Philippines 19 Nov 2014 23:00
Journalist Carlos Sardiña Galache travelled to Zamboanga, Philippines in October to cover the situation of IDPs and, more generally, the conflict in Mindanao in the light of the ongoing peace process between the MILF and the government. He interviewed several IDPs, Philippine army officers, Muslim activists, members of the MNLF and the MILF, and members of the local authorities, including the Mayor of Zamboanga.
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Tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) are still waiting to go back to their homes in the city of Zamboanga, in the restive island of Mindanao, in southern Philippines.
The conditions in the IDP camps are far from ideal and 186 people have died due to the unsanitary conditions in this and other camps since they were established.
A battle last year between a disgruntled faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine Army in the streets of the city left 218 people dead, more than ten thousand houses were destroyed and at least 120,000 people were left displaced. It was one of the latest violent episodes in a conflict between the government and Muslim militant groups which has been going on for more than four decades and has left at least 160,000 people killed.
“My house was burned after the fighting,” said 38 year-old IDP and activist Gaman Hassan. “The problem is that when we wanted to take some belongings from the house, the military didn’t allow us to go back, because it seemed to us that they are thinking we are also part of the rebels, and that’s why they don’t allow us to go back to our area, Rio Hondo. Our belongings were stolen. We believe that the soldiers burned many houses to better locate the rebels. It’s also a way to justify the looting.”
With an ongoing peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), it is widely believed that the attack on Zamboanga was launched by the faction led by the MNLF founder and former chairman Nur Misuari, as an attempt to derail the peace negotiations.
“We will try to get Nur Misuari back in the fold, but sometimes he doesn’t agree with our ideas,” said MNLF Field Marshall Al-Hussein Caluang. “We can’t exclude Misuari from the MNLF, because there are a lot of people who follow him, particularly in Sulu and Zamboanga del Norte.”
The future is uncertain for the thousands of people displaced by the violence last year. Some of the areas where they used to live have been declared no-build zones for security reasons, amidst accusations by Muslim activists that the real motivation behind this decision by local authorities is purely political.
“The no-build zones are places with geo-hazards, which suffered big storm-surges between 2007 and 2013,” said Zamboanga’s Mayor Maria Isabel Climaco Salazar. “We can’t send back people there to stay, we can’t put them in dangerous areas. During the attack against Zamboanga City, those same places were the first areas that the MNLF used as entry points.”
In 2016 there will be a referendum by which each district will decide whether it wants to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, and some suspect that the authorities are doing everything they can to get Zamboanga, a Christian-majority city with strong Spanish influences, out of the autonomous region.
“The local government in Zamboanga City is working against the inclusion of Zamboanga in Bangsamoro,” said Arasid Daranda, a local information officer for the MILF. “Their main purpose is to prevent the Muslim authority from operating in Zamboanga City. They want Zamboanga City out of the Moro grip, but publicly they claim they want peace.”
With extremist groups like Abu Sayaf operating in the area, kidnapping both Filipino nationals and foreigners, Mindanao is one of the most dangerous and potentially explosive areas in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
“This ‘Asian’ latino city’ is a myth,” said Father Ángel Calvo, who has lived and worked as a missionary in Mindanao since 1972. “That belongs to the past. There’s nothing Latin in Zamboanga anymore. This is a multi-cultural community. We have eight or nine ethno-linguistic groups here, everybody with their own interests, naturally. This is very explosive. The government doesn’t realize this.”