Zamboanga still chaotic weeks after violent clashes

Omal Gani, born by the side of the road in Zamboanga

By Joe Lowry

Meet Omal. He was born on the side of the road 12 days ago, his mother pushing him out in a rapid 45-minute labour. Motorbikes, trucks and cars screamed by, inches from the newborn’s head. Aged just 22, Misbah Gani is now mother to four bright-eyed kids under the age of 10. They live in a one-metre-high lean-to - a temporary shelter next to a petrol station that is sweltering, noisy and full of exhaust fumes.

On Sept. 9, amid violent clashes between Philippines army and the Moro National Liberation Front, Misbah had fled her traditional stilt-house, built over the water in Mariki, on the edge of the southern Philippines city of Zamboanga. “We heard gunfire and saw armed men. We got into our canoe and came here.”

Misbah comes from the Badjao tribe, an Islamic seafaring people, often called “sea Gypsies”. Many of them live full-time on long thin boats. There are a couple of these boats moored off the Cawa Cawa seafront in Zamboanga now, but they are not the most remarkable things there.

Gasp number one.

Zamboanga takes your breath away again and again. And then some. Along the sea front are hundreds upon hundreds of tents, some donated by organisations like Shelterbox, some put together with tarpaulin from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and Unicef. More than a thousand people, mainly Badjaos like Misbah and her family, are jammed in on both sides and on the central reservation of what, in calmer times, must have been an elegant boulevard.

Gasp number two.

The central stadium - or the “grandstand” as it’s known locally: Some 24,000 people are still living there, almost two months after the standoff between the Philippines army and the Mindanao National Liberation Front that left scores dead. It’s filthy and stinking, despite the best efforts of humanitarian organisations and the government. Green slime clogs drainage ditches and kids wade - barefoot - through putrid, shin-deep mud. It’s chaotic, smoky, hot, and at sunset, it’s frantic with activity. God only knows what it must have been like when there were 120,000 displaced people there. Or what will happen if a cyclone rips across Mindanao, this being prime storm season.

Gasp number three.

The damaged central suburbs: Without wishing to go back over old war stories, I have seen some pretty heavy stuff, in East and West Africa in the 90s. Zamboanga rivals that. I am transfixed by a lamppost that 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. I am standing in what, a few weeks ago was a wall of flying lead.

Gasp number four.

We climb up a rickety staircase to the top of a building and look out over Mariki, and back to Campo Muslim in Rio Hondo. The water in the bay is full of charred wooden stumps. This is where thousands of people lived in stilt houses, directly over the sea. And there’s nothing left. Nothing but blackened poles. Turning 180 degrees from the shorelines, all the eye picks out is destruction. Rusty charred metal on sooty ground. A whole neighbourhood consumed by flames. Pathetically, people are putting plastic tape, bunting, strings around where they guess their homes were.

Gapur Nasilin (43) near the ruins of his home in Zamboanga’s Campo Muslim street: “My mind is blind”

Gapur Nasilin, a 46-year-old father of three, calls me over. Yesterday the government allowed him and hundreds of other former residents of Rio Hondo and Mariki back to their homes. It’s hard to see what for. Everything is gone. “My mind is blind”, says Gapur. “I don’t have any idea what I am going to do.”

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 to 100 pesos ($1.25 to 2.50) a day. 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.

What now for Zamboanga? I ask Ridaun Hadjimuddin of the Department for Social Welfare and Development, the government agency in charge of shelter and food supply. “We need a lot more bunkhouses, like the ones IOM is building”, he says.   “We’ve already spent 200 million pesos ($4.6 million) on food and we don’t have enough for shelter.”

Back on the dockside at Mariki, Marine Major Jojo Atienza looks at the figures scrabbling in the dirt for scrap metal to sell.  He was deployed on Sept. 9, and lost men during the fighting. His task this afternoon will be to convince people to leave the remains of their homes and go back to their lean-tos and their tents.

These are not vagrant beachcombers, they are from this place. They grew up here, worked and raised families here. “They’ve lost everything," says Major Jojo. “All they have left are their children and their clothes.”