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It was still dark on early Monday (September 9, 2013) morning when Jay Sabtorane and his family heard gunshots in Rio Hondo in a hamlet called "Hong Kong." Hong Kong is a community in Zamboanga City for Badjaos or "sea gypsies."
Jay said they never saw the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters that got involved in the conflict, but the sounds of the gunshots were near so they hurriedly packed their valuables and loaded them on their family’s boat. Jay. together with his wife Luisa and seven-year old son Rony, paddled around for 4 kilometers until they felt it was safe already. In a matter of minutes, Rio Hondo-Hong Kong became a ghost town just like the nearby villages.
The armed clashes have since continued between the government forces and the MNLF rebels.
For almost two weeks now, hundreds of Badjaos have been staying in a tent city just outside the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, an evacuation center provided by the local government for the displaced families.
When asked why he chose to to stay outside the sports complex, Jay answered: “We are Badjaos. Our boats are our family’s wealth. We use it to fish when there was still no war. So we have to guard it so that after the war, we can go back to our daily lives as fishermen.”
Badjaos are traditionally seafaring people and are more comfortable living on water than on land.
During the day, the Badjao women go inside the sports complex to line up for food and other relief goods given by the government. The children spend most of their time at the sea playing and swimming with other Badjao children.
Many of the boats are docked and used as shelter. Some sleep inside the boats while others use them as storage for belongings. For those without space, the Badjaos just tie their boats near the shore and use it during the day to ferry people to nearby places.
Tommy Alcari, another Badjao, asked this writer if he can make a request. Although authorities give them food daily, he asked if it’s possible for the government to give them fish instead of chicken. Tommy said chicken is all right for the adults, but alleged that many Badjao children have been getting allergic reactions since they are not used to eating chicken. He said Badjaos prefer bulad (dried fish) over chicken.
Jay and other Badjaos also asked when they can be allowed to return to their homes. They all want to return to their normal lives, but that is unlikely since clearing operations are
still going on in Rio Hondo and nearby villages. Unfortunately, the government still doesn't know when the fighting will end.
Jay, together with hundreds of Badjaos, look at the sea as the sun sets. They will have to wait and stay along the Cawa Cawa Boulevard until the war ends.