DOHA, Qatar (MindaNews / 12 Sept) — The three-week long siege in Zamboanga City that started on September 9, 2013 led to loss of lives and massive devastation of many precious hard-earned properties of people not only from Zamboanga City but also those from Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, who had settled down in that city. Most of them are my brethren in the Islamic faith who worked hard in the city or sought employment abroad in the hope of giving their families a better life.
Unfortunately, their precious livelihood and hard-earned properties vanished like bubbles popping out into thin air. They resolved to rise again from the ashes.
Undoubtedly, if writers and historians had just listened to the many narratives of people who lost their homes and livelihood due to this armed conflict, one book is not enough to compile those beautiful untold stories of real-life experiences on what these people went through during those horrible days.
I believe these stories must be written down for the coming generations to know that once upon a time, this happened to their ancestors.
On the night of September 9, 2013, I was resting in bed and was about to sleep because I was so tired from work but I decided to check my Facebook and Messenger first and was shocked to read posts from my FB friends about the ongoing situation in Zamboanga City.
My sister Danah, who was in Zamboanga City then with my mother, two younger siblings and maternal grandfather, informed me via Messenger that they heard exchanges of gunfire nearby.
I was anxious for my family in Zamboanga City. I didn’t sleep the entire night because I was continuously monitoring them from Riyadh. The Philippines is five hours ahead of Riyadh and my duty the next day was in the morning.
Alhamdu Lillāhi, through Facebook, I was able to figure out from the posts of my friends what really had happened that day, September 9, 2013 in Zamboanga City.
Every time my mother narrates to us her horrible experiences about Zamboanga siege, I can still see in her eyes the trauma because of what she went through during those times. The siege of Zamboanga was one of the unforgettable happenings in her entire life, next to the burning of Jolo in February 1974.
Narrative of my mother, Nurhaida
Because our room was closest to the main door of our leased apartment complex, I easily and clearly heard the wobbly voice of your aunt Hilda (younger sister of my mother) calling my name from the gate. I went out to see her. She seemed so nervous that dawn.
In the wee hours that day, she came from her house on the other street just to inform me personally about the presence of many combatants of the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) outside the main street of our barangay. Perhaps, conflict may erupt, so let’s be prepared, she warned me before returning home.
What I feared that day was not for myself, but for the well-being of your two sisters who were with me, as well as my elderly father. Your younger brother Alsharif stayed that night at his friend’s boarding house in Tetuan because they will have an examination early the following day. The boarding house was right next to the main campus of the Universidad de Zamboanga where they were studying.
Amidst the tension, I tried my best to be calm for my two daughters and elderly father. What was on my mind then was whatever happens, at least we have something to eat even if there’s no viand, so I cooked rice. Also I told your sisters to pack only some of their important stuff. On the same day, we had to vacate the house. I really didn’t know where to go that day.
Worth remembering was in the midst of that mayhem, Danah, my daughter, declared: “I do not intend to die today without a fight if they will do something wrong to my family.”
Danah was ready to defend us her loved ones, We were trapped in our rented boarding house in Lustre during that time. Your father was in Jolo because of his duty.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to our landlord because he let all his tenants including us, ride in his car. He even personally sent us off to the house of your uncle Edison, who gracefully allowed us together with his other relatives from Talon-Talon to take shelter in their house in Pasonanca for the time being. But when we left the house to evacuate, I forgot to carry the cooked rice.
Narrative of my sister, Danah
Around 3:30 a.m. on September 9, 2013, I was awakened by the sound of chaos outside.
My phone alert for messages kept ringing. I did not become aware of what was going on outside until I read my friend’s messages. “Māguy na kami kanda Ina’ sabab simud na in MILF magbunu’ na iban sin parinta!” I was not alarmed then perhaps due to my past experience of being sandwiched in an armed conflict.
Nevertheless, I performed ablution and prayed the Fajr then sat on the bench outside of our rented rooms sipping my morning tea with my maternal grandfather. But the exchange of gunfire was getting closer.
To be honest, I was not afraid for my life, but for the lives of my mother, my younger sister and my grandfather. I was thinking, how will I save them if the situation worsened?
As the sound of gunfire was coming closer and some of the MILF troops kept knocking on every house, I stood up and went to perform ablution again, donned my veil and grabbed my father’s “barung.”
