Two months after renegade Muslim militants opposed to efforts by the Philippine government to end a decades-long rebellion laid siege to the southern city of Zamboanga, traumatized children are learning to laugh again.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attacked several villages in Zamboanga city, a major port in the Mindanao region that is home to about a million people. The attack was apparently carried out to sabotage peace talks between the government and a splinter group aimed at putting a stop to decades of insurgency that has left an estimated 150,000 people dead and plunged the mineral-rich south into deep poverty.
The MNLF signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, under which an autonomous region was set up in the south. A portion of the MNLF rebel forces were integrated into the government security forces, but many other militants did not surrender their arms and went back into the hills.
Despite the millions of dollars in development aid poured into the predominantly Muslim region, it has remained hobbled by poverty, with the former rebel leaders turning into corrupt bureaucrats. The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, who won a six-year term in 2010, declared the autonomous region a "failed experiment" and subsequently signed a framework agreement with an MNLF splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to create a new political entity instead of the old autonomous region.
The siege in Zamboanga left over 200 rebels, security force members and civilians dead. It also displaced more than 120,000 people, nearly half of them children, who were traumatized by the intense urban fighting.
Many of these children are now housed in squalid, overcrowded evacuation centres, where they are vulnerable to abuse. There have been reports of sexual assault against children, and of youngsters being bullied by adults. Many children are in need of psycho-social care and bear deep emotional scars after their harrowing experiences.
Financial support from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has greatly helped to ease the children's suffering, and the agency’s implementing partner, Community and Family Services International (CFSI), has been able to help restore a semblance of normality to lives disrupted by conflict.
Among the flagship initiatives are the creation of "child-friendly spaces" that double as temporary classrooms where children can play, interact and learn. Volunteers not only teach them academic subjects, but also instruct them on safety issues, what their rights are, and how they can protect themselves. In these safe spaces children are learning to trust again and, best of all, to smile and laugh again.