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Remember, remember, the 9th of September: Zamboanga Siege through the lens of transitional justice

remember remember the 9th of september zamboanga siege through the lens of transitional justice 816x445 - Remember, remember, the 9th of September: Zamboanga Siege through the lens of transitional justice

It has been six years since the Zamboanga Siege took place on Sept. 9, 2016. It was an armed incursion into Zamboanga City led by a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to Nur Misuari. Fighting ensued between the MNLF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

The siege ended on the 28th of September, only 19 days after it began. But in the process, several barangays and hundreds of thousands of civilians were affected. According to a publication of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) entitled “Zamboanga City: Five years after the Siege,” at the start of the siege, “a total of 119,714 individuals (23,794 families) were displaced” and of this number, 28,976 individuals (5,881 families) took temporary shelter with their relatives or relatives — locally referred to as “home-based internally displaced persons (IDPs)” while “another 90,738 individuals (17,913 families) sought refuge in 70 evacuation centers in different locations in the city.”

Those who were displaced sought temporary refuge at the San Joaquin Grandstand and Cawa-Cawa Boulevard. According to the UNHCR study, in 2018, 216 families were still in transitory sites (TS), with only a few having benefitted from receiving permanent resettlement with concrete houses, and quite a number still considering themselves as IDPs where their resilience was a matter of the imperative to survive.

As of last year, 6,343 houses were constructed: 1,856 on land and 4,487 on stilts; 1,439 of the houses on land were either awarded or turned over and 3,538 of the houses on stilts had the same status. Only “tagged families,” or those verified through census/survey, were considered as legitimate IDPs and thus entitled to permanent housing assistance.

Those who are still displaced have no place they can call home. Despite an armed conflict that was not of their doing, they continue to suffer double victimization: first, being displaced six years ago, and now, as alleged trespassers/illegal entries in areas where their houses once stood.

Additionally, there has been a divide between those who were awarded and those who were not, and those who were awarded houses of different types and quality of materials. This is polarization between and within post-conflict artificially created communities.

And then there was the re-victimization of victims — the hostages, more specifically — who were used as human shields by the MNLF, as human factories of heroism stories by various media outfits (they even received offers of episodes on television and movies), and as human faces that believed in the promises of politicians and government secretaries. Six years later, none really progressed in as far as getting back on their feet with the appropriate assistance from state and none-state actors.

The women who were hostaged have different but interconnected stories to tell. There were those who were “designated” by the MNLF to domestic chores such as cooking, delivering food, washing clothes, getting supplies for both the armed group and the hostages. There were those who mentioned being sexually harassed, some even groped; a few were offered marriage and to be brought to Sulu; and there is a lingering common anecdote of someone being raped but no one exactly knows (or refuse to say) who the victim was.

Then there was a mother who lost her child when a bullet went through his little head when they hid in the ditch in the middle of heavy gun fire between the AFP and the MNLF. There was an elderly woman whose leg was hit by shrapnel, and several young women who had multiple wounds from multiple sources.

There was no scarcity of media trying to find a “human face” of victims — the more extraordinary, the better. It became a pornography of tragedy, with victims telling and re-telling their stories. There is one story of young woman whose story was proposed as material for an episode of a TV show — from a student to a hostage to a heroine who helped save other hostages. She was allegedly promised assistance by two government secretaries — none came.

Transitional justice was defined by the United Nations Secretary General in 2004 as the “full range of processes and mechanisms associated with society’s attempt to come to terms with the legacy of large scale abuses committed in the past in order to achieve accountability, serve justice, and achieve reconciliation.”

In my mind there are several violations that merit consideration for transitional justice. First is the fact that non-state actors violated international humanitarian law (IHL) by using the hostages as human shields. These hostages are still waiting for progressive assistance — whether in the form of sustainable livelihood, educational support, and psychosocial healing (not just a one-shot debrief!).

Second, there was massive internal displacement and, up until now, the conflict-affected people have not been able to call their existence a dignified one. If they had homes, they were sub-standard; if they did not have homes, they continue to live in make shift areas — “tapal-tapal lang nga kahit ano” (just slapping anything together) — with extended families, most of them elderly. The post-conflict scenario then is not that of recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. This is a large-scale human rights violation against the internally displaced, a violation of international human rights law (IHRL).

From the perspective of transitional justice, two imperatives must be forthcoming: first, the accountability for violations under IHL and, second, reparation for victims of internal displacement under IHRL. But are these still on the radar of duty bearers? Will the victims of war continue on as victims of peace — as collateral damage for appeasing factions and actors in the name of peace keeping?

Remember, remember, the 9th of September… and remember, dissatisfaction and discontent may likely transform into rage and radicalization and guarantee the repetition of violence.


Professor Ma. Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University and Director of the Asia Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect — Philippine Office.

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