ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 17 September) — An estimated 180 members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari on September 9 initially occupied four, later six coastal villages out of 98 barangays and held hostage an estimated 170 residents but while the actual arena of conflict is small, the standoff as it entered Day 8 Monday, has virtually held hostage not just “Asia’s Latin City” of 807,000 residents in the Zamboanga Region but also 1.4 million residents in the neighboring island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi are three of five ARMM provinces. Like Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco, ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman has yet to estimate the economic losses since Day One, Monday, September 9, when the MNLF entered Zamboanga City purportedly to stage a peace caravan and hoist the MNLF flag at City Hall, in pursuit of Misuari’s alleged declaration of independence of the “Bangsamoro Republik.”
“I will check with DTI (Department of Trade and Industry). But almost all activities are affected,” Hataman told MindaNews on Sunday.
In Zamboanga City, economic activities in the downtown area near the conflict zones have been at a standstill since Monday with most establishments closed. Some partly open their establishments, but limit entry to ensure easy closure should the situation warrant. Queues are commonly seen outside partly-opened stores, as well as the automated teller machines of banks.
On Monday, however, the longest queues were outside commercial cash remittance centers, apparently coming from relatives and friends outside the city who could not send money through the banks.
Commercial establishments are suffering huge losses. But daily wage earners, small entrepreneurs, market vendors and tricycle drivers are worried if they can still provide food on the table if the standoff continues beyond Day Eight.
Before the standoff, tricycle driver Sammy Yangco said he was earning an average of P300 daily. Since September 9, his average daily earning has gone down to P50. “Walang pasahero. Takot ang mga taong lumabas” (there are no passengers. People are afraid to go out), he told MindaNews.
Air and sea transportation between Zamboanga City, the hub, and the three island provinces in the ARMM has been suspended since Day One and few inter-provincial commercial buses that would connect the city with the rest of Mindanao via Zamboanga del Sur or Zamboanga del Norte, have been plying the route.
The only persons who have been allowed to travel from the island provinces were at least a thousand pilgrims to Mecca who boarded authorized seacraft from Basilan and Sulu to allow them to reach this city. Hataman said that from here, the pilgrims were transported by C-130 to Cebu from where they used their Zamboanga-Manila air tickets to reach Manila and catch their flights to Mecca. A commercial airline had special flights from Tawi-tawi direct to Manila with passengers using their Zamboanga-Manila tickets, plus an additional P2,000 each that Hataman said was shouldered by the provincial government.
The Sulu provincial government, on the other hand chartered boats to ferry stranded Sulu-bound passengers from Zamboanga and Zamboanga-bound passengers from Sulu.
Classes have been suspended not only in this city but in the neighboring provinces. In Jolo, Sulu, classes were also suspended last week, sometimes a whole day, sometimes half, Notre Dame University President Fr. Charlie Inzon told MindaNews.
In Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay, where at least 50 residents were killed when armed men sacked the town on April 4,1995, classes were suspended from Monday to Wednesday last week as rumors of landing of armed men spread through text messages. In 1995, the armed men arrived from the sea and by bus and by noon, attacked the town center and set on fire the public market, killing at least 50.
In Basilan, several residents were also reported to have fled areas where a composite group of Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the MNLF reportedly attempted to attack. Hataman acknowledged “there is tension” and that fear generated by scary text messages has driven several residents to evacuate but added that the attempts of the armed in had been thwarted.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC) late Monday reported 4,351 evacuees – home-based and in evacuation centers, in Lamitan City.
According to the National Statistical Coordinating Board, Zamboanga City has a population of 807,129 residents as of May 1, 2010. Total population of the six barangays in the theatre of conflict – Talon-talon, Rio Hondo, Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Mampang and portions of Tugbungan – is 112,874 with Talon-talon posting the highest at 30,535.
Mampang’s population is 22,857; Sta. Catalina’s population is17,955; Sta. Barbara’s is 7,961; Rio Hondo’s is 10,565 and Tugbungan’s total population is 23,001
According to the NSCB, Basilan’s population is 293,322; Sulu’s is 718,290 and Tawi-tawi’s is 366,550. The three provinces’ combined population is 1,378,162.
As of Monday, September 16, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said 81,806 residents have been displaced and are presently in 24 evacuation centers. Of this number, 67,845 are in the Joaquin Enriquez Sports Center,
On Saturday, the total number of evacuees was 62,329. By Sunday it was 67,000 and by Monday, 81,806 even as the military said the arena of conflict has been constricted and is getting smaller every day. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)