Uncertainty lingers for the displaced a year after peace deal
At 33, Sattolnina Abba has lost count of how many times she’s been forced to flee fighting between government troops and armed groups in the Mindanao region.
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Nearly a year after the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro promised to bring peace to the southern Philippines, tens of thousands of displaced people continue to live in hope and uncertainty.
At 33, Sattolnina Abba has lost count of how many times she’s been forced to flee fighting between government troops and armed groups in the Mindanao region. Born in south-western Basilan, the ethnic Sama Dilaut – also known as a “sea gypsy” for her community’s close association with the ocean – was uprooted repeatedly before finally deciding at age 19 to escape a forced marriage and bleak future for a fresh start in Zamboanga.
With three children and other family members in tow, the now-separated single mother sought help from local NGOs and women’s groups. She managed to get some informal education, find administrative work and build her own house along the crowded coast facing the Basilan Strait.
In September 2013, tragedy struck again when renewed clashes broke out between the military and non-state armed groups in Zamboanga. Along with hundreds of houses on stilts, Sattolnina’s home was reduced to ashes. Some 120,000 people were displaced from 11 coastal barangays in the city.
“I remember escaping with my kids and only saved the leftover food that early Friday morning. My mother didn’t want to leave as she was still packing keepsakes in a suitcase,” said Sattolnina, tears welling up in her eyes. “Miraculously, my uncle was able to get her with his boat after five hours of dodging bullets flying from all directions.”
Sattolnina currently lives with her mother and children in a bunkhouse they built with materials provided by the local housing authority. As one of the few educated people in her village, she is now a spokesperson and volunteer representing them in regular community consultations and meetings with UNHCR and partners working in the affected area.
UNHCR has been providing limited amounts of emergency relief items such as plastic sheets, blankets and hygiene kits. It is also monitoring the protection situation in evacuation centres, transitory shelters, and among displaced people hosted by families outside designated displacement sites.
“Concerns relating to housing, land and property issues, and livelihood are among the major lingering issues faced by displaced families,” said Peter Deck, head of UNHCR’s Mindanao operations.
Following a livelihood assessment conducted by the local authorities and UNHCR, the provincial office distributed 55 outrigger boats to families – including Sattolnina’s – who rely on fishing for their diet and income, shifting the gear from survival to self-sufficiency.
“Facilitating visits of NGOs and attending issues in the community have me fixed in the public hall during the daylight hours. I had to rent out my boat so I could somehow earn money,” said Sattolnina. “I share half of the income with a local fisherman. I use this money to buy rice and save the rest for the maintenance of the boat.”
Just as a sense of normalcy was returning, her boat-renting business hit a snag when maritime patrollers stopped four boats, saying they were not registered to fish. Fishing halted for a couple of weeks. The local authorities said they had no funds to cover the fees for licensing and registering hundreds of fishermen’s boats that had not been registered since 2013 conflict started. The problem was eventually resolved with the help of UNHCR and its partners.
“One of the best things to come out of this humanitarian response is the proactive involvement of communities finding ways to help themselves with support from local NGOs like our partner UnYPhil-Women (United Youth of the Philippines-Women). Together, we are helping these fishermen and families shoulder the cost of acquiring clearance, community tax, and registration of 205 boats so far identified,” explained Rasul Kulat, UNHCR’s field officer working closely with communities and NGOs in Zamboanga city.
Following the March 2014 peace agreement, the people of Mindanao are now waiting for the Philippines President to make a proclamation on the planned transition to an autonomous Bangsamoro government this year.
In addition to providing humanitarian relief, protection monitoring and livelihood support, UNHCR is also advocating for the government to help displaced families return to their places of origin. On their home turf, these vulnerable communities will know how best to provide for themselves, thus preventing further displacement.
“We are hopeful that the government will expedite their plans of transferring us to a permanent relocation site somewhere close to the water,” said Sattolnina. “Our life is in the seas and selling our fish. We will become non-existent if they move us away from the water.”
Sattolnina worries about feeding her family when aid efforts are scaled down this year. She knows that only a lasting truce can secure their future, but cannot deny her “fight or flight” instincts honed from a lifetime on the run. Staring at her outrigger, she said, “Who knows, this boat may come in handy in the future to sail us to safety.”