In my thought, if I will die today, I will not die without a fight. I will protect my family no matter what. I know “barung” is futile against bullets.
Nevertheless, I did not intend to die without a fight if anyone from the combatants will do something wrong to my family. With “barung” on left hand and my “mushaf” on my right, I went out again, sat on the bench and read a few verses of the Qur’an. I waited for someone to barge into our home and threaten my family.
At sunrise, my worries mounted. I was not worried for myself but for my mother and my grandfather, and my sister. My younger brother then was not with us during that crucial moment. He stayed at his friends’ boarding house near Universidad de Zamboanga Tetuan campus because they have an exam early morning that day. The phone signals got jammed. And the only thing we could do was to pray and pray harder for the safety of everyone.
Around 10 am, a ceasefire happened. All the trapped civilians were allowed to go, and we were among them. Alhamdu Lillāhi, for us, we didn’t have to walk. We were able to board the car of the kindhearted owner of the place we rented. But along the way, I saw people, young and old, carrying their things to nowhere. No one believed that day was going to change our lives forever.
The siege of Zamboanga lasted a month, and the damages were tremendous. And the things I was able to save from my handful of belongings were some of my books, clothes, and important credentials. Just like other people, I thought that armed conflict would only last a few days, then we could go home, but I was wrong.
Narrative of my wife, Nur Aisa
I had just graduated from college in 2013. Most of the time I spent reading books because I was preparing for my upcoming nursing licensure exam. I can vividly the 9th day of September 2013, around 3 a.m. when I heard our neighbors shouting outside as if there was some commotion happening.
They anxiously knocked on the door of our sari-sari store shouting, “Hji, wake up, allow us to by load!” My parents wondered what was happening outside. Why were our neighbors fretfully shouting and wanting to buy load in the wee hours of the morning? They wanted to immediately contact other members of their families because MNLF forces were milling around outside.
After that, my mother immediately went up and woke us up, gathered all of us then told us, “I can foresee skirmish is about to take place.” She encouraged us to wear secured garments such as Abaya, pack our valuable things individually, and secure our important documents.
My sister Aisha and I separately packed our things. Mother called us again and reminded us that whatever it takes, we need to have presence of mind and be steadfast.
When the Fajr time came, my father, who is the regular “muaddzin” at Sta. Barbara Masjid went to the Masjid to do the call for prayer for Fajr. We were so worried for his safety since lots of military were present outside and possible encounter between them and the MNLF might transpire anytime.
We were afraid that he will be trapped in the crossfire. We pleaded him not to go anymore but out of this devotion to do the Adhan for Fajr prayer, he assured us, “don’t you worry, Allah is with me.”
Finally, we heard my father’s voice calling for Fajr prayer reverberating across barangay Sta. Barbara. According to him, when he was on his way home, he heard gunfire nearby. As soon as he reached home, he told us, get ready to leave because almost all of our neighbors have already evacuated.
Together with our remaining neighbors, we carried our valuable belongings, left our houses and headed to the safe area fronting Zamboanga City Medical Center. What we went through during our evacuation was extremely hard.
To flee safely and not to be trapped in crossfire, we needed to transfer from one house to another. We also climbed individually the metal house rooftop then jumped into that area fronting the hospital. Children, adults and elderly underwent that difficult process because we didn’t have any other way out.
As the gunfire continued, I could clearly hear both children and adults screaming out of fear.
We stayed in an open field and didn’t have even a single shelter to protect ourselves from the possible falling bullets because most of the buildings were already closed.
We didn’t have any other choice but to just stay outside. We were like soccer balls running everywhere to safeguard ourselves and family whenever we heard gunfire. Since we left our houses that morning, we always tried to escape from being sandwiched in the encounters between government troops and the MNLF.
At 11:30 in the morning, everyone was extremely starving. Fear, hunger and thirst engulfed all of us especially the pitiful elderly and children. Qadaar Allaah, when we left our house, my father decided to stay. Had he not stayed there, maybe we would not have something to eat that day because what my father did was, he cooked food then sent it to us with some canned goods and biscuits.
My mother called him to leave the house. When he finally managed to escape, he went directly to the grandstand. Likewise, all of us, later in the afternoon were rescued by the government and sent to the grandstand that had become an evacuation center.
