Cruel

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The photograph taken by Inquirer correspondent Karlos Manlupig of children playing “luksong tinik” in an evacuation center in Zamboanga City, published on page A10 of Wednesday’s issue, may have brought a rueful smile to many readers.

It shows that children will find a way to play even in the most trying circumstances. But that photograph, featuring a young girl in mid-jump at its center, has inconvenience, discomfort, suffering, and pain written all over it.

There are the makeshift clotheslines, their temporary nature suggested by the angle at which they had been set up. There are the make-do tents in the background, their variety of color proof of emergency. There are the women doing chores; there are the plastic bags; there is the cooking pot—all in an open area enclosed by a wire-link fence. The children themselves seem to be absorbed in their play, except for one little boy, in blue, stealing a glance at the photographer.

All told, the adventurist incursion by the Nur Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front and the unrelenting government response have forced so many people—almost 110,000, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development—to evacuate their homes. That is a surprisingly large number.

Zamboanga is not only a picturesque and historic city; it is also a major, indeed highly urbanized, one. According to census data, the population of the city grew by a third between 2000 and 2010, from some 600,000 to more than 800,000. More than that number have been affected by Misuari’s costly temper tantrum.

The siege, now on its 11th day, has taken an enormous toll on the residents. The number of the dead has risen past 100, an unbearably high total. Until Monday, many of the city’s establishments—banks, schools, offices and so on—could not open for business. As of this writing the airport remains off-limits except to military aircraft. And trade with Basilan and the Sulu islands, reputed Misuari bailiwicks, has slowed (another of those ironic consequences lost on the MNLF founder and former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), when he and his men chose to march with their weapons in Zamboanga.

But the impact on the residents is incalculable.

We do not doubt that the valiant citizens of Zamboanga will pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives and parts of their city, once this is all over. It is written in the history of Zamboanga hermosa, which lies on the figurative border between Spanish conquest and Moro resistance, between Christian culture and Islamic faith.

But in the meantime, they are undergoing a real test, a crisis.

Hundreds had been taken hostage by the Misuari faction; most have been released or have escaped, but it is believed that a number still remain captive. Some of them will have stories of adventure to tell their grandchildren, such as the young men taken from their boarding house who were forced to cook for their abductors and the other hostages. Many more will suffer from unspeakable trauma, of being roped like cattle or used as human shields, for the rest of their lives.

Too, the stories that have come out in the last several days about the travails of ordinary citizens have been almost as wrenching: a two-year-old boy held hostage, forcing his parents working abroad to return posthaste; residents who had just left an evacuation center, forced by a fresh outbreak of fighting to evacuate again; citizens who woke up day after day to the sound of gunfire.

Fr. Joel Tabora, a Davao-based Jesuit, has for the last several days been expressing his anguish and concern over the Zamboanga situation on Twitter. Some of his tweets carry a simple refrain: “War is cruel.”

It’s a simple truth, masked sometimes by the natural inclination to seek someone to blame, or to fixate on personalities, or to speculate about what-might-have-beens or what-might-yet-be. Zamboangueños are suffering “desolation,” “appalling water and hygiene” conditions, “collateral evil,” and so much more, because war is cruel.