Grey and black smoke rose from the city like leaning towers. Gunshots and explosions replaced the sounds of crickets in the evening. The smell of fire spread everywhere. War and death were right in front of me.
The Zamboanga Siege lasted for about two and a half months, causing destruction and death. It’s been four years now, and the world has moved on to worry about other deaths and destructions. What was previously a top news story is now forgotten by many.
I remember it in fragments. It was a carelessly developed plot that led to no profound meaning. The situation was straight out of a disaster film made solely for enjoyment. Except, of course, this was in no way a movie, and in no way fun.
During the fourth week of September, which was the third week of the Zamboanga Siege, I saw with my own eyes one of the deadliest nights of the fighting.
A few stray bullets have already managed to hit the walls of our home, making my mother afraid that the fighting would spread to the part in the city where we lived. She decided to take me and my older brother, Jhen, to my Auntie Nene’s small villa in the nearby mountainside to spend the night.
My father didn’t come with us. He was brave enough to believe the fighting would be over soon, and that going somewhere to take refuge was a waste of effort and gasoline. The MNLF won’t get here, he said. He was stubborn and firm on this despite my mother’s pleading and persuading. He stayed home. Around 5PM, Auntie Nene came to fetch me, my mother, and Jhen. I said goodbye to my father as we left. I thought that was the last time I was going to see him alive.
It was only the four of us in the mountainside villa. To pass the time, we talked and laughed in the living room, albeit with a little hesitation. Soon after, my mother led us in prayer, as she did every other night since the siege began. We prayed for peace to come back to the city, as if peace had already been there before.
At around midnight, Auntie Nene and my mother went to bed, while Jhen and I went out to the balcony. That was how I saw it. The villa had a good panoramic view of the city, something which could have been amazing, if it weren’t so terrifying. From there, Jhen and I saw the chaos unfold. Smoke and fire, amidst a half-blacked out city.
Even from afar, sounds of assault rifles filled the air, and each shot fired felt stronger than my heartbeat. Hours passed, and I became numb to the sounds.
Occasionally, something small and bright white would fly up from the city and land on the ground again. From where we sat, each mini-explosion looked like shooting stars. Jhen said they were firing mortars. I didn’t know mortars could be so bright and visible from our distance, and I was not sure if it really was one. Nevertheless, we awed at how that small bright dot rose and fell. How many people did it kill?
We listened for status reports and the occasional updates on the number of deaths on the portable radio that Jhen carried, but there was not yet a confirmed number of casualties, only multiple varied estimations by different news reporters. We all knew with each day and night that passed, those numbers only went up.
Some part of me felt it was possible that maybe a stray mortar would come flying right into my face and kill me instantly. It wouldn’t have surprised me. But knowing that my mother and aunt were inside fast asleep and my brother was here looking at the destruction in awe despite the aforementioned possibility, reassured me that I was safe. After all, we were pretty far away.
We spent two nights on that mountainside villa. During the day I tried to locate our house in that view the villa had. The smoke made it hard to find. I wondered if our house was alright, and if my father was just there, lying on the sofa, eating Mang Juan and watching a Jimi Hendrix DVD. Was he still alive? Something in me prayed that he was.
He should’ve come with us. Society taught us families stick together in times of crisis, so why didn’t ours? Didn’t my father love us enough to be with us? Or were we the ones who didn’t love him enough to stay with him?
Aunt Nene drove us back to our house after the siege. It was still intact. And my father was still alive. None of my loved ones perished in the siege. I was thankful. But there must have been hundreds of others who were not as fortunate as my family.
The siege started in the early morning of September 9, 2013. I wasn’t so thrilled about waking up before five o’clock, especially on a Monday morning with school later at seven. At that age, I was still spoiled enough to think only farmers and farmers’ kids did that. My mother went to our bedroom and woke Jhen and I up. We weren’t going to school today, she told us. As a stressed out high school student in my junior year, I admit I was overjoyed at my mother’s statement, but I was also confused. “Ha? Why?” I asked. She said the Moro National Liberation Front was invading our city.
