MANILA, SEPTEMBER 23, 2013 (PHILSTAR) JUST BE By Bernadette Sembrano - I had a direct view of the Zamboanga International Airport from my hotel room. Most of the time, I stayed in until I would get clearance from our public service unit head, Jodink Sayong, to join in the relief operations. For safety.

I watched as a Cebu Pacific plane left Zamboanga, the first flight since flights got cancelled last week.

Our team flew in via Dipolog airport, about six hours away from Zamboanga City.

Before departing for Mindanao, correspondents Jorge Carińo and Edwin Sevidal reported on the explosion that hurt Red Cross volunteers in Lustre St. in Sta. Catalina. Jorge was just three cars away from the explosion. A close call.

Seeing this on TV, I got scared of coming to Zamboanga. The desire to be in Zamboanga was there, but I was scared. What I’m used to is bringing relief in disaster areas, but to be caught in a crossfire between the MNLF and government forces? Not.

Luckily for me, DZMM correspondents Noel Alamar and Rem Zamora, veterans in conflict coverage, joined us on the way to Zamboanga.

I was mum about my fears until Noel told me, “‘wag kang lalayo sa akin ha (Stay with me).” My protector. I declined though because I didn’t want to be anywhere near Noel who was covering the battlefront.

Aside from feisty Ate Doris Bigornia and myself, it was an all-men ABS-CBN News team.

Immediately the day after our arrival, we were off to deliver food to evacuees staying at the Zamboanga City High School.

The complex was vast with several floors, but evacuees only occupied the first floor to avoid being hit by stray bullets. The school was right smack in the middle of Sta. Barbara and Sta. Catalina, areas of conflict.

When I visited Zamboanga City High School, the armed conflict was going on for more than a week already. Sounds of mortar and machine guns broke the quiet of dawn. Clashes could be heard all day long. The volunteer teacher might have seen the look on my face as he told me, “Malayo (It’s far from here).”

Aside from distributing bread and eggs, we conducted stress debriefing to the children through songs and games. From the school grounds, we could see thick black smoke. Homes were being burned. Again.

Evacuees from Sta. Catalina fled to the evacuation center. Most of them were women and children. The men stayed behind to guard their homes from theft. Unbelievable that people can even think of stealing in the middle of a war.

On my second night after hearing the mortars the entire day, I couldn’t sleep well. I heard a bang, stood up, rushed to the door and screamed, “Oh my God,” only to realize that there was no one in the corridor. My team and I now laugh about this story, but when I told the reporters who covered the frontlines, they told me that it’s but usual to be paranoid about the faintest noise — like the pop of a soda bottle. To think I was on my first few days in Zamboanga. Others had it far worse.

It was a nightmare for the scholars of the Zamboanga State College of Marine Science and Technology. A wall was the only thing that separated them from the mortar explosion that rocked Barangay Rio Hondo. They thought it was their end.

In a group sharing activity, the students told us how they lay on the floor and that they just kept crying. Most of them came from other provinces — Agusan, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Manila — to get an education. Far from home and now tucked in the DPWH covered court, the students would take turns every night watching each other. Noemi, a teenager, was hugging her pillow. She smiled shyly at me. I asked her, “Why do you have your pillow with you?” Then she cried. “At least I have something to hold on to, even if my parents are far away.”

At the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Complex, we saw over a hundred thousand evacuees. The DSWD set up tents which it designated as a child-friendly space depending on the age group. Children were busy playing luksong baka, while some improvised with the empty mineral water bottles as if they were skis. On the sand area (used in long jump competitions), children were making sand castles.

Children never fail to amuse me, how they manage to enjoy life in spite of what’s happening around them. But I wonder what lies in their core for when we went on to distribute relief goods in a Christian evacuation center in Zamboanga, the children wore their rosaries around their necks.

A little boy approached me, and in his soft voice, he said, “Gracias, ma’am,” thanking us for the lugaw we handed him. I asked him, “What’s the rosary for?” and he answered, “God.” “What do you ask God?” I asked him again. “I hope the war ends because I want to go back to school.”

I am terribly saddened about this — why innocent civilians have to suffer for the fault of others. But I try, I try not to be broken, and so I look at the heroism of many Filipinos readily helping one another. There are many Zamboangueńos helping their kababayan, families who let evacuees into their home.

Take Michael Yucor, who was one of the 11 Red Cross volunteers hit by a shrapnel from an M203 grenade. It’s been more than a week since the incident, but he and the others hurt are back at work stationed at the Red Zone, a hot spot, on the lookout for people in need of help. Unbelievable. He said, “We at the Red Cross believe in the saying, ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’” Then he looked at me. “Will you?”

ZAMBOANGA. Villagers fleeing the fighting between government forces and MNLF rebels occupy the center portion of a boulevard in Zamboanga City, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP)

On my last day in Zamboanga, life appeared to be going back to normal — residents were out on the streets again, many establishments were open and cars were driving around town close to curfew — now oblivious to the sound of gunshots and mortar rounds. Zamboangueńos obviously wanted to get on with their lives.

Then again, in the hotel, I learned that a military officer was killed in battle, and more encounters again reported, this time spread out in other areas of Zamboanga. I wrongly assumed the situation was improving.

I left Zamboanga with more questions than answers. How long will the fighting last? How will this affect the peace process? How many more innocent lives will be affected?

Families affected by MNLF-led crisis in Zamboanga City occupying at the Grandstand. As of today, the number of individuals occupying in 36 evacuations centers is reduced to 111,98 - See more at:

Since I can’t figure out the answer to any of these, perhaps the challenge for all of us is to answer this: “What can we do to help?” And... will you?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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