Tuesday, 09 September 2014 13:21

This city of some 800,000 mostly Christians remembers today, September 9, the infamous siege that began on September 9, 2013 when more than 500 gunmen from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Nur Misuari faction coming from the neighboring provinces of Sulu and Basilan landed here and occupied six coastal villages just more than two kilometers from the main commercial district and City Hall.

The invasion sparked a massive hostage taking that ended in a 20-day bloody fighting resulting in the death of more than 300 people including most of the attackers, government troops, policemen and civilians including children.

The siege or standoff as the military described it also caused the burning of some 1,000 houses in the six affected villages, most of which are populated by Muslims and the displacement of over 100,000.

It started early morning when residents woke up in frantic as reports blared from local radio stations that this city had been attacked by Muslim rebels.

In the first hours there was no gunfire and explosion, only the sight of hundreds of policemen and sodliers with armored vehices deployed in the perimeter of the six barangays and the main commercial district that was already deserted. Around 8 a.m., live streams from local television stations showed MNLF gunmen, taking over the villages of Sta. Barbara, where they set up a command post at the two-level concrete KGK building, in Rio Hondo, Mariki and Sta. Catalina. They demanded to raise the flag of the self-proclaimed “Bangsamoro Republik” at City Hall.

But the local government under Mayor Beng Climaco outrightly rejected the demand and warned the MNLF gunmen to leave the city or be forced to clear off the four villages. As army and police troops closed in on the villages, the rebels seized dozens of villagers and spread their forces to three other adjacent villages where more civilians were captured and made human shields. As the day wore on, tension built up because of failed negotiations initiated to make the attackers release the hostages and leave the city. When darkness set in, sporadic gunfire were heard as gunbattles broke out in separate areas in the affected villages. This was the start of a series of fierce firefights that went on for 20 days which concluded with the capture and surrender of some 200 attackers.

“I thought it was the end,” recalls Cheng Elumbra, a 30-year-old computer lay-artist, who was caught inside the city’s biggest government hospital located some 200 meters from where the first major gunbattle broke out.

Cheng, who was visiting her brother confined in the hospital, remembers the loud boom from mortar shells exploding within the compound as the rebels engaged the soldiers nearby in heavy fighting.

Shops, banks and offices in the city’s center shut down and had remained closed in the 20-day siege. All commercial flights and Mindanao provincial bus trips were cancelled, fuelling fears the “humanitarian crisis” as what the United Nations declared in Zamboanga City would cause the collapse of many businesses.

“I was worried the firefights and violence may spread to the rest of the city and also deeply apprehensive on the serious effects it would bring to the city’s businesses and economy,” says a local business leader.

Indeed the September 2013 siege pulled down the the economic growth of Zamboanga Peninsula region of which Zamboanga City is part of.

Dr. Mewchun Pamaran, Philippine Statistics Authority-National Statistical Coordination Board (PSA-NSCB) regional director, says a year after the attack, the region’s economic growth declined by 8.6 percent.

“It (MNLF attack) basically pulled down the region from the top spot to14th place in terms of economic growth rate standing in the entire country,” Pamaran said.

She  reveals the economy of Zamboanga Peninsula decelerated from 12.9 percent in 2012 to 4.3 percent in 2013, or a decline of 8.6 percent.

Zamboanga Peninsula comprises the cities of Zamboanga, Dapitan, Dipolog, Isabela (Basilan), Pagadian and and the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur.

Pamaran says the decline in economic growth was brought about by the slower growth of the industry and service sectors as a result of the September 2013 siege.

She says the industry sector decelerated from 31.2 percent in 2012 to 4.3 percent in 2013 as the manufacturing sub-sector also suffered a significant decline from 35.2 percent in 2012 to negative 0.1 percent last year due to the decrease in food production.

The manufacturing sub-sector accounts for 26.1 percent of the region’s total economy.

The other sub-sectors of the industry sector are mining and quarrying, construction, and electricity, gas and water supply (EGWS).

Pamaran says that mining and quarrying contracted from a 0.6 percent growth in 2012 to negative 3.9 percent in 2013 brought about by the decline in gold production.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Villaflores, then broadcast journalist and now village chief of Sta. Catalina, where Muslims and Christians live side by side, laments that already one year after the attack, rehabilitation is not completed yet in his turf. Villaflores and his family are themselves victims of the attack. Their residential compound were riddled with bullets and destroyed by rocket fire.

“The September 9 attack will always linger in my memoiry as long as I live. In fact, episodes of the attack always reccur in my mind as I remember pleading to the rebels to release the women and children they held hostages and made human shield, how we carried the bloody wounded and dead civilians and how we dodged bullets and shrapnels,” says Villaflores.

