It has been almost two years since the 21-day standoff between government forces and troops from a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) happened in Zamboanga City, but the incident is still fresh in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who were forced to evacuate their homes due to the bloody clash.

However, the plight of Zamboangueños also remains unforgotten by the national government, as proven by the words and works of secretaries Mar Roxas of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and Dinky Soliman of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

On Monday (July 20), Roxas and Soliman joined forces in inaugurating 700 newly constructed recovery shelters in Barangay Kasanyangan, Zamboanga City, for around 1,500 Zamboangueño refugees who have been living at the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, which had been turned into an emergency evacuation center shortly after the siege.

Also known as “House on Stilts,” these shelters with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities were rebuilt through both national and local government efforts after around 500 armed men from a faction of the separatist MNLF tried to raise their flag at the Zamboanga City Hall and took civilian hostages. The three-week crisis cost more than 200 lives and left thousands stripped of their homes, properties, and livelihoods.

Secretaries Roxas and Soliman chat with a beneficiary family of the housing project

Secretaries Roxas and Soliman chat with a beneficiary family of the housing project

During the height of the siege in September 2013, Roxas was with President Aquino, Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin, and other officials from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP), personally coordinating with the Zamboanga City Government.

Since the incident, the DILG has ensured that peace and order are maintained in the streets of the city. The agency has also been closely coordinating with the DSWD for the effective provision of humanitarian support for the affected Zamboangueños.

Although the construction of these new shelters is enough cause for celebration, Roxas stressed that there is a deeper meaning behind this particular accomplishment of the whole of government.

Sa loob ng bawat isa nitong 700 na [bahay] ay isang pamilya…na ngayon ay may katiyakan, kasiguruhan na hindi lang laway, hindi lang salita…pero totoo, kongkreto: magkakabahay po ang bawat isa sa mga pamilya na ito,” Roxas emphasized.

Roxas likewise highlighted the government’s success in clearing the cloud of doubt that was cast on the future of the siege victims, enabling them to live up to the promise of building back better.

“Build back better not just the physical [structures], but build back better because each life, each person, each family now is better off than where they were before,” he said.

Secretary Roxas, Secretary Soliman, and non-government organization leaders formally turn over shelters to Zamboangueños displaced by the 2013 siege

Secretary Roxas, Secretary Soliman, and non-government organization leaders formally turn over shelters to Zamboangueños displaced by the 2013 siege

As such, the DILG chief urged all stakeholders, including international organizations that helped funnel foreign aid into the humanitarian project, to unite in the midst of religious, cultural, and political differences in order to surpass all other ordeals that might be thrown their way.

Nakita natin na anumang unos, anumang hamon ang ibato sa atin, basta nagkakaisa tayo, nakikiisa tayo, may malasakit tayo sa kapwa, malalagpasan natin ito,” Roxas told the audience.

“In that diversity, we have our strength. In that mixture, we have our unity,” he added.