Tens of thousands still displaced in southern Philippines


© Kerwin Baldovino 2013

By Joe Lowry

Just under two months ago, the historic town of Zamboanga, in the southern Philippines, exploded in a frenzy of violence as fighters from the Moro National Liberation Front clashed with Government forces. The city was paralysed for several days and still bears heavy scars from the fighting. Scores of soldiers, militants and civilians were killed and one in six residents in this city of 775,000 fled their homes.

The sea front of Cawa Cawa is home to hundreds of families, mainly from the Badjao tribe, an Islamic seafaring people, often called “sea Gypsies”. This one-time elegant boulevard is now a teeming mass of humanity, a disaster waiting to happen as trucks and cars roar by children playing in the road, and as mothers cook on charcoal stoves, packed cheek-to-jowl into overcrowded tents.

These people have, for the most part, moved from the nearby seaside suburbs of Rio Hondo and Mariki. Where they came from, the Campo Muslim area of Rio Hondo, now looks like a scene from hell. A once-busy suburb has been reduced to ash and twisted, scorched metal.

On the day we visit, residents have been let back in for 48 hours to salvage what they can. For the most part, that’s precious little. Many can’t even be sure where their homes once stood, but – agonizing to watch – are marking their territories with string and bunting in the hope that one day they will be able to rebuild? But with what?

Gapur Nasilin, a 46-year-old father of three calls me over. He has lost his job as a security guard (there’s nothing to guard and no one to guard it from) so he buys and resells fish in the market for 50-100 pesos ($1.25-2.5) a day. Everything he ever worked for is gone. "My mind is blind", says Gapur. "I don’t have any idea what I am going to do."

Well, he has one idea. He’s planning to contact his old friends from school to see if they can help, especially those who work overseas. He’s close to tears, this good, decent man, two years my junior, with a lifetime of sadness etched on his face in two short months.

If Rio Hondo is a scene from hell, Mariki is like another planet. The bay is full of hundreds upon hundreds of poles sticking out of the water. Up to early September, they supported a unique community of Badjao people, living on houses built on these stilts. 99 per cent of these houses have simply vanished into thin air, in the massive conflagration that took place when the army flushed out the militants.

The buildings in the centre of town were sturdier than Rio Hondo or Mariki, but on the day of our visit you could be in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil war, or Mogadishu in the 1990s. Every roof is gone, every window shattered, every wall splattered with bullet-holes. Every back yard is burnt out, so that’s it hard to tell what was the inside of a house, and what was outside. I am transfixed by a lamp post which has so many bullet-holes in it that it looks more like a giant cheese grater.  It’s over 30 degrees Celsius on the eerily-calm streets, but I shiver.

Residents from this part of town are still being accommodated in the "Grandstand", or the Joaquin F Enriquez Memorial Stadium to give it its full name. The entrance is off the main coastal drag, meaning the displaced people sprawl along the esplanade and into this stadium. Inside, IOM, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and other agencies are looking after the most basic needs of 21,000 people (down from 120,000 at the height of the crisis).

It’s filthy and stinking, despite the best efforts of the humanitarian organizations and the Government. Green slime clogs drainage ditches and kids wade through putrid, shin-deep mud. Barefoot. It’s chaotic, smoky, and hot and at sunset, it’s frantic with activity. God only knows what it must have been like when there were six times as many people there, eating, drinking, defecating, sleeping. Or what will happen if a cyclone rips across Mindanao, this being prime storm season.

IOM has already donated tarpaulins, stoves, charcoal, and solar lamps to thousands of displaced people, and is building wooden bunkhouses for families inside the Grandstand stadium. It is also co-lead with the Government on Camp Coordination and Camp Management.

The organizations’ Chief of Mission in the Philippines Marco Boasso stresses that IOM hopes to be part of a multi-partner effort to bring lasting stability to Zamboanga and the surrounding region. “While we are prioritising bringing emergency relief to people in the direst of circumstances we realise that this is only a temporary fix. The next step is to get people into safer accommodation which is why we have started building bunkhouses. This will allow families, and particularly women and children, to live more safely and with greater dignity.

"But the only way to guarantee stability and prevent further uprooting of populations is to ensure livelihoods and functioning infrastructure so that people are not discontented and prone to more radical options. We are ready to work with government, communities and civil society to help Zamboanga move on from this painful episode."