He also recalls helping villagers evacuate from burning houses ignited by the heavy exchange of gunfire and shelling.

One of the painful and heartbreaking episodes during the siege involved a 71-year-old woman named Norma Lladones, who was preparing breakfast when a mortar round landed on the kitchen of their house located at the village of Tetuan, about two kilometers from one of the scenes of fierce gunbattles. The shell explosion killed her instantly.

Another involved two-year-old boy Ethan Ando who was killed in a crossfire between the rebels and government troops.

Together with his parents, they were on the move with their MNLF captors, moving from house to house, all the time and placed in harm’s way in between the rebels and Philippine military snipers.

His ordeal came to a tragic end after a bullet hit his head

Michelle Ando, the child’s mother, said at the start, MNLF gunmen  led by Ustadz Habier Malik, treated them well. Six members of the Ando family were among the hostages.

As government troops and the MNLF rebels engaged in a firefight, the Ando family, together with 60 others, were used as ‘human shields’—Eithan included.

Still another tragedy: May Ann Tigoy, 6, was hit by a stray bullet in a school gym where her family had sought shelter following a gunbattle in their neighborhood.

While May Ann was washing her hands before dinner, gunshots were heard,

“She was standing, washing her hands when we heard gunshots. She collapsed  with blood,”  recalls her mother.

The first government casualty in the MNLF attack was Philippine Navy SEALS commando Jose Audrey Banares. Sent to check the presence of heavily armed men off the coastal village of Mariki,  the small SEALS team on a rubber boat proceeded to the area at midnight on September 9.

They found themselves in the middle of a heavy firefight with at least 150 armed men around 1 a.m. .

Though wounded on his face and upper extremities, Lt Junior Grade Llewilyn Abian, the leader of the patrol, was able to effectively control his men while executing a break contact to save the whole team from being routed by the MNLF forces.

1st Lt. John Kristopher Rama, an assault platoon leader of the Army’s First Light Reaction Company of the Special Operations Command, was killed by sniper fire during clearing operations in Sta. Barbara. He was the first officer to die in the September 9 2013 siege.

Army Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc recalls that Rama helped free 108 civilians from their captors who had used them as human shields.

“ He gave his life so others may live,” Cabunog says.

Army and police reinforcements arrived in this city from other cities and provinces on the second day of the siege and President Aquino also planed in to take direct command of the battle against the MNLF attackers.

Airstrikes and bombardments from naval gunboats helped ground forces retake the six villages and forced  the MNLF rebels to withdraw, but the all-out offensive killed several soldiers and civilians and ignited several fires that razed some 1,000 houses.

After 20 days of fighting, MNLF rebels holed up in the villages under siege surfaced with white flags while the rest were captured. Their attack leader Habier Malik was nowhere to be found. Some knowledgeable sources said Malik, who was afflicted with diabetes, was able to escape to Sulu where he died of loss of blood.

Among the many rebels captured was a woman sniper who had positioned herself atop the minaret of a mosque in Sta. Barbara. She was touted as responsible for the killing and wounding of many soldiers and policemen through her sniper fire.

Today, some 1,000 IDPs  whose houses were razed during the siege are still camped the Enriquez sports center About 3,000 others, still homeless,  had already been relocated in “transition sites” outside the city proper. Most subsist in food rations provided by the city government and non-government organizations. During the first few months at the sports center, some of the female evacuees had turned to prostitution, while some male counterparts resorted to drug peddling. Several arrests were made. As of August 9, the city health office reported a total of 155 people died in the evacuation centers due to varied diseases.

Dr. Rodelin Agbulos, City Health Officer, said that pneumonia was the primary cause of deaths with 31 or 20 percent of the total mortalities recorded from Sept. 9, 2013 to August 3 this year.

Agbulos said 56 percent of those who died were males and 49 percent were children below five years old.

Today, one year after the bloody siege, fear and apprehension still grip residents here  amid rumors that the same MNLF faction would launch a second attack.

Mayor Beng Climaco has appealed to residents to stay calm and be circumspect about rumors on supposed MNLF plot to launch a second attack.

“I appeal to the people to refrain from spreading text messages on MNLF attack plot which has no basis. It will only cause confusion and chaos,” says Climaco.

The MNLF had signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996, but it somewhat failed as Misuari, who is now a fugitive as a result of the September siege, had complained that vital provisions under the agreement were not implemented by the government.

Soldiers’ and police troopers’ presence remains strong in the city’s downtown commercial center, roadblocks and checkpoints are  regularly put up in strategic roads to check for firearms on all vehicles, and navy gunboats conduct patrols off the city’s coastal areas to prevent a repeat of the September 9, 2013 bloody attack.