Three years ago, the city of Zamboanga in the southern Philippines was attacked by gunmen affiliated with the Moro National Liberation Front, a radical Islamic group seeking independence fo the Moro people from the central government. The crisis lasted for three weeks -- but three years later, thousands of families are still stuck in limbo, waiting in transit sites for permanent housing.

It was 2013. Mohinda Lumba awoke to the sound of gunfire. Then footsteps, rushing past her door and along the narrow boardwalks of Rio Hondo, a tight cluster of tiny wooden houses perched on stilts along the eastern shores of Zamboanga City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

“I heard shooting, people yelling,” Lumba says. “Our neighbours were calling out: ‘Go! Run!’ So we left.” Lumba and her husband scooped up their two sleeping children and fled, following other families down the narrow passageways and footbridges connecting the stilt houses to the shoreline, bursts of machine gun fire echoing behind them.

​Canadians may be familiar with the name Abu Sayyaf — the Islamist terror group that made gruesome headlines when it beheaded hostages John Ridsdel and Robert Hall earlier this year. This small but high-profile organization is just one of several armed groups operating in the southern Philippines, where for half a century, a myriad of rebel groups have fought for land, resources, political power...and independence.

The roots of Mindanao’s conflict stretch back centuries, when two powerful religions, Islam and Christianity, collided head-on in southern Asia. In the 14th century, Islam spread through Malaysia and Indonesia, reaching the Sulu islands and onto the shores of Mindanao. When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines, they found Muslims on Mindanao, calling them Moros — a term originally applied to the Moors, whom the Spanish had fought during the Reconquista.

The Philippine government encouraged Christian settlement in Mindanao, seen as colonization by the island's Muslim residents. In 1972, a university professor named Nur Misuari founded the Moro National Liberation Front to fight for an independent Bangsamoro -- a separate state that would encompass the islands of Philippine Palawan, Mindanao and Sulu. While the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996 to create the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, splinter groups continued to agitate for independence.

Zamboanga, a city "under seige"

On September 9, 2013, Zamboanga City was attacked by fighters aligned with a faction of the MNLF. Arriving in boats under cover of darkness, hundreds of gunmen clashed with the Philippine navy and police. Frantic residents left Rio Hondo and the neighbouring barangays (districts) of Santa Catalina, Mampang and Kasanyangan. As military and police counterattacked, reports of killings and hostage-takings were already breaking news, and phone negotiations took place alongside falling mortar shells. A fire broke out in Santa Catalina, engulfing the wooden stilt houses in flames, reducing the once-crowded districts at the mouth of Rio Hondo to charred sticks.

Frightened evacuees gathered at a sports stadium on the western side of the city - a place that came to be known as the ‘Grandstand’ by humanitarian workers. As the fighting dragged on, the stadium’s population swelled to 64,000, threatening to overwhelm efforts to provide food, water, sanitation and protection. On September 25, the United Nations declared it a humanitarian crisis. On September 28th, after negotiations between the military and the MNLF, the siege of Zamboanga City was officially declared over. After three weeks of fighting, more than 130 people had been killed, 10,000 homes had been destroyed, and more than 100,000 people had been displaced.

Canada's assistance to Zamboanga City

Over the past three years, the Canadian government has contributed more than $1.5 million to the Zamboanga City recovery effort. The majority of that funding has gone to the International Organization for Migration, to provide emergency support to evacuees, construct temporary housing, as well as distribute hundreds of bankas, small fishing boats, create employment options and economic opportunities. The remainder was directed to Canada's Action Against hunger for health and nutrition work in transit camps.

A resident of Mampang transit site shows off the banka fishing boat, funded with Canadian humanitarian assistance. Canada has provided more than $1.5 million to the Zamboanga recovery operation. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer

Three years on, however, there are plenty of fishing boats - but not enough permanent houses. Data from the Philippine National Housing office for early 2016 shows less than half of the permanent houses are complete. The construction process has been plagued by delays, and miscommunication with other city services such as electricity, sanitation and water have left thousands of families people still living in temporary shelters, waiting for permanent housing.

