3 years since Zamboanga clashes: a chance to dream again

Nearly three years after the conflict between government forces and non-state actors broke out in southern Philippines, thousands of displaced families still dream of a better future.


ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – The torrential rains of June herald panic in the village of Rio Hondo, where more than 700 individuals reside in temporary shelter communities. The village gets easily flooded and water quickly seeps into the homes of displaced families, including that of 58-year-old Panalak Amel-hajad.

“When the fighting reached our village, our old home was completely burned. Nothing was left. We have been living in the transitory site for a year now and whenever it rains, the water drips from the roof or seeps into our beddings and belongings. The children get sick. We long for the day we will get a permanent and safer home,” says Panalak, 58, eagerly waiting for the day when rains will bring in hope, and not fear.

“When the fighting reached our village, our old home was completely burned”

It has been almost three years since Panalak was forced to abandon her home in Rio Hondo, one of the hotspots of the armed conflict that broke out between the military and a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in September 2013.

Clashes lasted for 20 days, causing the displacement of more than 119,700 people. Today, more than 21,800 individuals are still in need of durable solutions, with the majority of them residing in 12 transitory sites across the city. Others are living among host communities in Zamboanga City.

“Before the conflict, we lived a comfortable life though we were not rich. We were able to aspire for many things. But for now, my only dream is for my grandchildren to get an education—their ticket to a better life,” says Panalak.

Thousands of permanent shelters are still being constructed through the Zamboanga City Roadmap to Recovery and Reconstruction (Z3R) Program, an initiative led by city authorities. According to the National Housing Authority, about half of the 5,583 planned permanent housing units have been constructed as of March 2016. Of these, more than 1,100 have been awarded to the beneficiaries.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, is working closely with the city’s social workers and local leaders to profile and monitor displaced families. This way, UNHCR is able to assess current protection conditions and help address their vulnerabilities.

“Our goal is to enable affected communities to cope with displacement and resume their lives in safety and dignity.”

“With thousands still in need of durable solutions to help them recover from the 2013 conflict, UNHCR and our partners have been monitoring displacement and protection issues to ensure targeted assistance to our populations-of-concern,” says Yasser Saad, the Head of Office for UNHCR Philippines. “Our goal is to enable affected communities to cope with displacement and resume their lives in safety and dignity.”

An estimated 550 families have already returned to their homes in the offshore villages of Layag-layag, Leha-leha, and Simariki. In these communities, UNHCR has implemented Community Empowerment Projects to provide livelihood support, boost displaced families’ resilience, and support the government’s recovery strategies.

Families have received fishing boats and solar dryers for seaweed harvesting to resume their traditional livelihood. Boardwalks were erected as access roads to the mainland. These were especially beneficial to residents who did not have makeshift boats to move around their coastal community.

Dreams Disrupted

But for families who have yet to return to their communities or receive new permanent shelters, it is holding on to hope that allows them to take everything in stride.

In this monsoon season, mothers from other transitory sites hunker down and scramble to get their children to seek cover.

Among them is Anna, 13, who was unable to go to school that day.

Anna loves learning but has been regularly skipping class since the conflict. Her family was transferred to a transitory site in Mampang village, which is nearly 10 kilometers from the city center. Her parents can no longer afford to give her allowance after losing their livelihood three years ago.

“My favorite subjects are Math, English, and Science. I enjoy going to school but I have to stay at home today. I want to be a doctor when I grow up so I can help my family, but I am always absent in class so I don’t know if that will happen,” says Anna.

“My father works as a sidecar driver ferrying Mampang residents to the main road, but with our neighbors also struggling to make ends meet, no one takes the sidecar anymore,” she adds, with the pain in her voice evident.

Children whose parents have no stable source of income are forced to stay at home.

Indeed, the proximity of transitory sites has been a factor on whether parents can sustain sending their children to school. For Mampang and other transitory sites far from the city center, children whose parents have no stable source of income are forced to stay at home.

Despite this, Anna’s family is optimistic that durable solutions like livelihoods and permanent shelters will help them rise up.

A testament to overcoming adversity by being creative and resourceful is eight-year-old Farisa and her playmates. In a secluded nook where the destroyed fishing boats of their fathers are kept, Farisa and her playmates are found role-playing as teachers and students. On scraps of wooden planks, we see chalk marks from Farisa’s handwriting.

Like Anna, Farisa and her friends missed class that day, so they had to make do instead with whatever they know: the alphabet and counting from one to 12. “My neighbors and I play school instead and teach each other,” says Farisa, who wants to be a teacher one day.

Armed conflict may have disrupted the dreams of Zamboanga City’s displaced children, but their families remain resilient and hopeful that their situation can get better soon despite the prolonged hardship of having their normal lives uprooted.

From Homeless to Hopeful

“Just like you and me, displaced families have dreams of a good future for their families. Three years after the conflict, we continue to support them in achieving their hopes for a durable solution and a better future for their families,” says Elif Ozerman, head of UNHCR’s field office in Mindanao.

On the noon of June 30, families in Mampang return to their makeshift houses to watch the inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte. Serahlyn, a person-with-disability, looks on as the first Philippine chief executive from Mindanao takes oath.

“Even if I am disabled, I will do my best to give my children a good life”

“Mothers like me will do anything for their family. This is why even if I am disabled, I will do my best to give my children a good life,” she says. Her husband used to have a stable job in the city, but the conflict three years ago turned their lives upside down.

“The new President is someone we call our own. As his new administration starts, we are hopeful that we will finally live a better life,” Serahlyn adds.