At first, I thought she was joking about my hometown being attacked. But there was no way my mother would just forbid us from going to school, something only I would benefit from, so I guess it was serious. Jhen attempted to regain his senses as I followed my mother to the kitchen.
In the kitchen, the radio was on, set to the maximum volume. The man reporting said the rebels used the early morning darkness to sneak their boats past the military outposts by the sea. They landed in Barangay Talon-Talon, in the southern area of the city. Eyewitnesses said that upon reaching land, the rebels started shooting nearby houses at around two or three in the morning. Residents began fleeing and screaming. Soon enough, the police responded, and the fighting had begun.
Around 4:55AM, the radio relayed City Hall’s announcement that work and classes in all levels would be canceled that day. I think Jhen made some comments of fear and awe on what was happening before going back to sleep. He was quite happy to hear the official statement that there were no classes today. When the siege ended and we went back to school, I would discover most of my classmates were happy about the class cancellation, too.
My mother and I stayed in the kitchen to listen to the news on the radio. Soon, my father woke up, and my mother filled him in on what was happening. I heard the fear in my mom’s voice as she told the news. She repeated the words “Hala, Lord God, help us.”
I remember being scared, too. I’ve seen movies of people getting shot and losing lots of blood, but I never knew what that really felt like. To think that such scenes were right outside our doorstep made me very afraid. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want my family to die. That was the first time I seriously pondered the thought of dying.
The Zamboanga Siege happened just two days after my fifteenth birthday. I remember that birthday well. My classmates and I went to the Astoria Regency Hotel, a place with a nice view of the countryside. My classmate, Nikko, had his birthday the day before mine. We decided to celebrate our birthdays together, and we chose to have a big celebration.
All afternoon we swam in the hotel’s big pool. When the sun came down, we ate a buffet dinner at the hotel gazebo. We took pictures while doing weird poses. I also got to talk to my crush a little bit. It was a fun birthday. We were children who lived life in a small world we thought belonged only to us. Who cared about anything else? We were happy and free the way we were.
My classmates sang Happy Birthday to Nikko and I as the cake was brought to us. Both of us were told to make a wish. I closed my eyes. At the count of three, Nikko and I blew out the candles. I opened my eyes, and they asked us what we wished for. Nikko said he wished for more blessed days to come. I didn’t tell them my wish because I wanted it to come true. I wished that from now on the days of my life would be filled with exciting and interesting things. I was bored with my life at that time, thinking it was ordinary, average, and mundane, so I wished something extraordinary would happen in my life for once. It’s funny, how our wishes can come true in ways we don’t really expect. I didn’t think it was possible that things could go from joy to fear and trembling in only a matter of two days.
The mayor warned citizens to stay indoors as much as possible. We locked our gate and doors, as if that could prevent the rebels, who have guns and explosives, from getting in and taking my family hostage. Indeed, hundreds were already hostages. But for us who had not yet been taken, we did what we had to in order to feel safe in a city that had turned into a battle ground.
For the next few days after the initial breakout of gunfight, my family stayed in our house. Everything seemed relatively normal, except for the loud sounds of guns firing that made it feel like we were surrounded on all sides by gun battles. My father tuned in on the radio almost the entire time. Aside from the radio, our only means of knowing whether Zamboanga City still belonged to the Philippine government was through Facebook and TV.
The TV showed some rather troubling footage. Police officers were stumbling about in their formations. A middle-aged woman was fleeing the scene of the battle, trying to carry all five of her young children with her as she screamed and ran. The MNLF field commander, Javier Malik, with his bearded face and intimidating stare, gave a speech on camera how they want a Bangsamoro government.
Facebook that time was filled with more opinions than facts. Posts from fellow Zamboangueños had themes of fear, prayer, and conspiracy theories. Filipinos from all over the country and abroad shared their thoughts as well. On one hand, there were those who antagonized the MNLF and the other Muslim separatist groups. On the other hand, there were those who said the present and past governments were to blame for this destruction. I was fifteen years old in those days. I neither cared nor understood those arguments yet.
There were also teenagers my age whose posts had themes of happiness and “interesting things are finally happening.” Apart from the extended sem-break posts, that is.
