By N.J. Viehland
(update 1 Sept. 23, 10:35 p.m.)
Photos and reports showing ravaged communities and people left homeless in Zamboanga City have saddened viewers and left some aghast.
Was it only nine days ago when I woke up to the voice of Jesuit Father Nono Alfonso as he shared over Church-run radio Veritas 846 stories reaching Ateneo de Zamboanga of armed men massing up, and of gunfire that could be heard in places served by the cathedral parish in Zamboanga City, roughly 1,102 kilometers southeast of Manila ?
Reasons for the fighting vary, depending on who is telling the story. In fact Filipino Muslims, called “Moro” have been fighting for centuries for self-determination.
Military officials reported on Sept. 9 that MNLF lieutenant Habier Malik, known to be based in Sulu, south of Zamboanga City, led hundreds of armed men into the city to hoist their flag as a symbolic declaration of independence.
MNLF leader Nur Misuari weeks earlier was reported to have declared an independent Mindanao, Palawan and Sabah to demonstrate his opposition to ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had split from the MNLF in the 1970s.
No MILF involvement in this Zamboanga crisis has been reported. Armed Forces of the Philippines officials in press conferences said when government troops prevented the MNLF faction from raising their flag at the city hall the rebels took hostages. Fighting was reportedly “contained” until Friday when the MNLF allegedly fired mortars on civilians and burned houses.
Mayor Beng Climaco of Zamboanga said she spoke on the phone with Misuari, who disowned Malik, but MNLF’s spokesperson told an interview with a tv station Climaco may have just misunderstood Misuari. He would not disown his lieutenant.
After the military launched its “calibrated attacks” Sept. 16 on “pockets of MNLF resistance” in the city, Zamboanga archdiocese’s social action director estimated the number of civilian evacuees grew beyond 100,000, including people who fled their homes to stay with family and friends, instead of evacuation centers
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan told a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo, just northeast of Manila, MNLF fighters left fighting in Zamboanga City could be just down to 75 men after the killing of 93 MNLF, and the capture of 179 others since Sept. 9. Tutaan said 11 soldiers, three policemen and seven civilians were also killed in the fighting. Some 105 military men, 12 police and 67 civilians were injured. A total of 152 hostages had been rescued but less than 100 others remained captive.
Military operations were focused on Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina district, while at least four others have been affected by the conflict, Tutaan told reporters.
A few hours ago, the government reportedly claimed victory over the MNLF.
Even Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila more than a thousand kilometers away, shared a prayer for softening of hardened hearts of aggressors and for generosity of prospective donors. He joined the people of the Philippines only in prayer for Zamboanga while he was in Rome during most of the crisis to attend meetings.
Imagine, barely two weeks ahead of the Zamboanga “siege,” Cardinal Tagle led the launch of Manila Archdiocese’s observance of “Season of Creation” Sept. 1-Oct. 4 at San Fernando de Dilao Church and Paco Catholic School downtown Manila. The “season” ending on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, hopes to remind people that all creation belongs to God, and that humans have been entrusted as stewards, not owners of all creation. Gifts of the earth have been created for all to share, Cardinal Tagle said.
Cardinal Tagle lamented the “arrogance, selfishness and greed” that deprive other people of basic needs and sentence them to a life of poverty. People need to stop abusing and neglecting nature, the environment and each other, Cardinal Tagle reminded people at the Mass. He said all creatures are interrelated and interdependent.
He may not have had Bangsamoro issues in mind in that homily. Before fighting in Mindanao broke out citizen movements and anti-corruption advocates, including religious groups in Manila were fighting their own battle pressing for the abolition of alleged graft-laden pork barrel and Special Purpose Funds from the national budget. They have become like “weapons of destruction” of greedy officials against ordinary citizens they pledged to serve.
Maybe gunfights will end in Zamboanga tonight, tomorrow, next week. For sure, destruction of life, spirit and the future of this and coming generations will persist as long as people apply position and power to personal or political goals and neglect the common good.