By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
ZAMBOANGA CITY–The midday call to Muslim prayers blares from a megaphone atop a tent of donated canvas.
Inside on plastic matting, no more than ten men stand, sit, and bow, doing the positions of the salah. Their muddied slippers and sandals wait outside. One man hurries to wash his head, upper body, and limbs with water from a soft drink bottle—the ritualistic cleanse before going in to pray.
The makeshift masjid or mosque stands unnoticeably amid more tents and shanties at the grounds of the Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, just a walk near the bay.
It’s the city’s main stadium, but for the tens of thousands of locals here, this has been their house, playground, workplace, and village for the past year.
They once lived in barangays like Rio Hondo, Santa Catalina, and Santa Barbara. But a three-week-long firefight between soldiers and rebels that began exactly 12 months ago razed their communities, left hundreds dead, and forced them from their homes and livelihood.
Here at the grandstand, the year that passed hosted an endless cycle of status quos and struggles for survival. For some, it’s only gotten worse, with no end in sight.
Outside the mosque, children play in puddles and mud. Many run barefoot, but all wear smiles, especially for anyone with a camera. They don’t seem to mind the mild stench of wet soil and uncollected garbage, or the cramped huts that house more people than they should allow.
Despite their conditions, the evacuees still manage to say “Hi,” greet a good afternoon, or even extend their palms for a handshake.
At the edge of a shanty, Erna Joani shares a meal of rice doused with coffee with her mother and son. Rice rations are given to families here. But they cannot afford fish, which on an ordinary day Erna’s father would go out to catch. Instead, his boat is propped face down outside their tent, since it is too windy to sail.
“Our livelihood is at the sea, not on land,” Erna says. “We really want to leave, but we can’t do anything. We don’t mind living in a nipa hut, so long as it’s far from the grandstand.”
Other evacuees have taken on any means to earn. Some sweep the trash at the grandstand for P200 a day courtesy of the Red Cross–a payment they often don’t get till after 10 days. Some cook and sell meals. Others already have fully stocked sari-sari stands among the shacks.
The complex hardly looks like a sport and event venue anymore. The grass is gone. The rubberized running tracks were ruined by rainwater and dragged into irreparable folds and mounds. The bleachers of the grandstand became flooring for columns of wooden cabins.
Nearby Western Mindanao State University, which long hosted its annual intramurals at the sports complex, held the games this week just inside campus.
More than 110,000 evacuees from eight barangays moved to the stadium during the first few months after the siege. Their number has now decreased to over 40,000, half of whom are Badjaos moved in from tents at the city bay.
Still, nearly 200 people—mostly the very young and old—have already died at the complex from sanitation-related illnesses like diarrhea and dengue.
Boy Atari, who drives a van for hire, already went back with his family to Santa Barbara and rebuilt their home. He says he couldn’t bear them getting sick if they stayed longer.
Not all evacuees have the means or the land titles to build back. Their wait might end soon, if the city government is to be believed. Mayor Isabelle “Beng” Climaco publicly set December this year as their deadline for evacuating the evacuees from the Joaquin Enriquez Sports Complex.
Yet whether the alternatives are already permanent homes for them just might take another wait.
Fourteen permanent housing projects involving 17,000 new units are rising in both the war-ravaged areas and relocation sites. But only more than 200 houses are ready to move into. Authorities have already awarded them to affected families.
For now, the rest are starting uncertain lives at transitional or transitory sites—wooden, adjacent cabins built on stilts in the areas of Mampang, Taluksangay, Tulungatong, and Buggoc.
While the new residents of these places have moved away from the perils of overcrowding, clean water and access to livelihood (mostly for fishermen) are not so near either.
Muddy, slippery soil is still a problem when it rains, except at the Buggoc site. Built through international donations for the Badjao, the nipa homes there are supported by wooden poles shooting up the water.
Dabi Hassan gave birth to her sixth child in a cabin at the Tulungatong site. She chooses not to complain much about her plight.
Sure, it’s kilometers from the city center, and it can grow too hot during day, but she says they’re getting used to it. At least they no longer encounter floods like they did at the grandstand.
But like the typhoon victims in Leyte also fighting to survive in temporary bunkhouses, Dabi and the hundred thousand lives disrupted by the 2013 Zamboanga City crisis still hold out for an end to their search for normalcy.
Newsgathering credit for some of the sections goes to Joven Nunag, Nimrod Bungcaras, Mac Tataro and Roy Siguenza of TV Patrol’s KSP: Kabayan Special Patrol.
Many thanks as well to Chito Concepcion for allowing use of his DSLR camera.