Villagers of Mangrove Community Razed by 2013 War Are Rebuilding Their Houses and Lives

Villagers of three coastal villages in Zamboanga City whose houses, bancas and other livelihood equipment were destroyed during the 2013 attack by Moro rebels signed an agreement on Thursday, August 13 to help each other rebuild their houses and lives.

          The community leaders of Simariki, Layag-Layag and Liha-Liha located along the swampy coast of Barangay Talon-Talon signed the memorandum of agreement in a simple ceremony witnessed by representatives of local and national government agencies and civil society organizations.  Village leaders Nasir Ismula of Simariki, Faisal Asakil of Liha-Liha and Nurham Anuddin of Layag-Layag pledged to work together to rebuild their communities’ burned houses and in other socio-economic undertakings.  City Councilor Josephine Pareja, who also signed as witness, pledged to help the Sama Bangingi residents  in whatever way she and the city government can.  Others who signed as witnesses included representatives of the National Indigenous People’s Commission, Department of Interior and Local Government, Philippine Marines, Talon-Talon barangay council, Ateneo de Zamboanga University, party-list group Akbayan, City Government, and Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance, Inc. (ZABIDA).

          ZABIDA has provided lumber and other construction materials to build 50 houses in Simariki, with 75 more units it pledged to fund later. ZABIDA president Fr. Angel Calvo last month visited the area to kick off the project funded by the Spanish foundation Manos Unidas and the Agencia Espanola de Cooperacion Internacional para Desarollo (AECID).    The NGO also donated a motorboat for use of the villagers, who have to navigate across a shallow almost a kilometer long water-logged expanse to reach the barangay’s mainland. ADZU has started to provide basic services like water and food.

          Simariki, a less than one-hectare coral atoll, was where the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels from Basilan and Sulu landed their boats when they invaded Zamboanga on September 9, 2013. In the subsequent firefight, all 150 houses in and around the atoll were burned, as well as the 300 more houses on stilts in nearby Layag-Layag and Labhi-Lahi.

          Simariki village chief Nasir Ismula said only about half of the displaced families have returned so far, and the government has not yet extended them any assistance to build new houses. He said the government has imposed a no build zone in some parts of the water-based community because it is supposed to be vulnerable to natural disasters.

          Ismula disagrees with the ban. “Our place is shielded from strong waves and wind by the mangroves and surrounding curving topography”, he says. “Our ancestors including of my other neighbor families’ and down to our present generation have lived in Simariki even before the coming of the Spaniards to Zamboanga, ” he reminisces. Their ancestors, he recalls, worked as laborers and carpenters to help the Spaniards build the Fort Pilar, he said. During the last world war, he said, some city residents took shelter in the surrounding mangroves to escape the fighting and survive by harvesting the plentiful fishes and other edible marine life. 

After the Zamboanga siege, their Simariki Island Sama Bangingi Association has filed an ancestral domain claim with NCIP, covering some 500 hectares. “We do not want to abandon this village, which we inherited from our forefathers”, he said. One of those present in the signing event was former MNLF commander Amilpasa Bandaying, whose grandfathers are buried in the community cemetery.

          Under the MOA, the three villages will also provide security to prevent the cutting of “bakawan” trees and destructive fishing methods like dynamite fishing, which Ismula says continues to be perpetrated along the nearby coasts.  Since after the 2013 war, a detachment of the Philippine Marines is stationed in Simariki, which Ismula says provides an important deterrence against deadly threats and lawlessness, where a strong breeze blows all day long and the crystal tides rise and ebb twice in a day.  Most of the seaweeds farms, a major source of their income, are now thriving again. The mangroves still abound with fishes, shrimps, crabs, squids and so on.

          Ismula said the residents will embark on a land reclamation around the atoll to provide land space for a multipurpose center, school and other basic facilities. Meantime, the residents are concentrating on building their new houses, which they aim to finish by next month. Their concrete mosque and small community warehouse for seaweeds had withstood the war, though.

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