The Zamboanga Siege was centuries in the making. From the time the Spaniards first attacked the different sultanates of Mindanao, to the time the Americans came and, with various forms of oppression, effectively took away the ancestral domains Muslims once so dearly held. Even when the Philippines was granted independence, the Philippine government refused to correct the wrongs of our colonizers, and continued to oppress Muslims and undermine their historical rights. Thus, the more radical Muslims mobilized and formed the MNLF, led by former UP Professor Nur Misuari. Secessions from the MNLF then led to the creation of the MILF, the BIFF and the many other splinter groups that we know today. They had no choice but to fight for their rights, to take back the lands which were originally theirs.
I used to think the MNLF were evil for attacking my city and killing hundreds of people. But with such a violent history being constantly revised by the ruling class, I began asking myself: Who are the ones truly responsible for the never-ending armed conflicts in Mindanao?
Victory Zamboanga, the local church my family attended, was preparing a relief operation for the evacuees affected by the siege. The government set up about four evacuation centers in the city. The primary center was at the Zamboanga City Grandstand, a large sports complex, which during the latter half of the siege became the home of thousands of people from Barangays Talon-Talon, Tugbungan, Zambowood, etc. Victory’s relief operation took place there.
I volunteered to help in the relief operation, as did Jhen and my mother. It was in late October, near the end of the siege. By that time, much of the fighting had already died down. My mother deemed it was safe enough to participate in the relief operation. We were all devout Christians who always lent a helping hand as long as it was convenient. That was probably what they wanted to believe.
It was a hot afternoon. There were around thirty volunteers in total. We arrived at the Grandstand in cars and vans, all of which carried packed meals, secondhand clothes, and old toys for the children. I had a hard time giving up my clothes and old toys, some of which I had since I was a kid.
When we finally saw the evacuation center, I realized giving up my old toys and clothes were definitely not enough.
The moment I stepped out of the car, my nose was assailed. It was like the entire evacuation center was covered in invisible shit—the horrible smell was everywhere, but you couldn’t see where it was coming from. It wasn’t just the smell that was bad. The overall condition of the evacuation center was terrible. As we all walked heading to some designated place carrying the relief goods, most of the evacuees stared at us. At me. I stared at them as well. I saw their skinny-to-the-bone bodies, visible through their torn clothing. Their eyes were red. Some were naked, and others were asleep either in the big tents the Americans donated, or on the bare warm ground of what used to be the oval field.
People were sick, hungry, tired, and in pain, and we went there with limited food and a ventriloquist. We set up a little stage and an area for the audience to sit in on the ground, and the ventriloquist put on a show for the little kids in the evacuation center. His acts were actually funny. It consisted of verbal exchanges between him and his inanimate puppet that, to me, seemed mostly just self-deprecation. Even the adults laughed along.
The ventriloquist show’s area was fenced, so only a few hundred people were able to fit in the audience area. The rest of the evacuees watched the show from afar, from the bleachers turned bedrooms and what not. It was hard to tell if they were also laughing.
There was a small hole in the fence. Women and small children were watching the show from that hole. Some even entered through that hole. Kuya Andy, the man in charge of the church’s relief operation, instructed me to sit in that hole. He said it was to prevent the evacuees outside from getting in unwantedly. I sat there, effectively blocking the view of whoever was watching the ventriloquist’s next act. What did they feel when they saw me blocking their view, that only a select number of evacuees were able watch the show? Were they annoyed? Sad? Angry, even? Perhaps they also wondered what purpose blocking their view served. I sure did.
I sat in that hole for five minutes until my mother saw me. She shouted at me, “Nathan!”, and told me to get out of there. I told her Kuya Andy instructed me to sit there. I was about to say sorry when my mother said I should extremely careful here, saying there’s a chance some evacuee might stab me with a knife.
That entire situation was absurd, when I think about it now. First of all, where would a homeless evacuee get a knife, and why the hell would they use it to stab me if I sat on that hole? Why on earth did I block that hole in the first place? Wasn’t our reason for coming supposed to be to help those people out?
