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Rains, floods add to misery of Zamboanga evacuees

The flooded Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in Zamboanga City, which houses tens of thousands of evacuees from the fighting between government forces and the MNLF. (photo from the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center website)
The online news portal of TV5

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines -- Heavy rains flooded evacuation centers in Zamboanga City, adding more misery for thousands of people displaced by a bloody standoff between government forces and Moro National Liberation Front Muslim fighters, officials said Saturday.

Almost a month after followers of MNLF founder Nur Misuari forayed into Zamboanga, over 116,000 people -- around one tenth of the port city's population -- are still sheltering in evacuation centers, where there is a shortage of toilets and medicine.

But government tents have been unable to withstand the heavy rain that has been falling since Friday, causing knee-deep floods said Adriano Fuego, the area's civil defense chief.

"The waters are as high as knee deep in some places. It is mostly muddy (there) and the people are getting soaked," Fuego said.

Of the 71,000 people sheltering at the main evacuation center in the city's sports stadium, 46,000 have had to be moved from their tents to higher ground, while the rest sheltered in the elevated stands, Fuego said.

The government has begun constructing raised plywood shelters with tin roofs to replace the tents with fears that thousands will not be able to return home for months, he added.

"No evacuation centers have closed because they still cannot return to their neighborhoods since the clearing operations are still going on," he said, referring to police and military searches in the conflict zone for unexploded ordnance, booby traps, dead MNLF fighters and possible rebel stragglers.

The government declared the rebel action crushed on September 28 with the release of the last of 195 hostages, but the areas where the fighting took place are still largely off-limits to civilians until they are cleared.

However the heavy rains have also affected clearing operations, said police spokesman Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca.

"It is flooding in a lot of places, even at our offices at the police camp," he said.

Zamboanga police on Friday brought in another MNLF straggler found in a ruined house.

Hajar Hajun said, "I have been hiding in the ceiling, surviving by drinking rain water. I was afraid to surrender for fear I would be killed."

He was among hundreds of heavily armed MNLF fighters who entered Zamboanga City on September 9.

The subsequent fighting claimed the lives of 206 MNLF fighters, 25 military and police personnel, and 13 civilians.

More than 10,000 houses were also razed in fires that broke out during three weeks of fighting.

Police are continuing their search for Misuari following a raid on his Zamboanga City home on Friday, from which authorities claimed to have recovered explosives and documents, Huesca said.