NCA Leadership Journey Companion Kevin Jimera from Batch 5 imparts to us his experience during the siege that destroyed many lives in Zamboanga City last September 2013. Even months after the crisis, Kevin can still feel its huge impact as he and his fellow Zamboangeños try to move forward and rebuild what had been broken.
It was early dawn on September 9, 2013. I woke up and started to worry about my pending school requirements and long exams. As I was busy doing household chores and preparing for school, I was receiving group messages saying: “GERA na sa Sta. Barbara” (The war has begun in Sta. Barbara). I immediately rushed to tune in to the local radio station to confirm the rumor. Then it was announced, “Classes are cancelled. Students, teachers, government and private employees are all requested to stay at home and be safe.” Suddenly, I remembered the very event that also woke up the Zamboangueňos during the 2001 Cabatangan siege, when sounds of bombs, airstrikes and gunfire served as our alarm clock from our slumber sleep. I was in my elementary years during the Cabatangan siege and very innocent were we to what was happening. Indeed, it was a moment of history repeating itself. I thought that everything might soon be back to normal and it would end overnight. But I was wrong.
I initiated a massive communication scheme through group text messages and calls to contact my immediate network possibly affected by the siege – members of our youth group and their families. I often seek for my wants, but during those times, I hastily dropped any personal interest. Instead, I prayed for the protection and safety of the innocent people as more died and became seriously wounded from the prolonged siege. I had many sleepless nights since day 1 of the siege as I persisted in calling some of our youth members to check in on their condition.
Fears, Worries, Paranoia
My tears fell as I was listening to their cries, worries, and dilemmas. One of our female youth would always cry as I listened to her, “Kuya, ‘wag ka talaga matulog kung hindi pa ako nakakatulog. Takot na takot na talaga kami dito. Ang lakas ng mga putok-putok ng bala dito. Tapos may isa sa mga MNLF pumasok sa bahay naming kanina, tapos hinalik-halikan ako sa pisngi habang umiiyak at umiiwas ako. Takot na talaga kami rito, Kuya. Takot na kami baka bumalik na naman sila rito sa bahay tapos puro babae pa naman kami rito. Baka i-rape nila kami tapos patayin. Kuya, ‘wag ka matulog kasi hindi ko na alam ano ang gagawin” (Please do not sleep yet unless I do. We are absolutely terrified here. We can hear the loud gun shots. There was one MNLF member who entered our house earlier, repeatedly kissing me on the cheek while I was crying and avoiding him. We are really scared here. We are scared that they might come back to rape and kill us after. Please don’t sleep yet because I really don’t know what to do). After I heard her story, I was dumbfounded. I did not know what to do or say or how to comfort her. The only thing I was able to do was to stay awake and call every now and then to check on her. I also kept on relaying the message to a friend in the City Government to send a service that could pick-up trapped residents in the affected area. However, they cannot act as hasty as possible because uncalculated moves might aggravate the situation and cause more casualties.
Another female youth member kept on texting me if there was an available military escort that could help them evacuate from their area. I felt quite guilty then. I felt sorry for her and myself since I could not do anything to get them out of immediate danger.
Thankfully, God listened to our pleas. Five days after the siege broke out, all of our youth members were able to escape the conflict zone they were in. It was just devastating to know that on the sixth day, most of the houses were completely burnt to the ground. The infrastructures were barely recognizable as it were eaten up by the frenzied fire. It was indeed a great relief to know that my friends and our youth members were safe even if they were not able to salvage their homes and valuables. I still am grateful to God for securing their lives. He never left us; He never forgot the Zamboangueños.
It was day three when I started to leave our home to volunteer in Ateneo de Zamboanga University for the relief operations. In the beginning, everything seemed orderly and set according to plan. As everyone was busy receiving goods, segregating and packing, and cooking meals, we were shocked to hear gunshots in the surrounding streets nearby. Everyone was in panic as the bullets were visibly seen flying in the air. All of the volunteers were instructed to stay calm and hide inside the gymnasium. I thought about the situation we were in, trapped inside the campus with no assurances whatsoever. I realized that our situation was also very similar to those who were trapped inside the conflict zones. Fortunately, we were still able to return to our homes safely through the University’s assistance.
I thought that volunteering in my own small way was the greatest help I could contribute at that time. Together with the other unaffected Silpeace youth, I also volunteered in the Grandstand Sports Complex, which holds the biggest number of evacuees from the affected barangays.
I could hardly recognize the sports complex, as people were everywhere – the bleachers, oval, open field, and even the streets outside the complex were filled with children running around half-naked. The foul stench could hardly be described. Human waste were scattered regardless if food was nearby. I could not imagine how people are able to survive and manage to sleep at such subhuman conditions. I begged, “Lord, please do not leave Your people; we are here to help You out in aiding them”.
Aftermath of the Siege
Two months after the siege broke out, I started reflecting on what else can be done. I felt that people were starting to forget the experiences and lessons from the crisis. It was then that we, the Silpeace youth under the Silsilah Dialogue Movement for Peace founded by Fr. Sebastian de Ambra, PIME, began to think about a concept that we could perform for the 8th Harmony Youth Day celebrated every February 2. It is the celebration where around 800 youth participants from various ethnic groups, schools, and youth groups gather to celebrate peace and harmony as one family. I directed a 45-minute theatre play of what had transpired during the September 2013 siege. We highlighted some scenes portraying the discrimination of Muslims and Christians which existed even before the crisis. The play also highlighted that in the midst of agony, a glimpse of hope is the most powerful weapon we have to move forward once more. Religious differences should not dictate who we are, but instead, we should be reminded of our God who never forsakes us. People across all ages were deeply moved by the messages and lessons conveyed by the performance.
In my reflections, I realize that God is not to blame. Tough times are opportunities for us to stay strong and steadfast in our faith. I would admit that in my life, there were many instances when I doubted God and even worse, occasions when I even cursed Him. Regardless, He never abandoned me. His presence manifested through the people that surround me is a clear indication that He never leaves his people behind. Let us not be a doubting Thomas who will only believe if seen before our eyes. God’s presence is felt within our hearts and soul. We rejoice for we continue to live.