The Siege of Zamboanga’s Youngsters by Makoi Popioco

Zamboanga, War and the Children by Makoi Popioco. Written for SubSelfie.com

A little boy cowered behind an overturned wooden chair, avoiding gunfire. The other boy breathed heavily, he dashed his small feet forward and with his frail hands, he fired. The boy hiding behind the chair got shot, fell down, and played dead. I raised my hand, pointed my index finger, pulled the invisible trigger in my thumb, then aimlessly fired everywhere. Everyone laughed.

It was just a make-believe gun battle. It was just a game. But fate has been playing with the lives of these children since the siege of Zamboanga City in 2013. It has been almost two years since rogue elements of the Moro National Liberation Front seized parts of the city, sparking an armed standoff with the military — but today, these kids and their families still remain in evacuation centers.

I dearly treasure this fun encounter with the kids in one of the evacuation centers that I documented during our Zamboanga City crisis coverage in 2013. Covering disaster and humanitarian response beats for 24 Oras, I was sent there shortly after the declaration of ceasefire in September 2013. This, and a couple more encounter with kids in conflict-torn Zamboanga City changed my life forever. I never looked at children the same way again.

Aerial survey.
Aerial survey.
The naked truth for many evacuees.
The naked truth for many evacuees.

A Child’s Promise

It has been raining for days in Zamboanga City. Mud splattered my cargo pants as we tiptoed across the muddy entrance of Talon-Talon National High School evacuation center. Families were sprawled across the flooded floor of the school’s gymnasium. Flooded, crowded, and extremely humid amid the gloomy weather — difficult is an understatement to describe the evacuees’ condition. One resident told me that most of them were sleepless as heavy downpour entered their sleeping quarters.

Cecil Tigo, a Christian, was among the parents I talked to. Her face was so gentle. The dark circles under her eyes looked swollen, perhaps because of crying. She walked us through the classroom where her entire family has been living for three weeks. We set up, rolled the camera and started the interview. She smiled in between tears as she told me about her eldest child, nine year-old, Lea Grace. In that evacuation center alone, there were 1,057 children, Lea Grace, among them.

“Matalino po ‘yon. Lagi po yung section one. Lagi siya may award.” (She was inteliigent. She was always in the top section. She always had an award.)

Lea Grace promised Cecil that she would study hard. She would be a scientist. She would build her a glass house so mosquitoes will no longer be bug them at night. “Malapit po kasi ang pagsabog sa amin eh.” (The explosion was near our home.)

Cecil audibly gasped as she tried hard to keep her body from trembling. I asked them if they could hear the gunfire: “Opo, parang yumayanig pa nga po ang building. Okay pa ang katawan ng anak ko noong galing kami sa bahay. Dito na po siya, nagluya siya tapos nanghina. Siguro dinibdib nya ang takot niya kasi hindi rin siya nagsasabi.” (Yes, it seemed the building was trembling. My child was still okay when we left our home. Here in the evacuation center, she started to weaken. Maybe she kept all her fear to herself because she was not talking.)

Lea Grace was born with congenital heart disease. A week earlier, she spit blood, fell unconscious inside the very classroom where I was interviewing her mother, and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Cecil wailed as she showed us what was left of Lea Grace’s memories, her school ribbons and certificates.

All that's left of Lea Grace.
All that’s left of Lea Grace.

I was shaking too. I was honestly keeping myself from sobbing. I looked back to Kuya Dani, my cameraman, then pretended to check if we were still recording. He looked emotional as well. That was the only time when I realized that everyone around us inside that room was crying.

Inside the van, after the interview, no one dared to talk. It was until we reached our hotel room that I told Kuya Dani how heavy I felt that time. He told me he felt the same. Writing this now, I can picture Lea Grace in heaven, asking the same question Glyzelle Palomar dared ask Pope Francis when the pontiff visited the University of Santo Tomas. “Bakit po pumapayag ang Diyos na may ganitong nangyayari dahil walang kasalanan ang mga bata?” (Why does the Lord allow these things to happen even if this was not the fault of the children?)

So much promise.
So much promise.

