[By Weng dela Peña]
A Personal Account of the Zamboanga Hostilities
SEPTEMBER 8, 2013. It was the night of the Feast of the Nativity when my Aunt Lucita and I were exchanging text messages about the condition of my Lola Basing who was rushed to the Brent Hospital in Zamboanga city the day before.
She was in their home in Lustre Street with her husband Uncle Bong, along with my other aunt, Aunt Malou and Uncle Vic, who came all the way from Ipil, Zamboanga del Sur to attend to my lola. They all just came from the hospital and have decided to spend the night there, in that soon to be ill-fated Lustre street.
Past 6am the next morning, I got a call from our radio station in Zamboanga requesting me to call back ASAP as they are about to report an attack happening in the city. By 7am, as I read the news, headlined was my beloved city under attack by heavily armed MNLF men in the barangays of Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon and Sta. Barbara, where Lustre Street in located.
After my program, I called my father, who was living in town, and he confirmed that police and military are engaged in battle with rebels who were spotted near Fort Pilar, near the city’s shrine of the Holy Mother.
Shortly after our talk, I called my Aunt Lu. With a worried voice she told me about the presence of armed men just outside their house, the presence of the MNLF. They cannot get out because of gunfire.
They were just inside, taking cover silently, not knowing what to do.
We were all at a loss. All I could tell was just to keep calm, stay down when gun fires erupt and pray that these men would go away. But they never did.
I contacted our radio station there and gave them the address of my Aunt Lu so authorities can be alerted that there were civilians in their houses along lustre street, and that they need help to be evacuated. Help never came. Rescue seemed impossible. The street was taken over by the MNLF and government forces were facing heavy resistance in the area, so I heard from news reports.
Reports keep coming in of sightings and encounters of MNLF and government forces now spreading and a school, the Southern City Colleges was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. People who were up at dawn that day got the chance to run away from the barangays now occupied by rebels. Reports of residents being taken hostage were all over the news by then. Monday afternoon came. My Aunt Lu with her husband Uncle Bong, along with my Auntie Malou and her husband Uncle Vic were trapped in their house. She told me that their neighbor slipped in from their back door bearing the news that these MNLF men were picking up and holding hostage residents in the area. None of them attempted to leave their homes for fear of being spotted.
Night came and in our brief communication she told me in Chavacano, “Brownout aqui aura noy” (there’s brownout now).” We said our goodbyes and told her to hold on and that we’ll be praying for help and safety.
The next day, Tuesday, September 10, 2013, I texted her, but got no reply. I called her up but her phone was unreachable. Hers was the only phone number I had. I assumed her phone got discharged because there wasn’t any electricity. That day I went to be in touch with my father to know how my Lola Basing was doing. We began to worry about when this situation will end because both of my aunts are trapped in their houses and are unable to go out. News came that my lola wasn’t doing good and it got us worried that only my young cousins were looking after her in the hospital for it was really risky to go out. By nighttime, I still can’t reach my Auntie Lu. My cousin Mercy, the daughter of Auntie Malou, called me up to say that she was worried too as she can’t reached her mother in Lustre. Then we went on to talk about Lola and how we can coordinate for her care while we wait for news from Lustre.
Wednesday morning, September 11, 2013, was my daughter’s birthday.
My cousin Mercy called me up bearing the news I never expected I’d hear. That Aunts Lu and Malou, Uncles Bong and Vic were taken hostage. She said, she got a call from a friend who saw their names flashed on TV as the latest hostages of Kumander Malik in Lustre. I texted a few Cabinet secretaries to appeal for a peaceful means of ending this crisis for the safety of all hostages. But it seems the way to end this was with hostilities.
Government forces kept on with the assault saying they meant to contain the rebels. The agony is in the waiting, the uncertainty of it all. Sunday came and my beloved city is in ruins. The number of deaths were increasing. Food supply was limited. Zamboanga city is devastated. By this time, my Lola Basing is now dependent on medical tubes for her life, while her daughters are held somewhere in the dark.
Around 1:30pm of Sept. 16, my Uncle Nestor texted me to call him.
Lola Basing was critical already and it was only a matter of hours, he said. My uncle told me that they were all there, my father, my two other uncles, their children. The only ones not there were my aunts Malou and Lucita, Lola’s eldest daughters. I cannot think of words to describe this moment that came before us. My uncle asked me if I wanted to talk to her even though she cannot respond anymore she may perhaps be able to listen to me with her heart.
In tears, memories of my Lola Basing when I was a little boy came flashing back and how I saw her smile the last time I visited her in Zamboanga last February. I showed her pictures of her great grandchildren and gave her my hug of goodbye that day of February and she kissed me then saying her usual, “Ta resa gayot iyo cun cuntigo pirmi pati dituyu mga anak, mujer y mamang (I always pray for you, you wife and your children and mother).” I spoke to her softly to say thank you and that I wanted her to hold on and she has yet to see her great grandchildren in person. And that I love her very much.
My Lola Basing a few days later from pulmonary disease and heart complications. But up to her death, my family never told her about what happened to her daughters. But, I guess she knew all along…she knew from the very beginning even if she never could open her eyes, she never could talk.
Early morning of September 17, news of the release of around 60 hostages broke out. Among those released were my Aunt Malou and Uncle Vic. While being attended by the medical team as part of their debriefing procedures, a relative of mine informed them that Lola Basing was gone. With my Aunt Lucita and Uncle Bong still being held hostage we waited for a miracle to happen. As I close this writing, I pray that Auntie Lucita and Uncle Bong be granted the strength to hold on for they have come a long way already. I pray that God will be their protector, their liberator and freedom will be theirs any moment now.
[Editor’s Note: Mr. Dela Peña’s Aunt Lucita and Uncle Bong were eventually released a few days later, along with the remaining hostages who were caught in the battle between MNLF and government troops.]
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