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Zamboanga Siege in Southern Philippines Takes Its Toll

September 18, 2013 by Open Doors in General

Evacuees in Zamboanga City

Filipinos in the towns of Rio Hondo and Sta. Catalina awoke to gunshots on the early morning of September 9. It took them a few minutes before they realized what is happening. The Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) declared independence from the National Government. A fight then ensued between the Muslim insurgents and the Philippine army.

The clashes trapped thousands of innocent civilians. Rebels from the MNLF opened fire and killed at least six people, injuring numerous locals. They took civilians hostage, including a pastor and a local church.

The rebel attack took place in community about 500 yards away from a church that ministered to Sama and Tausug believers from a Muslim background. Seven communities were reportedly besieged and about 800 people evacuated. But Sama believers remained trapped in the towns of Rio Hondo, Arena Blanco, Mampang, and Talon-Talon. Reports from the ground indicated that the believers were being held hostage by the MNLF.

In the meantime, Tausug believers in Sta. Catalina, a nearby village, were also displaced, while a number of believers were hurt from stray bullets and shrapnel.

Five of the 250 hostages were released on Sept 10, according to local media. “We know of 10 Tausug believers who made it out safely with their families and we have brought them food,” a local source added. “We have pulled out 60 Sama believers from Rio Hondo. More are coming.”

The displaced Sama and Tausug believers camping at an undisclosed location in Zamboanga City had “gone without food for two days,” said a local source a few days after the initial attack. Open Doors (OD) began sending relief to the beleaguered believers through Christian contacts in Zamboanga City. But with businesses and transportation closed and the combat having spilled over the town proper, providing help sufficiently and safely has been challenging.

And the fighting continued on. “We just went to a missionary to bring rice, and then the commotion began,” says an OD worker on Sept 12. “We went around the city and there were a lot of closed roads and the village was in an uproar. The rebels were dressed in civilian clothes and in military uniforms, so it’s difficult to identify them. Then, we passed by the grandstand where the people have been evacuated and saw many tribal people attempting to get inside. We couldn’t help them.”

The on-going fighting has taken a toll on believers in the area. One woman, a believer from Muslim background, recalls the day her family was stranded and how they received help from OD to escape from Rio Hondo and Sta. Catalina. They are sheltered at an undisclosed location in Zamboanga City.

“I was about to wash our clothes when the shooting started early morning. Others started to panic. I told them to stay calm and go inside our house. We were told that soldiers and MNLF were fighting in the streets. I told my family it was better to stay inside because we might be killed if caught in the crossfire. Besides, we didn’t know where to go, so we stayed home for the whole day.

“We were worried that stray bullets or grenades might fall on us anytime. But we couldn’t do anything because we had no banca [boat]. Our neighbors already fled. We were the only ones left. What we did was to pray.

“We received a text message from our house church leader. He told us that the other Almasihin [Christians] were already in the boulevard and told us to go there too. A fellow believer who owned a banca came to fetch us and brought us to the boulevard. We were so happy to see our family and neighbors there safe and secured.

“The evacuation center though had been a difficult time for the children. So, we were overjoyed when our house church leader announced to us that we would be moved to another place. We are very thankful to God. If not for Him, we don’t know where we will stay at a time like this. Thank God for the people who have helped us.

“Hopefully, we still have a place to go back to. So far, we don’t know what has become of our community. The money we had before this trouble began might be gone when we return home. We need help to start over again. I pray that this situation will be over soon. I pray that the government and the rebels will talk and find a solution.”

“Some church members have lost their houses because of fire,” says an OD worker in the field. “Others have lost the lives of loved ones.” On Sept 14, OD workers rescued a literacy student and her six children walking the streets near the government evacuation center in Zamboanga City. “We bumped into her while distributing food to believers,” said the OD worker busy in the relief operations. “All her children were starving and her youngest, a two-month-old baby, was already at the point of dehydration. She was immediately attended to.”

“We thank God for the overflowing provisions,” the OD worker says. “Donations pour in from Christian friends and government agencies. Together with our ministry partners, we are able to assist our brothers and sisters displaced and hurt by the on-going conflict. We thank God for His sustaining grace and provisions.”

Besides relief provisions, Open Doors and its church partners have started activities that will lessen tension and stress among the believers. “We run films and hold activities,” says an OD worker. “The elderly Sama women are weaving pandan leaves into mats, a usual activity at home. This morning, our MBBs prayed together.”

“We continue to covet your prayers, as we do not know when the war will be over,” the worker continues. “The uncertainty of the situation is causing some emotional stress on us, because we need to be on guard and alert all the time.”

Father, as we think today of our fellow Christians in the Philippines, we lay them before You, in Your infinite love and mercy. We pray that You will bestow Your wisdom on the national leaders to guide them in bringing a swift and peaceful resolution to the crisis. We pray for the safety and release of believers who may still be held hostage or trapped in combat zones. As the Open Doors workers and their church partners work tirelessly to bring relief, we pray that You will refresh them and grant them strength and resources to carry on the work. We pray for those in need now, and as they try to rebuild their lives, that You would provide the necessary resources and help. In the name of Jesus and His glorious presence that fills His church with hope in the midst of despair. Amen.

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