg for your mercy to allow the displaced people of Rio Hondo and Mariki to temporarily build their resettlement at your lot which is adjacent to their original lands, for a lease, sale, or, alhamdulillah, if you could lend it for free. A barely one-hectare property is not enough to accommodate all the 4,000 families as the National Housing Authority-designed bunkhouses would only be enough for I think less than 10 units to an hectare, that means barely accommodating 1,000 families. But that, together with the school ground of Rio Hondo Elementary School and Mariki Elementary School would I pray inshaallah be able to accommodate at least half of the number of IDPs, about 1,500 families, and that would surely bring a big relief to the aggrieved families now in diaspora.

Madam, Sir, the occupation of the lot will only be for six months to a maximum of one year. And only on the duration while the reconstruction of the Rio Hondo and Mariki communities are in progress and for the City government to complete its dream of Modeled Development that it wants to rebuild the new Rio Hondo and Mariki to be. The City Engineer yesterday said that the rebuilding will take only from six to 12 months, inshaallah.

I am hoping against all hopes possible that you would consider my plea and please allow me to thank you and express my gratefulness that you have reached this far into reading this letter. May Allah subhanahu wataala continue to shower His blessings to you and your ahli.

Respectfully yours,

Lumah Ma Dilaut Support for Sama Dilaut IDPs
Mariki Elementary School, Barangay Mariki
Zamboanga City