World Bulletin / News Desk
Thousands of Muslims have taken to the streets of Zamboanga to demonstrate against the deaths of more than 100 refugees in evacuation camps in the southern Philippines city, more than six months after they were relocated there during a siege by Muslim rebels.
Waving white flags emblazoned with messages such as "Save the IDPs," demonstrators from civil society organizations, evacuees and members of various support groups carried empty coffins and fake bodies enshrouded in white cotton as they marched to Zamboanga City Hall this week.
Zamboanga is the site of a September siege by Moro National Liberation Front rebels opposed to a peace agreement between the militant Islamist Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government. The three-month siege in the predominantly Christian city - surrounded by the Muslim South - left around 200 people dead, 2,000 houses razed and hundreds of thousands of people of various ethnic groups homeless.
Six months later, around 16,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) still live in three evacuation centers in the city. More than 100 have died, most from diarrhea and pneumonia-related illnesses, and thousands remain crammed into tents into the Enriquez sports grandstand - sleeping on terraces, fighting crowded conditions, improper sanitary measures and heat.
Many more of the displaced live in shacks on Cawa-Cawa Boulevard, for years a picturesque road fringed with palm trees popular with couples taking romantic walks as the sun went down, but now overrun with tents and tatty wooden shacks with blue plastic sheets for roofs, their occupants spilling out onto the road begging for money and food.
Placards and banners carried by the protesters at this week's rally bore messages such as: "Stop the death of IDPs. Return Us Home Now," "Fulfill your duties, give justice to the 108 IDPs who died at the evacuation center," and "Failure to deliver shows incompetence and corruption."
The groups declared that after 205 days of being homeless they had had enough.
"120,000 people displaced is too much. 108 people dead in the congested evacuation center is far too many. We have had enough!" a protester read from a statement.
Al Mu'minaat, an international organization focusing on the rights of Muslim women, said in a statement that research by the government and various agencies had failed to solve the problem, as the people remain homeless.
"We have been promised that our life in evacuation is but temporary," Al Mu'minaat said, highlighting that the local mayor had constantly promised that they would be able to return to their homes.
"'Not a single soul will be displaced,' she had assured. 'Not a single soul to perish.' So, why has the death toll risen to more than a hundred?"
President Benigno Aquino has promised a 3.9 billion (US$80 million) peso fund for Zamboanga’s reconstruction. During a December visit to the city, he promised residents that the government would not only rebuild the city, but also make it better and safer.
Zamboanga City Mayor Climaco-Salazar said recently that the government has already spent some 273.8 million pesos in relief aid and cash-for-work programs for the displaced and allocated an additional 3.5 billion pesos for rehabilitation efforts. She has called on all sectors to support a proposed "Zamboanga City Roadmap to Recovery and Reconstruction" which she says seeks to build a better city and improve the overall environment of the affected communities.
The mayor has allocated a new 46 hectare area for the displaced to move to, but some of them don't want to be moved - they want to go home.
Evacuees such as Gamar Hassan insist that they should be allowed to return to their respective places of origin as they need to be near the sea to continue their livelihoods.
Hassan - an evacuee who spearheads a group from Barangay Rio Hondo - said the suggested inland area of Tulangatung is too far, the sea too far away, and travels costs too high.
Attempts to move the evacuees to such inland areas have aroused suspicions that local authorities are using the siege as an excuse to redevelop the area they came from.
Hassan said now they are not only counting their dead but also how many times authorities break promises.
"We shall count every minute of government ineptitude, inaction and abandonment of their responsibilities and accountabilities to the IDPs whom they have forced out of their homes and continue to cage to die a slow death in the congested grandstand and disease-riddled Cawa-Cawa Boulevard," he told the Anadolu Agency.
"We shall continue to raise our voices. We have had enough of promises and scheming! We demand that the government bring the IDPs home now!"
He warned that if the situation wasn't resolved soon authorities would be in as much danger from the displaced as they were from the MNLF.
"If there is a Part II of the siege, and no one else will lead, I will," he said. He claimed that some people had been so desperate and angry that they had left the camps and joined Muslim militant groups opposed to the peace deal, such as Abu Sayyaf.
Warina Sushil A. Juku, a coordinator for the Philippines Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, this weeks denounced the authorities' efforts.
"To deny the displaced civilians to their right to return to their home of origin is a blatant assault against their very human dignity," she said.
AA tried to reach Mayor Climaco-Salazar for comment but she were told that she had been out of the city since March 27.Last Mod: 07 Nisan 2014, 18:04