We arrived there exhausted, hungry and thirsty. Everyone desperately waited for some food supply from the government. Thousands of people who evacuated from different affected areas proceeded to the grandstand for shelter.
We stayed there for almost two months. Alhamdu Lillaahi, during our early days there, we were able to receive some food assistance from our friends from Muslim Students Association (MSA). They gave us and other evacuees used clothes.
Personally, I didn’t intend to queue and receive some food assistance from the government because I can see and feel that many people badly needing it than us. Of course, as a Muslima Hijabi/Niqaabi, our situation at the grandstand was so difficult, but we lived with it.
I can remember that when everyone was sleeping, maybe around 2a.m., that’s the time my sister and I would take a bath to refresh ourselves. Just like the other evacuees, we slept on the bleachers under the open sky securely wearing only our abaya to protect and safeguard our body.
During those days, we could see the skies darken from the smoke brought about by houses set on fire in the residential areas turned battlefields. It depressed us to see billows of smoke rising from the burning houses. My mother would just secretly weep thinking that our house was among them. Our house in so precious for us because it is the source of our living to earn halal income.
Nevertheless, even if we were experiencing those excruciating trials, our faith in Allah never vanished and it even kept us stronger every day. My father continued doing the call for prayer at the grandstand.
One day during out two-month stay there, there was a sudden heavy downpour and gusty winds struck the area. Every evacuee got wet including us and our only belongings that we brought when we left home. It was so heartbreaking for me to see people around us suffering, especially those who are sick, children and weak elderly.
After this incident, my mother decided to leave the grandstand and look for some house for rent where we can temporarily stay. Most of the boarding houses then were either full or they won’t accept us. We finally found one apartment in Baliwasan. The owner of that apartment was so generous because he allowed us to rent the place.
Our neighbors warmly welcomed us. They gave us food and some house stuff. We stayed in that apartment for three months. The owner of that apartment was so kind to the extent that he did not want to receive payment for our rent. Worth remembering, our MSAean friends and colleagues were continuously helping us. Oftentimes, amidst our situations, my father would visit our house in Lustre to check on his pet cats and feed them.
When the situation eased, my parents decided to return to our house in Lustre. That time, only a few residents had returned to their houses. In fact, only three houses in our neighborhood were occupied since most of the houses were razed tit the ground.
Our hard-earned house and small store were totally burned; thus, we must rise again from the ashes. Good thing, my father is a carpenter. He made a temporary room for four of us for sleeping.
My father started a call for prayer in Sta. Barbara Masjid. There were times we could hear the continuous barking of the dogs but Alhamdu Lillaahi, we were all safe.
Our devastating situation then did not stop me from taking my nursing licensure exam. I continued reviewing. Although, there were times I couldn’t go to my review center, I tried to catch up on the review.
My mother told me to postpone taking my licensure exam but I told her, I will just try. The only favor I asked them was to include me in ther fervent prayers and to not expect that I would pass the exam.
On the day of my licensure exam, I borrowed a school uniform from my friend because mine was burned. When the results of the exam were out, I was so overjoyed to see my name among the successful examinees. My family, especially my parents were so elated, too. Out of happiness, my mother burst into tears.
The clash between the MNLF and the government troops that spread throughout the barangays of Sta. Barbara, Rio Hondo, Sta. Catalina, and parts of Talon-Talon displaced more than 100,000 people.
These are only a few from the innumerable untold real-life narratives of our people who have been immensely affected by any armed conflict especially in Mindanao. The unwanted impact of armed conflict to the well-being of every affected individual is excruciating.
Everyone is exhausting all possible means in Mindanao or abroad in the hope of giving their families a better life.
Every precious livelihood and hard-earned properties of our people should be protected and safeguarded. Should we want peace and prosperity to reign, we must not destroy them by any means. Our people invested on these from their own blood and sweat.
I personally believe that war is not the ultimate strategy to settle any type of conflict. We have tried this for decades but this has caused more harm than good.
The strategies to be used shouldn’t result to the devastation of many people’s precious lives and their hard-earned properties. Nothing beats the diplomatic/gracious approach when addressing any dilemma in our lives.
(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their experiences in their adopted countries. Gamson Jr Mawallil Quijano of Sulu is a registered Radiologic Technologist who works in Doha, Qatar)