ZAMBOANGA—The Philippine flag was flown at half-mast and the air reeked of smoke and the smell of human corpses. But the crisis in Zamboanga City in southern Mindanao was declared over, three weeks after Muslim rebels entered its coastal communities in the dead of night, taking hostages and ruining hopes for peace on this island.
President Benigno Aquino III had to use force against a band of rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under the wing of Nur Misuari, the revolutionary leader who fomented an uprising in the 1970s for separatism. This time, he was angered that he had been set aside in the peace negotiation meant to be one of the hallmarks of Aquino's presidency.
It's the first time in recent memory that Zamboanga's symbol as a fortress was broken.
Zamboanga was the bastion of Spanish civilization on the southern tip of the peninsula from where Spanish ships attacked Muslim pirates during the colonial years. Today it is the headquarters of a major military command that controls units of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Largely Catholic and resisting any deals of autonomy for the Muslims of the Sulu Archipelago south of its shores, this city came close to being taken over by rebels and the little tolerance it had managed to accommodate over the decades of conflict might prove difficult to rebuild.
In the dark hours of September 9, rebels swept through a mangrove area and past a waterside village called Rio Hondo inhabited by marginalized Muslims who had fled a previous war in Sulu.
The Navy attempted to stop them in a blockade, sparking a cross-fire and forcing the rebels to flee in nearby communities adjacent to each other—Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara—that were to be the scene of urban warfare between the rebels and elite forces of the military and police. Rebels were said to have stored their cache of weapons and ammunition in these villages near downtown.
An Air Force assault helicopter accompanied the blockade, but could not fire without “clearance” from headquarters.
Military accounts say the rebels came from two fronts: about 120 of them from the nearby island of Basilan just half an hour away by boat from Zamboanga, and some 150 from Sulu Island. The latter group had come a few days earlier on a passenger ship without weapons, which were believed to have already been kept in nearby communities. The rebels grabbed as many as 200 hostages along the way in the mixed neighborhoods of Christians and Muslims.
On land, the Army in Basilan had to fight off other rebels from joining the fighters in Zamboanga or staging a show of force on the island.
The bold rebel move appeared to be a repetition of an attack in 2001 when the same rebel group led by Misuari took civilians hostages in the outskirts of the city where the population was sparse. It lasted two days after the rebels were allowed to escape in exchange for the release of the hostages. This incident has stayed in the minds of the people of Zamboanga, traumatizing and angering them.
This time around, the incursion took place near the center of town, an area packed with houses described as a haven for smugglers. Some rebels who were later captured said they were lured with promises of money into joining a “peace rally.” Misuari’s group claimed it had intended to hoist their flag at the City Hall, not far from the entry point of the attack, to declare a “Bangsamoro Republik.”
“Why Zamboanga? They know Al Jazeera will be here; they want publicity at the cost of lives!,” said the city's mayor, Isabelle Climaco, who had declared earlier that she would never allow Misuari’s men to come anywhere near her seat of government. Climaco blamed President Aquino's chief negotiator in the peace talks, saying that it was bad judgment to have put Misuari on the sidelines, provoking him to retaliate.
In the first hours of the crisis, she had feisty words, ordering schools, shops and offices closed, as the initial standoff prolonged and paralyzed her city of nearly one million people. On the fifth day President Aquino flew to Zamboanga and ordered a military solution to the crisis, bringing in military and police forces from all around the country to put an end to Misuari's attempt. Aquino stayed for nine days, after which he declared the crisis nearly over, although it went on for another week before the city started picking up its daily routine.
The military in Zamboanga, whose headquarters is called the Western Mindanao Command, could have called on its forces to cut off rebel commander Habier Malik’s entry into the city. It had five battalions in Sulu, six in Basilan, elite units thereabouts, and a division north of the peninsula. Yet, the military had to wing it with quick tactical decisions as the days wore on. President Aquino first called on the Secretary of Interior and Local Government Mar Roxas to be on the ground. Roxas was unfamiliar with Mindanao and spent the initial days doing Powerpoint presentations on the situation.
Too Late the Hero
The government is on its way to finalizing an agreement with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in central Mindanao—whose late leader had broken away from Misuari during their early fight for a single Moro homeland. Misuari and his MNLF had signed a previous accord in the 1990s; he was made governor of an autonomous region in the south but had squandered his promises of elevating his people from poverty.
His stature as a hero diminished in the long quest for peace; he was reduced to a man who whined and made excessive demands when attention was no longer on him. Now in his seventies, Misuari had reverted to the jungles of Sulu with no support left among Muslim countries in the region. From there Misuari ordered his chief lieutenant, the ustadz (Islamic teacher) Malik, to carry out the attack in Zamboanga, seen as his last stand.
As a consequence of the fighting, the coastal villages went up in flames, the rebels' improvised Molotov bombs and the soldiers' ammunition adding to the combustion.
The fire stoked memories of the burning of Jolo on the island of Sulu almost 40 years ago. The military burned Jolo in 1974 in response to the start of the Moro rebellion led by Misuari. Jolo had been an exuberant capital of commerce, where Christian and Muslim families mingled and their children went to the same school and had parties together.
Sulu has never been able to recover from that burning. Families fled, bandits and warlords took over. Insurgents have made it their haven, chief among them is Malik, who is known to have about 500 men and could mobilize as many as 3,000 fighters from among relatives and followers, according to the military.
Alone this Time
Zamboanga happened because people in Sulu have not forgotten. Misuari wanted to rally his men again, like at the start of the separatist rebellion in 1974, but the Tausug Muslims of Sulu, to which Misuari belongs, wouldn't let him do it again and forbade him from going anywhere near the mosque.
The tragic adventure in Zamboanga revealed that beneath the aspiration for a Bangsamoro homeland, ethnic differences divide the Moros. Unlike in the '70s, the Maguindanaoans and the Maranaos in mainland Mindanao did not join the Tausugs' fight this time.
But Misuari could not be easily removed from the dynamics of Mindanao, and the government missed this angle. The price was Zamboanga, another generation of war, and probably, a new cycle violence.
“Zamboanga is your home,” Mayor Climaco told Muslims, many of whom have become refugees in evacuation centers set up in the city. An estimated 100,000 fled their homes at the scene of the fighting. “Your children grew up here,” she said, “you built your houses here, don’t stage this city as a ground for your warfare.”
But it looks like Zamboanguenos will put up a protective wall of distrust and never forget.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.