When DFATD was approached with questions about Canada's role in the Zamboanga relief efforts -- and whether current delays could have been prevented by advanced planning -- the Canadian government issued this statement:

"Canada provided humanitarian assistance funding to respond to immediate, short-term needs of the population. All aspects of the temporary shelter project are designed by IOM, in consultation with the Philippine authorities. Canada relies on them to make the most appropriate determination regarding project designs and timelines. Canada relies on assessments conducted by its experienced partners, with expertise on the ground, to ensure that the most appropriate response is implemented to meet the needs of crisis affected-people. In this case, IOM, which is a member of the Humanitarian Global Shelter Cluster, worked closely with local Philippine authorities and other humanitarian actors to implement the response."

The International Organization for Migration and humanitarian assistance

The agency coordinating the response to the massive displacement of Zamboanga City's coastal residents was the International Organization for Migration. “From the first days at the Grandstand, through to today, we are still here,” says Brian Lustre, head of IOM operations. “Those first days were awful,” he recalls. “Thousands of scared, hungry people in overcrowded conditions, most with just the clothes on their backs. We were going non-stop every day, nearly overwhelmed.”

The 'Grandstand' spots stadium today. Three years ago, the stadium served as a makeshift camp for more than 60,000 displaced people fleeing fighting between Philippine forces and rebel gunmen. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer

With the cessation of hostilities on Sept 28, 2013, Lustre says, the majority of displaced people were able to return home. But tens of thousands of families like Lumba’s, whose homes were destroyed, had nowhere to go. The IOM worked to adapt the sports stadium into a short-term living space for thousands of people, constructing privacy partitions for families in the bleacher areas, as well as elevated platforms on the sports field, enclosed with tarpaulin walls and a roof. These alternations made the Grandstand safer, sanitary and more tolerable, Lustre explains, until the evacuees could be assessed and transferred to temporary housing, where they would reside while their new homes were being constructed by the National Housing department. But three years on, the IOM is still in charge of thousands of evacuee families living in temporary housing while awaiting permanent housing.

Having to build houses on stilts over the water has complicated the situation, Lustre says, necessitating scheduling some construction for low-tide periods. Additionally, government policies stipulates that homes be built to a higher standard than previous residences, Lustre explains - a key part of the Build Back Better strategy, which required installation of sanitation and toilet facilities, where previously residents had relied on the sea take their waste away on the tide. Even houses that are structurally finished can’t be occupied until the electricity and water lines are connected, Lustre explains, adding another layer of complexity that has pushed back the transfers.

“It raises the question of how long these temporary structures can last,” Lustre says. “When we visit Mampang and Buggoc, you will see we are doing all we can to prepare for the transfer, but we can’t move ahead under everything is ready.”

Mampang

We drive through the streets of Zamboanga City heading east until we arrive at Mampang, a massive set of temporary shelter complexes where nearly 7,000 people are housed in bunkhouse-style accommodation arranged along rows of long piers jutting out into the bay.

Rows of bunkhouse accommodation in Mampang II, a transit site in the eastern section of Zamboanga City. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer.

Some sections are made of wood, others are large panels woven from Nipa grass. Using local materials in the temporary housing helped the people feel a sense of familiarity, Lustre says. But after being occupied for several years, some sections are clearly in need of maintenance.

“These are temporary sites,” Lustre explains. “They were designed to be built quickly, to accommodate people for six months, maybe a year.” As a short-term fix, the IOM is distributing repair kits, to patch the holes in the walls and floors that are appearing as the housing - quite literally - wears through.

The limited-lifespan of the temporary housing is clearest in Buggoc, where 1,500 people are housed in rows of wooden huts on stilts, not far from the destroyed Rio Hondo district. As I walk along the boardwalk I step over gaps, taking care to ensure my feet come down on wood. The site’s residents are patient, but complain of collapsing walkways, rotting floors, and loose boards that trip up children.

Residents of the Buggoc transitory site say the boardwalk is in need of repairs. Originally built as temporary housing, the transit sites still host thousands of families. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer

Further down the boardwalk, I can see the permanent housing under construction on the other side of the river — while several rows look habitable, other rows are still without windows, while another is still missing a roof.