At the end of our visit to the evacuation center, we distributed the packed meals. Fried chicken with rice. We prioritized the children, but when a lot of people ran up to us distributors just to get one, it didn’t matter anymore. It was a stampede. You could tell apart the hungry from the hungrier ones. The people were afraid they weren’t going to be able to get a share of the food, and sadly, that was the reality. Not everyone was able to receive a packed meal.
Weeks later, news broke out that people were dying from disease and hunger in the evacuation center. Most of those who died were children. It seemed war killed people with disease and hunger just as often as it did with guns and bombs.
In the long run, have we really helped people in that relief operation? It kind of felt like we were just trying to prove to others, and to ourselves, that we were caring citizens. In fact, it was like we did it out of pity for the less fortunate people who couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else.
What good can a relief operation do, anyway? I get it that these people need donations, but what happens once the donations get depleted? Another relief operation? It’s like putting band-aid over a broken bone. At the end of the visit, we ended up causing chaos instead, because we couldn’t help everyone. When sickness broke out in the evacuation center and people started dying, we could only feel bad about the news. Oh well at least we tried to help, we would say to ourselves. Maybe we could have done more than just bringing food, clothes, and a ventriloquist.
By November, the remaining members of the MNLF had either surrendered or retreated. Their commander, Javier Malik, was missing in action. By the time the “veteran” marines from Luzon arrived, the battle was already slowly going to the government’s favor. The entire MNLF plan of invasion was a mess to begin with. Their main goal was to raise their flag at City Hall. What would happen afterwards, given both the manpower and firepower of the Philippine Military, was that the flag-raising ceremony was to be put on hold.
There were rebels who didn’t even know it was going to be an invasion. One captured MNLF fighter in an interview said they weren’t told that it was to be a full-blown invasion. They thought they were going to Zamboanga City for a peace negotiation. By the time their officers started commanding them to open fire in that early morning of September 9, they were as clueless as the rest of us.
Thus, aside from the reconstruction of destroyed buildings and homes, and the fact that people were dying at the evacuation center, life began to go on in Zamboanga City as it once had. By the second week of November, I was back at school.
I was surprised to find that all of my classmates were alive (I was guilty of secretly hoping some of my asshole classmates were one of the people who bit the dust). We asked each other how we were doing, and we talked about the Zamboanga Siege, but only for a short time. After that, they talked about what they did during the “unplanned extended holidays.”
We did this, we went to this, blah blah blah. They had a good time not having to go to school. That’s what the Zamboanga Siege, the destruction and deaths of many people, meant to them. A siege meant no classes. Battles meant an extended semestral break.
The bell rang. Our homeroom teacher came in. She asked us how we were and was glad all of us were okay. She then instructed our class to form a circle. We were to talk and reflect about everything that happened in the Zamboanga Siege and how we felt about it.
Were my classmates and I too young to know what to feel about what happened? Or was it because we were raised in a different world, one that only shared the same space with the people who suffered the most from the Siege? I questioned why there were people who cried and people who laughed at the same things.
I don’t remember what exactly I shared with the class that day. The only thing I remember was that all of us smiled and laughed about the subject while we talked about it. I smiled and laughed, too. Now that I think about it, I didn’t know why. Why did I laugh? Why did I smile? After all, it wasn’t funny. Not at all.
I guess it goes to show that people aren’t really united even in the face of a common threat. Society created this indifference that separates one from the other, where one can only mourn if they are right in front of death and destruction, and there is no screen mediating what they experience. The thing is, most people choose to stay far away from it, and prefer to watch things from behind computer or TV screen. That is human nature.
The Zamboanga Siege was over. But still, battles are being fought, and people still suffer and die. Just four years later, another city in Mindanao is devastated. History repeated. Seems like this chaos won’t end as long as there’s ignorance and indifference between people.
I can still picture in my mind the faces of those evacuees, looking at me, wondering what a mestizo kid was doing there, sitting on that hole. I wish I could’ve done better. I don’t think I’ll forget their faces. Yeah. I don’t want to be the boy who just sits in a hole anymore, not caring about others, being glad that there are no classes thanks to a siege.
John Nathan Lim is a third-year Creative Writing Student studying in UP Mindanao. He was born and raised in Zamboanga City.