Philippines: Escaping conflict in Zamboanga

4 October, 2013
Internally displaced people have to settle with living in makeshift houses outside the main sports complex of Zamboanga city. Credit: OCHA
Internally displaced people have to settle with living in makeshift houses outside the main sports complex of Zamboanga city. Credit: OCHA

When the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex was built in Zamboanga, a cityon the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, its architect could never have imagined it would be used for anything but sports. But in recent weeks, the stadium became a temporary home to more than 70,000 people, mostly women and children, who were sheltering from intense fighting between Government forces and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The Government estimates that more than 10,000 homes were destroyed in the fighting. The safest option for many of those fleeing violence was to seek shelter in the stadium. But they faced a daily routine that they could never have imagined: queuing for drinking water, bathing facilities, medical treatment and food.

Maynona, an 18-year-old mother, is just one of those now living in the stadium. Her stilt home along the mangroves of Mariki barangay (village) was one of the thousands razed during the fighting. When Maynona and her family arrived at the stadium, they slept on a bench and joined thousands of others in need of basic support.

Health fears

In the second week of the crisis, OCHA joined the Government’s Office of Civil Defense to assess the situation at the stadium.

“There were overwhelming numbers of people in the stadium, it was difficult to even imagine it as a sports ground once,” said OCHA’s National Disaster Response Adviser, Agnes Palacio, who took part in the assessment. “People who fled the conflict were traumatized, especially children. Many people left their homes with just the clothes on their back, without even pots to cook in.”

The Government and humanitarian agencies have provided people with tents, tarpaulins and tools to protect them from the monsoon rains. Water bladders and toilets were installed, and people received jerry cans and protection kits.

Maynona also received much-needed assistance; she and her family now share a tent with two other families. Maynona and her 4-month-old and 2-year-old daughters received oral polio vaccinations and vitamins. As Maynona is breastfeeding, she received a health supplement to increase her iron levels.

Not all needs were addressed so quickly, and there is still a huge demand for sanitation services. With insufficient toilet facilities in the stadium, humanitarian workers fear health issues could arise. Government and humanitarian agencies are providing cooked food three times a day, but it’s not enough.

Safety concerns

Safety is a serious concern in such a crowded space. Thirty-seven-year-old Myrna has nine children, her youngest is 2 years old and her eldest—a daughter—is 15. The family shares a tent with three other families. Worried for her daughter’s safety, Myrna sent her to stay with a relative until they can all return home. Another mother shared her concerns more directly: “I am afraid my child will be hurt, abused or exploited.”

UNHCR and UNICEF are addressing safety concerns with women-friendly spaces established in the bigger camps, and with psychological interventions for more than 2,500 children and 1,500 adults.

Leaving her home with no possessions, Myrna is grateful for the clothes and food provided by the humanitarian community, but she and her family have been unable to cook for themselves since their arrival. Providing families with cooking utensils is a dilemma, as there is insufficient space for people to safely prepare food.

Stand-off over

The Government recently announced that its stand-off with the MNLF faction has ended. However, the humanitarian crisis continues. The task of reconstructing homes and rebuilding the communities affected physically and psychologically by the conflict is a massive one. The Government now hopes that people who lost their homes in the fighting will be housed in bunk houses until they can rebuild.

“I wanted to go back to our original place, back to our normal lives,” said Maynona. “But I do not know when and how.”