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Philippines: Time to remember 64,000 people unable to return home in Zamboanga

29 Apr 2014


Thousands of families that fled fighting in Zamboanga City in September 2013 are still living in makeshift shelters and tents in overcrowded spaces. Credit: OCHA/Russell Geekie
Thousands of families that fled fighting in Zamboanga City in September 2013 are still living in makeshift shelters and tents in overcrowded spaces.

The checkpoint is a ten-minute drive west from the bustling centre of Zamboanga, a city of 807,000 people in the southern Philippines. Beyond it lies a ghost town comprising Rio Hondo and neighboring barangays, political units that are roughly equivalent to a neighborhood in Philippine cities.

Rows of charred wooden and concrete stilts poke out of the water at Rio Hondo. These were the foundations of fishing homes. People have put their names and phone numbers on clapboards fastened to the stilts to show they mean to return. On the adjacent shore, others have painted their names on the shells of concrete buildings.

One of the few souls within several kilometres, 18-year-old Abidon Kahlid, sits on a pile of rubble. He burns wood that he has salvaged from the debris to make charcoal, his hands blackened from the work. But Kahlid no longer lives there.

He fled along with 118,000 other people at the start of fighting between a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front and Government forces that began on 9 September. His parents did not. They were among the 140 people killed in the three-week battle. More than 10,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged in the fighting and consequent fires that engulfed the area.

Early funding made a difference

Aid agencies were able to address the worst suffering in the months immediately following the fighting. They helped authorities provide food, water, medical care, and emergency shelter. This initial wave of relief was underpinned by a US$3 million injection from the OCHA-managed Central Emergency Response Fund followed by $2.2 million from donors, including $1.6 million from Japan.

Tens of thousands of people were able to return to their homes before the end of the year. But seven months after the crisis began, 64,000 people remain displaced in the city. Many of them are crammed into tents or other emergency shelters set up in overcrowded spaces where the risk of disease is high and opportunities to make money are limited.

Critical support for displaced

In January, authorities launched the Zamboanga City Roadmap for Recovery and Reconstruction, aiming to either return families from the five worst affected barangays to their areas of origin or to permanently resettle them elsewhere by mid-2015.

However, what will happen in the interim is a major concern for the affected families – as well as for the authorities and aid workers supporting them.
With the most acute phase of the crisis over, emergency relief has been reduced. The Government’s regular food distributions for all displaced families ceased in December, although humanitarians have provided “food for work” and cash grants to at-risk families in the months since. As priorities shift to recovery, vulnerable families worry how they will obtain basic necessities.

A funding gap

Aid groups are themselves hampered. The humanitarian community has received no new funding for the Zamboanga crisis since October. The attention of donors was taken by two higher profile crises: the Bohol earthquake in late October 2013 and Typhoon Haiyan in November.

“Without further funding, humanitarians will not be able to implement the critical programming needed now to ensure the still fragile humanitarian situation for displaced people in Zamboanga improves rather than deteriorates,” said Luiza Carvalho, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Philippines.
“We need additional funding to support families that lost everything. People who have suffered the dual trauma of conflict and the marginal life as a displaced person need our help to obtain life’s basic necessities, to live again safely and in dignity and to recover the means to earn a living.”

Between a dock and a hard place

Standing on the concrete wall that meets the sea half a metre below, 10-year-old Risaura Muhammaran, lifts her long-sleeve Mickey Mouse t-shirt to expose strips of surgical tape and bandages covering the stitched incision in the centre of her abdomen, the result of a recent appendectomy.
“We did not have to pay for her operation because we are registered as displaced,” her grandmother, Asmaria Ladjalawan, says, a smile failing to hide worry on her weathered face.

They are standing alongside their family’s shelter, which is covered with a tarpaulin from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It opens to the sea where one of the family boats is docked. They stand amidst a collection of wash basins and dishes, as well as pails that had contained relief and are adorned with government agency, NGO and UN logos.

Her family’s shelter is one of hundreds wedged in the 20-metre gap between the sea and highway. More tents are crammed under young coconut trees on the highway divider. The area, known as Cawa-Cawa, was designated as an evacuation centre and hosted some 4,400 people in early April.

Many of the shelters lining the roadside double as market stalls. An old woman missing her upper front teeth sells coconuts, bananas and packets of powdered milk. Next to her on a small wooden table sitting in the narrow shoulder of the road, a younger woman sells seaweed. Children sit on the side of the road, too close to the jeepneys – the standard Filipino van-like transport – that speed by.

Disease risk remains high

It is not the fast-moving traffic that puts children most at risk. Families and aid workers are worried about the spread of disease in the overcrowded camps. “We all know children who have died here,” says one of Ladjalawan’s neighbors, Maldani Sulma.

Authorities say that, between September and mid-April, 110 people died in Cawa-Cawa and the main evacuation centres just to the east. Almost half of the fatalities were children under five years old, with most succumbing to acute watery diarrhea and acute gastroenteritis. Efforts to improve sanitation and health care have helped to stabilize the situation. However, pneumonia has taken a toll in recent months.

Despite the dangers of living in such close quarters with inadequate services, many families are wary of government plans to move them to better housing at transition sites, where they would remain until they return to their areas of origin or are resettled. They worry the new sites are too far from opportunities to earn money.

As vulnerable families weigh their limited options, virtually all share one sentiment. “We want to go back home,” says Ladjalawan.