The burnt stilts are all that remains of the original Rio Hondo district, destroyed during the three-week siege of Zamboanga City. The permanent housing is across the water. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer
The government built permanent housing is built to a higher standard of construction and sanitation, but is far behind schedule. These houses are nearly completed, but still lack septic lines and sanitation which must be installed before they can be occupied. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer

“You have to understand, no one thought it would take this long.”

Yahir Duselem Junior, who served as executive assistant to Zamboang’s mayor during the siege, underscores the sheer scale of the problem — and perhaps the degree of underestimation by those offering aid. As a liason between city officials and international humanitarian agencies, Duselem worked to verify who was an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) in search of housing and who wasn't. “It was hard, because the numbers of IDPs that came from the UNHCR were much larger than our own numbers,” he says.

Duselem says the UNHCR relied on a broader set of criteria, which resulted in much higher totals.

“Look,” he says, “I understand they came because they were scared. But the criteria for an IDP should be strict. If I was 10 miles away, but came to Grandstand because I was scared, should I qualify? Or does that take resources away from other people who really need it?”

Duselem says he empathizes with the plight of the IDPs, because he is one as well. His house in Santa Catalina burned down during the siege, and working with the displaced people at the Grandstand gave him a sense of purpose.

Lumba's new (temporary) home in Tulungatung

Lumba’s family stayed at the Grandstand for six months, in crowded, unsanitary conditions with 64,000 other people. “We had to sleep on the ground without mats,” she recalls. “The water was scarce, and there were not enough toilets. My children were constantly sick.”

But these days, Lumba explains, her children are much healthier. After half a year in Grandstand, she and her family were transferred to Tulungagung, a transitory site a 20-minute drive from Zamboanga’s city centre.

I’ve come to Tulungagung with Dads Mendoza, head of the Philippine mission for Action Against Hunger (ACF). ACF is a Canadian humanitarian agency working on nutrition, health and sanitation for Tulungagung’s residents, supported by DFATD. Built as a stop-gap measure for evacuees while they wait for the Philippine National government to construct permanent housing, Tulungagung currently houses 367 families, for a total of around 2000 people.

Dads Mendoza, head of the Philippine mission of the Action Against Hunger, stands next to Mohinda Lumba and her children. Next to her is Melodia Genor and her children, followed by Fia Alvarez, a health officer stationed at Tulungatung. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer

As Lumba talks, her children squirm in her arms. “We like it here,” she says. “The environment is cleaner, with fresh air, and the children have space.”

Of course, she says, there are problems. During the transfer, they were promised water deliveries and weekly food packs, she says — but after a few months, those stopped coming. Transport costs from Tulugagung to the city centre are higher, she adds, noting that in Rio Hondo she could walk to the market. Her husband leaves at 3 a.m. to ride on a transport truck into the city, or pays 40 pesos ($1.10 CAD), a quarter of his daily wage, on jeep fare. Despite those challenges, Lumba says, it's better than Mampang and Buggoc, where residents had to pay 50 pesos ($1.38 CAD) for a single jerry can of water. Here, she can find water nearby, and her children can attend the health clinic if they get sick, she says.

Before I leave Zamboanga City, I meet Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar. The mayor has been a tireless advocate for Zamoboanga's displaced persons, visiting evacuees in the Grandstands and attending hand-over ceremonies whenever housings transfers occur.

“I’d like to express my sincerest and deepest gratitude to the people of Canada for their continued support, especially for the fishing boats,” Mayor Climaco-Salazar says. “You have helped remind us that we are not alone in this crisis.”

When asked if the timelines for building the permanent housing was realistic, Climaco-Salazar replies that bringing the buildings to sanitation standards is taking more time than expected. She assures me that her office is doing all it can to ensure transfers take place as soon as the houses are ready.

Despite the challenges ahead, she thanks Canadians for their support to the Philippines during a difficult time for Zamboanga's evacuees.

“You came in our time of need,” she says, “you are here in our early recovery, and we have planted your seeds of development here in Zamboanga.”