PWD on Zambo standoff: “Stop the fighting so we can go back to school”

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/20 September)- After attending Special Education (SpEd) classes at the city central school here, 20-year old Cyrus Kent John Ramago wanted to finish a course in one of Mindanao’s premier training institutions for persons with disabilities (PWDs) based in Zamboanga City.

But members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari attacked “Asia’s Latin City” on September 9 just as “Kit,” as he is fondly called, was about to complete a six-month course on graphic arts at the Area Vocational Rehabilitation Center (AVRC) of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

“The war stopped our classes. I hope it will end soon. I will not go back to Zamboanga if it’s not safe yet,” he told MindaNews a week after his parents rescued him from a DSWD center in Zamboanga where he and several other PWDs holed up during the early days of the standoff.


Kit narrates his experience. MindaNews photo by Walter Balane

His family said he was traumatized by the experience and for several nights was crying.

Cynthia Julian, AVRC officer-in-charge, told MindaNews on the phone Friday Kit and 17 other PWDs undergoing skills training were evacuated to the Center for Displaced Persons, a DSWD facility in Talon-talon housing Sabah deportees.

She added that when government pursuit operations against the MNLF fighters reached the area on September 11, the evacuees were again moved to another DSWD facility, the Center for Women in San Roque.

Julian stressed the gunfights traumatized the PWDs, just like the rest of the displaced individuals.
But she said the problem is the continuity of their classes. Of the center’s 36 total trainees, 19 of them including Kit have returned to their provinces for safety.

“The fighting has disrupted their learning. We will try our best to cope (with the disruption) after the situation normalizes,” she added.

As of Friday, Julian said the local government still imposes a “no work, no classes” policy.

“I hope the situation improves soon,” she added.

The standoff in Zamboanga City, now on Day 12, killed at least 80 MNLF fighters, 13 government troops and 10 civilians, a report from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council showed.

The council also reported that as of Thursday, at least 118,000 residents have been displaced by the hostilities, with 10,160 houses totally destroyed by fires.

Clashes erupted after the MNLF fighters laid siege on some coastal barangays in Zamboanga and held some 200 civilians hostage, most of whom have either been rescued or have escaped.

Kit said that while in transit, they heard explosions and non-stop gunfire all day long. In the center, his sleep was the number one casualty, as they were told to be awake up to midnight and sleep only from midnight to 6 a.m. because of the fighting.

“But we countered it with prayers. Sometimes we cracked jokes to conceal our fears,” said Kit, who has a learning disability and is a scholar at the center.

Explosions, firing at dawn

He was sleeping at their boarding house when a housemate called his attention after hearing explosions and firing at dawn.

After getting instructions from an older housemate, he packed two bags and a suitcase then ran away from the boarding house, joining others to seek refuge.

Kit recalled that he vomited blood, perhaps out of panic or for the load he was carrying. Aside from clothes and his things in school, Kit noted he also packed some canned goods, too.

Along the way, he said he saw many people carrying bags–running to and fro—and some were armed.

Kit said he didn’t know who was firing and for him it didn’t matter who they were.

“As long as we saw they have guns, we ran away from them whoever they are,” he added.

He recalled the sight alone was terrifying and the noise of fighting worse.

“We were half relieved inside the orphanage but soon we began to worry about our other classmates,” Kit added.

He noted that “the most frightening was the first few moments of the experience as eventually they have learned to cope with the situation.”

A day before the MNLF siege, Kit told his family back in Bukidnon on the phone that he was feeling homesick.

Kit’s mother Florabel, 43, said they decided to eventually extricate him because of the risks they saw on television as fighting raged on.

Florabel and her husband, a police officer, have sought the help of colleagues for clearance to pass the road from Bukidnon to Zamboanga and back.

The mother, a worker at the San Isidro Cathedral here, said it was a very difficult journey that took them unusual routes just to be able to reach Zamboanga. They left on September 10.

Kit, on the other hand, had to be secured from the center in San Roque to a church about 30 minutes ride on a motorcycle. He was taken out with the help of the Philippine Red Cross.

Finally, the family was reunited on September 11.

But leaving wasn’t easy either for Kit.

He said he was worried about his classmates, some of whom he invited to join them in the ride home. But on the day of Kit’s rescue, only a motorcycle was used to ferry him out of the danger zone.

“I was so sorry for them because they were left behind,” he added.

Florabel said they were relieved that their son is now back home, but also disappointed because Kit was supposed to complete his training on September 26.

He was scheduled for internship in October.

“I’m angry about the fighting because it stopped the children’s learning,” Florabel said, stressing that her son wanted to finish schooling and that he already wanted to go back to school.  (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)