Notes on Peace: In Ciudad de Sambuwangan

The rugged coastline came into view as we approached the airport of Zamboanga City, Sambuwangan to the ancient Sama people. This was only my second time to visit this city. The first time was a quick stopover as we transitted for Tawi-Tawi. But this second visit, only days after the ‘Zamboanga Siege’ and with the city still trying to salvage itself from the trauma of those days, brings out various emotions in me. 

Down below us, as we neared land, houses on stilts grew larger, ships lining the coast calls eager young men and women to a better life perhaps in Sabah, while flooded houses also grew more vivid – reminding the plane’s passengers of yet another recent calamity that hit the city.

I searched within me, if I’ve come prepared. Have I read enough materials on this siege? How much do I know of the ethnic diversity in the area, to better understand the situation? How sensitive am I to woundedness? Will anyone be ever really prepared to face such monsters as trauma and grief?

I joined a group from the Ateneo de Davao’s Al Qalam Institute of Islamic Identities and Dialogue to map out the network of collaborators in the Sulu Zone which includes Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The institute’s aim is to train people from these communities to be peace advocates among their people. I feel really blessed that I am part of this project, even if only in the beginning stages, because this area sorely needs such intervention. I am of the belief that peace in this area is possible, but people from the community must first understand the different circumstances, contexts and present conditions prevailing in the Sulu Zone and beyond it. Peace works, as I understand it must not take on an attitude of imposition, a top-down business that relies heavily on imperial Manila, driven by it’s own notions and prejudices. Instead peace works must take on a participatory approach that depends on a community’s aspirations, narratives, and worldviews. The community itself must aspire and work for it. It may take years, with our generation not seeing its fruition, but at least we rest in the assurance that we haved sowed the seeds of lasting and inclusive peace.

Our group has come to the city of Zamboanga when its wounds have barely healed. Bienvenidos a Ciudad de Zamboanga! declares a poster in its airport, but a heavy sigh is perceptible, as audible as a wall riddled by bullet holes. Scars of the tragedies are palpable: several houses have hung the Philippine flag to show support to the Government Forces, several Sama Dilaut families stranded with their boats parked in one boulevard because their houses are no more, stories of the siege and floods fill hotel lobbies, thousands still in evacuation centers around the city, a mandatory 10:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew, and of course, one will not miss the army men in the city who have become as ubiquitous as dust in a library. It is almost like martial law is in effect. But never have I been more emotional when we finally set foot in barangay Sta. Barbara, ‘ground zero’ of the Zamboanga Siege. 

The morning of October 13, we were invited by Fr. Bert Alejo, SJ to attend what I understood only as just a repainting of a mosque damaged during the siege. I was partly surprised when we were blocked by a group of military, asking us of our purpose in Sta. Barbara. It turned out that the whole area, including Rio Hondo and Sta. Catalina have been cordoned off, quarantined. We had to call Fr Bert while he in turn let the secretary of Zamboanga Mayor Beng Climaco talk to the officer for us to finally enter the area. 

The silence was the first to hit me. It was eerily pregnant in the mid-morning sun. Conversations were hushed and only greetings of welcome from friends punctuate the silence. The mosque, as it turned out, was riddled by bullet holes, its minaret, where two female snipers of the MNLF were positioned, turned into a coarse sieve. ‘Riddled, ‘ I surmised was such an apt word after all. Instead of just ‘being perforated,’ the minaret was a real riddle, an enigmatic piece of that mosque, a riddle of what transpired on September, piercing the sky, perhaps even asking the heavens for answers.

As we gathered together on the rooftop of the Sta. Barbara Mosque sharing that same indifferent morning heat, I felt the unmistakable collective aspiration to rebuild, not just infrastructures but most importantly, relations. Speeches were made, allusions to light conquering darkness were referred to, calls to unity were pronounced, God was called to bear witness and give guidance. Are these not the same pronouncements and prayers of the other group, of the ‘enemy’? I had to make sense of the senseless-ness, if I can. If anyone can.

Several groups joined in the symbolic act of repainting the mosque’s minaret. And as a symbol, several interpretations may be presented: reconciliation of Muslims and Christians, mending the gaps between the two religions, or the conquering of a bitter chapter in the city’s history. A fitting symbol indeed, if we also consider the fact that the mosque was named after a Christian saint.

Perhaps we can also reflect on the name Barbara, from the Greek Barbados and Arabic Al-Barbar referring to foreigners or ‘barbarians’. Who is the real foreigner in Sambuwangan/Zamboanga when Sama, Sama Dilaut, Tausug, Chavacano, Bisaya and other groups call it home? Perhaps the damaged minaret calls us to reflect on how we exclude or marginalize the other, and how this othering has caused so many wounds among our people.

I want to end my reflections on that day with an experience in Fort Pilar.

I went in line to touch the cross near the altar at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pilar. I observed several devotees in the line pointing to a bullet hole in a cement vase. A mother with her child was in front of me and the mother explained to the child that it was a bullet hole from the fighting in September. The child stared at it for several seconds, and I can only begin to imagine the images that passed by his wondering eyes. How many people, on their way to touch the sacred image, saw that same bullet hole and what it represents, and prayed, really prayed for peace?

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