Peace emerges in Mindanao amid scars of sectarian war
By Sara Gomez Armas
Zamboanga, Philippines, May 15 (efe-epa).- Rashid Ganih, a 51-year-old Filipino, gets up every day at dawn, rides in the boat moored at the door of his house and goes fishing or algae growing among the mangroves from Simariki, home for four centuries to the Muslim Sama-Bangingi tribe in the southern Philippines.
“When there was no fighting here, our lives were okay, we were very safe here. But when the fighting started, chaos happened, we experienced bad things, there was trauma,” said community leader Ganih.
“On that day around four o’clock there were suddenly a lot of MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front, a separatist Muslim rebel group) passing through here. This prompted us to evacuate,” he said of the morning of Sep. 9, 2013 when the Siege of Zamboanga began, in the prosperous and multi-ethnic city to which Simariki belongs, in the troubled Muslim region of Mindanao.
Some 400 troops from the MNLF attacked the city and kidnapped some 200 civilians. Three weeks of hard fighting resulted in 200 dead, 110,000 displaced and the destruction of 10,000 homes, including those of Simariki.
For five decades, the Muslim Mindanao region in the southern Philippines has had a separatist conflict with several armed groups involved, which has killed 150,000, displaced millions of people and hampered the economic takeoff of the resource-rich area.
In 2013, the rebels used Simariki, a floating community off the coast of Zamboanga, as a base to storm the city, and the Army later burned down its hundreds of houses on suspicion that they were hiding insurgents. Only the mosque survived.
“Everything was devastated, an uninhabitable area. I never thought we could return,” said Ganih, happy that the Sama-Bangingi live in peace again in their ancestral domains on water.
Thanks to an agreement between the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), NGO Manos Unidas and Zabida – a local organization founded by the Spanish priest Ángel Calvo – 85 houses were rebuilt in Simariki, where today 300 people live on those waters half a meter deep.
“Here is our livelihood,” said Ganih from the patio of his wooden house raised over the water, while his wife dried the algae that they sell at 70 pesos per kilo ($1.40) for the production of rubber, gelatin, medicines and cosmetics.
On top of an atoll stands a half-demolished mosque, barracks still punctured by bullets from 2013, a cemetery of stacked headstones and half a basketball court. From there, the school is accessed from a rudimentary bamboo bridge.
“I am trying to help these kids because of the trauma they suffered during the Zamboanga siege in 2013. I am trying to adjust the kids and help them to overcome their trauma. I think they cannot still forget what happened because they keep talking about guns, bombs, war,” said Leilani Jimlani, director of the public school of around 40 children that did not exist before the siege.
The 2013 rebellion is the most vivid memory that the Zamboangans have of the war, a constant in the area since the 1970s when the MNLF was born, but the shadow of violence has not dissipated. Grenade attacks and kidnappings, although less frequent, still occur. On the neighboring islands of Basilan, Sulu or Tawi-Tawi, the presence of jihadist extremists is a threat.
The conflict in Muslim Mindanao is considered “low intensity,” but it has torn apart a society marked by poverty and lack of opportunities, sown insecurity and strained relations between Christians and Muslims. Although, the situation is changing with Zamboanga as the spearhead.
“Technically Zamboanga is not a direct breeding (ground) for the formation of violent groups. But Zamboanga, being strategically located at the center of the island provinces, became the hub or the economic center for the islands, and sometimes Zamboanga city has been affected, directly or indirectly,” said Vandrazel Birowa, an expert on Mindanao rebel militias and mediator in various peace negotiations between the government and the MNLF.
The most tense situation is in the Sulu archipelago, the most remote province of the Philippines, home to some 300 fighters of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group that was the result of a radical split in the MNLF in the 1990s, which swore allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).
Birowa moved to Zamboanga in 2014 after suffering a botched kidnapping attempt in his native Sulu orchestrated by Abu Sayyaf, more driven by illicit money than by ideology or Islam.
“They didn’t anymore bother that I was a local, a Tausug, a Muslim. They just cared about the money, the fact I was working for an international organization and they could get a ransom,” he said of the situation in the poorest province in the country, where extremist rhetoric or fear has gripped the civilian population.
Poverty and a feeling of abandonment by the authorities are the breeding ground for young people to be attracted to these groups, which provide them with a “common enemy” and “easy money.”
The antidote is “education and interfaith dialog,” Birowa said, and therein lies the success in improving security in Zamboanga – the fourth largest city in the Philippines – where Catholics and Muslims are now enjoying a budding peace.