The statistics are stark and telling.
Close to 190 people died and more than 200 were wounded, according to estimates by the authorities. The UN reported that over 109,000 people were displaced in Zamboanga, with another 19,000 homeless in nearby Basilan province, both in the southern Philippines. Over 10,000 homes were destroyed.
Homes were destroyed by fire. Schools, airports and businesses were all shut down.
Welcome to Zamboanga, a province in the southern Philippines where a war between military troops and rebel fighters went on for 20 days before the government said on Saturday that the siege was over.
As I write this, at least 30 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels have surrendered after a two-week siege of this city. The rebels attacked the city to raise awareness of the government’s move of entering into a peace deal with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), fearing that the agreement they signed in 1996 would be side-lined.
The UN has declared the Zamboanga situation as a humanitarian crisis.
‘We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence,’ UN Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, said in a statement. ‘We are particularly concerned for the most vulnerable, especially the well-being of women and children.’
According to the UN, people are struggling to survive, with around 70,000 staying in the main sports complex in Zamboanga City, in desperately overcrowded conditions and insufficient sanitation facilities.
It warned that given the situation, there is a real risk of a disease outbreak. Food, drinking water, health services, cooking utensils, tents and other necessities are urgently required, with Carvalho emphasizing the need for aid to be delivered as soon as possible to the displaced.
‘We are particularly concerned that aid is delivered in an impartial manner, with the needs of the most vulnerable met and those outside the evacuation centres not forgotten,’ she said.
Human Rights Watch said it was important for children affected by the war, either as combatants or as hostages, to undergo psychological treatment.
‘Over the past week, we have documented the rebels’ use of children as hostages and human shields, some of whom have been killed and wounded during military operations. Meanwhile, Zamboanga’s evacuation centres, including a sports stadium, overflow with thousands of children who are homeless and unable to go to school,’ said Human Rights Watch Philippine researcher Carlos Conde.
‘Long after the guns go silent and the soldiers go home, the children of Zamboanga will wrestle with the traumas of these days of violence,’ he continued.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that many civilians were caught in the crossfire:
‘Government forces should not be making blanket assumptions about whether individuals are rebels based on whether they have proper documents or not. Officials can check those leaving the conflict zone, but they need to ensure that civilians have safe passage and are not put at unnecessary risk.’
Zamboanga is a beautiful place. I walked its streets, many moons ago. I crossed its bustling seaport under a scorching sun, slept in its hotels, enjoyed its seafood treasures and visited its markets. I have heard the laughter of its children and met many of its people.
Although the government has said that the siege is over, scattered fighting is still on-going, according to reports. I am hoping that peace returns to the island, a place Zamboanganos – men, women and children – call home.