Groups call for ceasefire, investigation into what caused the war in Zambo

But barely two or three days of this, state forces proceeded to attack the MNLF rebels, despite a supposed two-hour ceasefire on Sept. 13.

HRW interviews detailed that the hostages were ordered out into the street with rebels armed with rifles taking cover behind them, using them as human shields. Michelle Candido, 27, said that as soon as they were out, gunfire erupted between the military and the rebels. “The shots came from afar,” she said. “It’s as if they didn’t care about the hostages.” One of the hostages was struck by gunfire and killed.

The hostages and the rebels tried to seek cover. For several hours, until 4 p.m., the shooting continued, stopping intermittently. Candido said a helicopter dropped confetti in which the pieces were in the shape of doves. “We were happy because a dove means peace,” she said. “It would soon be over.”

But instead of peace, tanks came.

Three military vehicles, which Candido described as tanks but likely armored personnel carriers that were widely used in this conflict, arrived shortly after.

“We got up and shouted ‘Ceasefire!’ But the tanks started shooting at us. One old man was hit and died. One man in a yellow shirt died, too. The firing went on and on until we had no choice but to jump into the sewer, the cover of which had been removed by the rebels so they could turn it into a shield,” Candido said.

“The shooting was relentless,” said Monica Limen, a 50-year-old housewife who was among the hostages with two of her children. Gunfire struck her in the head while her daughter Nerica, 7, sustained a small wound in her right foot. Limen later found out that her son Rubin, 20, was killed. “We have not found his body yet,” she told Human Rights Watch at her hospital bed.

Another hostage, Lemuel Agucita, 17, described how terrified he was when the shooting started. “It was like a massacre,” he said. “The shooting just went on and on. We dropped to the ground, some jumped into the sewer.”

While in the sewer, Michelle and her husband tried to keep their son Jeomi’s chin and head above the sewage but she said even she could not help but swallow some. The shooting continued and suddenly there was a huge explosion right above the sewer. “We must have lost consciousness for a moment,” Michelle said. When she came to, she felt Jeomi’s head and it was bloodied, but he was alive. Her right pinkie finger had been hit. Her husband was unharmed.

Once the shooting stopped, the hostages remained hostaged. The women and children were allowed to go a day later, the men a few more days later.

Violations of Humanitarian Law

In the fighting since September 9, both state security forces and the MNLF have acted in violation of international law, HRW concluded. It explained that the “taking of hostages” and “cruel treatment” by all parties to a conflict is specifically prohibited by international treaty law.

At the evacuation center along RT Lim Boulevard, a mother hangs clothes to dry . Sept 2013 ( photo by John Rizle L. Saligumba)
At the evacuation center along RT Lim Boulevard, a mother hangs clothes to dry . Sept 2013 ( photo by John Rizle L. Saligumba)

Customary international law also prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and attacks in which the anticipated harm to civilians is greater than the expected military gain.

“Parties must take all feasible steps to protect civilians and avoid deploying in densely populated areas. The use of ‘human shields’ – deliberately using non-combatants to deter an attack – is a serious violation. However, violations by one side never justify violations by the other. Thus, the holding of hostages and use of human shields by the MNLF does not permit the Philippine army to conduct attacks in disregard of the civilians who have been placed at risk,” HRW said.

International law prohibits torture and other ill-treatment of persons in custody. Individuals apprehended by the government should be promptly brought before a judge and charged with a credible criminal offense or released, the HRW said. It reminded the government of its obligation to investigate those responsible for the mistreatment of persons in custody and discipline or prosecute them as appropriate.

“When the smoke finally clears in Zamboanga, the government will need to investigate what happened,” Adams of HRW said. These, he said, include holding accountable members of the military and police who committed abuses.
The Moro organization Suara Bangsamoro, which has a chapter in Zamboanga City, supported the call for a probe.

“Someone has to be held accountable for this humanitarian crisis, where thousands are made to suffer and children are getting sick in evacuation centers,” said Suara spokesperson Neil Murad.

Murad said there were “more people staying in abandoned facilities that are unaccounted by the city’s Crisis Committee.” He said many people are still hiding out of fear from both sides.

Aside from joining calls for immediate ceasefire in Zamboanga City, Bayan also urged the public to put pressure on the Aquino government to allow international bodies such as the International Committee on the Red Cross to assist and ascertain the conditions of civilians caught in the armed conflict. Bayan decried how the only source of information the public has, so far, are the police and military. “We may not be seeing the whole picture from the daily press conferences by the military,” Bayan said.

It urged the Aquino government to make clear its policy on the MNLF and current peace efforts with the MILF, saying that the continuing failure of the Philippine government to address the roots of the armed conflict will give rise to continuing resistance by other groups and forces in the future. Bayan noted that previous and current peace efforts by the Philippine government have “focused mainly on cooptation and pacification of the various armed groups rather than addressing the socio-economic root causes of the armed conflict.” It reminded Aquino that only through engaging in genuine socio-economic and political reforms, and by upholding the Moro people’s right to self-determination, can a just and lasting peace be secured.

Possibilities of such socio-economic reforms are further shrinking though, as “The intensifying war footing of the Aquino administration and its foreign patrons is rapidly militarizing our society, setting the stage for further violations of children and women’s rights,” De Jesus of Gabriela warned. She noted that as the government devotes more of its budget to pork, guns, bullets, bombs and soldiers, there will be less money for housing, women’s shelters, and services for women and children.” (

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