From shoreline to shelter

Itijah Subahan and her grandson at their new temporary home in Mampang, where they live with several hundred other Badjao families © IOM 2014 (Photo by Naomi Mihara)

By Naomi Mihara

Itijah Subahan is glad to have left the sweltering heat of the makeshift dwelling where she and her family had been living for the past 11 months.  Displaced by the fighting that broke out in Zamboanga city between the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine army one year ago, she and her husband, seven children and two grandchildren evacuated to a narrow stretch of shoreline, known as “Cawa-Cawa”.

“The heat of the sun was very hot there,” she explains.  “It was dangerous for the children, because of the traffic from the main road.  There were accidents all the time.  It’s better here, where we live now. ”

Itijah’s house was burned down, along with thousands of others, during the siege when the MNLF were flushed out from the densely packed residential areas of Rio Hondo and Mariki.  A sea of stilts is all that remains of the traditional wooden houses that used to make up the landscape of the coastal barangays.

Former residents revisit the remains of Rio Hondo. © IOM 2014 (Photo by Alan Motus)

Her family is among the newest residents at Mampang transitory site, where over 500 families are currently temporarily living.  Most are Badjaos,  a seafaring people who are well known for their astonishing freediving abilities.  The site is built on a wetland which stretches out into the sea, enabling the residents to continue fishing, their main source of livelihood.

But there are also Tausug, another ethnic group of the southern Philippines, living in the site.  Though both are Moro people (ethnically indigenous Muslims), longstanding differences have affected their ability to live harmoniously in some areas, including their original homelands of Rio Hondo and Mariki.  However, Marlon Suazo, IOM’s camp manager for Mampang, says that there haven’t been any such problems at Mampang. “Every Monday there is a meeting of leaders from each of the bunkhouses in the site.  So Tausug, Badjao and also Christian leaders come together and can discuss any concerns among the residents living in their blocks.”

Just a few weeks ago, there were still several hundred families living next to the roadside at Cawa-Cawa in a situation that some called a “ticking time-bomb”.  Many Badjao families chose to stay at the shoreline rather than move into the adjacent Joaquin Enriquez Sports Complex (currently housing over 2,000 families), even though the two are situated right next to each other, because of the importance of having direct access to the sea. 

The Cawa-Cawa shoreline, pictured before the remaining families were relocated.  © IOM 2014 (Photo by Alan Motus)

Bisahari Binatala, a fisherman, wiped tears away as he told of his worries for his grandchildren’s safety, due to overcrowding and the busy main road which runs right next to the tent where his family had been living since the siege. “I would move anywhere as long as it’s close to the sea,” he said. 

His family was finally moved away from Cawa-Cawa, along with around 200 others, when it closed last Thursday.  Forty-nine families were transferred to a new site at Buggoc, built specifically for the Badjao, while the rest were either moved to Mampang or are temporarily staying in the grandstand while awaiting the construction of a further 500 shelters by IOM and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).  The construction of the site at Buggoc also serves as a livelihood programme, the so-called “Buggoc challenge”, whereby people affected by the conflict are paid a daily wage to build stilted houses in teams of five, using materials provided by IOM.  Since launching early last month, many local organizations and individuals have lent generous support to fund the initiative.

A new transitional site at Buggoc, now home to 49 families and with more to follow. © IOM 2014 (Photo by Naomi Mihara)

The humanitarian response in Zamboanga is made all the more complex by the culturally specific needs of the diverse displaced population.  “It was very challenging at first,” says Brian Lustre, IOM Zamboanga’s Head of Office.  “Here people must listen to their tribal leader.  If a leader says ‘no’ to transferring to a site, the rest of the group must follow.”  The first transitional site to be identified, at Tulungatung, was rejected by many Badjao during community consultations – an integral part of IOM’s protocol for resettling displaced people – because it lies inland rather than on the coast.  Similarly the materials used for house building need to be adapted.  The Badjao are uncomfortable with the use of corrugated iron sheets for roofing, as they believe that ancestors and spirits dwell in their houses.  Therefore indigenous materials, such as pandan leaves – which are also cooler and more appropriate for the climate – need to be used.

Although 12 permanent relocation sites have been identified for an estimated 7,500 houses, land acquisition is an ongoing challenge and construction is still in the early stages, with 49 families able to move in last month.  Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III has given a deadline of June 2015 for when the construction of permanent houses should be finished for displaced families still living in transitory sites and the sports complex.  There remains a question mark over what will happen to Rio Hondo and Mariki. While many former residents would like to return, the local government wants to make sure the area is built back safer.  “Previously, Mariki and Rio Hondo were areas where the density of housing was so high that there were sanitation issues, environmental issues and even criminality,” explains Rodrigo Sicat, City Planning and Development Officer for Zamboanga City.  “We want to develop the area with sound urban planning.”

In the meantime, the plight of those still living in squalid conditions continues, despite the closing of Cawa-Cawa.  “We need more dignified transitory shelters,” implored Zamboanga’s Mayor, ‘Beng’ Climaco.  “What we need now is continued temporary humanitarian assistance before we are able to build the permanent shelters that have been committed by the national government.  We cannot allow people to keep living in a sports complex.”