Barangay Grandstand

More than a year after the standoff, 1,063 displaced families are still living in shanty bunk houses — made of tarpaulin, plywood, and nipa — and in the bleachers of Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex Grandstand which locals have now taken to calling Barangay Grandstand.

Most of the families stuck inside the grandstand are residents of Brgy. Mariki and Brgy. Rio Hondo, both Muslim communities on stilts. When we were allowed access to the area back in December 2013, the majestic archway was the only living proof that it was once a vibrant community. Most houses have been burnt during the standoff.

The grounds of the grandstand.
The grounds of the grandstand.
An unwelcome sight.
An unwelcome sight.

During my last visit in 2013, the evacuees bombarded my team with complaints that government rations of relief goods have been stopped. They were told the government did so because all humanitarian efforts were directed to Visayas, having been just hit by super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

They were completely horrified when told that even the water facility had to be pulled out. Thankfully it was not, but I did not know for how long. Walking around, the grandstand looked more like a slum community. Pathways were flooded and muddy. Invisible embers of fire seemingly filled the inside of the tarpaulin shacks. It was that hot. Children walked around naked. Residents complained that a lot of their children and elderly get sick regularly. Many suffered diarrhea.

According to the latest data from the Zamboanga City Social Welfare and Development Office, a total of 226 people have already died in the evacuation centers. Eighteen of these deaths were newborns. The primary killer is pneumonia.

Play time.
Play time.

I have been keeping in touch with one of my previous case studies in the grandstand, who refused to be named. He told me over the phone that every day they are counting deaths inside. “Hindi naman na bago sa amin, sir, pag may nagsabi na may namatay ulit. Noong una, galit kami. Pero naging parang wala na lang. Sa sobrang dami, immune na ba.” (This is not new to us, sir, whenever one would report someone has died again. At first, we were angry. But we have grown numb. With the number of deaths, it seemed we were immune already)

Deployment of relief.
Deployment of relief.

Wisdom in Innocence

I fondly remember a scene at the Zamboanga National High School – West, where displaced children, both Muslims and Christians, happily chanted Jingle Bells as they ecstatically marched upon seeing a military truck enter the evacuation center. The truck was loaded with green and red bags that I fondly call kapusong aguinaldo, a part of the GMA Kapuso Foundation’s Give-A-Gift Christmas project. That was such a happy time. For a moment, children forgot about their situation.

As a TV news producer primarily doing stories on children, my production will not be complete without candid, undirected shots of smiling kids. During this shoot, I asked my cameraman to set up and just let children play in front of the lens. Let them smile, make faces, get crazy. Children did as expected.

I got my phone, joined the fun, and snapped some photos.

A break from all the madness.
A break from all the madness.

When every child started flashing the two-finger pose — the sign of peace — in front of me, I got goosebumps all over my body. Perhaps not all of them may know the exact meaning of that gesture. But they still left me in awe.

I was witnessing a subtle delivery of a herculean message. In a child’s innocent implication is where we find the world’s greatest wisdom. So for the netizens and keyboard warriors in social media advocating for an all-out war in Mindanao, consider the children of Zamboanga City who suffered the cost of the conflict. They might have the most sensible answer after all.

[Entry 73, The SubSelfie Blog]
#TanawMindanao Part 1

Editor’s Note: Our brothers and sisters in Mindanao have always complained of isolation, and of being painted a negative image in the media. #TanawMindanao is a series of content dedicated to mainstream their issues, demystify their stories and show that we are all the same. They just have a harder battle to fight towards peace, and this is SubSelfie.com’s contribution to that effort.

Part 2 — The Hope of Muslim Orphans
Part 3 — Lumads of Davao del Sur: Students without a School
Part 4 — Finding Peace in Zamboanga City

About the Author:

Makoi Popioco is a news correspondent for CNN Philippines. When he wrote this article, he was a Segment Producer for GMA Kapuso Foundation and 24 Oras. He was deployed to Zamboanga City during the siege last September 2013 and stayed there for almost three weeks. He has returned to Zamboanga twice since. Read the original manuscript of the article in the author’s blog: Reel Outtakes.

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