For three nights now, 52-year-old Meriam Sanguila has slept on the concrete floor of a sports stadium, around 3kms from her home in Zamboanga. "We have no change of clothes, we have no food and the children are hungry," she says, glancing at her three small grandchildren playing on the grandstand steps. Sanguila is one of more than 14,000 people who fled their homes in panic, after fighters from the MNLF - Moro National Liberation Front - attacked the coastal city on Monday Sept 9. She is fortunate that she found her way to a covered area. Some have been forced to stay on fishing boats offshore. Zainudin Malang, head of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, describes the boats as "de facto evacuation camps." Clashes between government forces and the rebels, who number about 300, entered their fourth day on Thursday. With the rebels still holding around 180 hostages, among them a Catholic priest, at least 12 people have been killed: civilians, police officers, soldiers and rebels have died. Another 36 have been wounded, including three policemen and 12 soldiers.
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Zamboanga is a business hub and center of government in western Mindanao, but today it is in lockdown. Schools, offices, shops and banks are closed. The streets are deserted. "It's a ghost city," says one resident, Rhoel Ruiz. "We can't do anything but sit in our homes and wait." Alberto Alvin Valerio, head of Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc, a network of 300 faith-based organizations in the country, has appealed for help as evacuee numbers grow. "We need relief goods, food, clothing and, in particular, cash donations," he says. The attacks on Zamboanga and nearby areas underscore the difficulties and complications in Mindanao's search for peace. Claretian priest Angel Calvo, a missionary there for the past 30 years, says the MNLF attack brought Zamboanga to international attention "for the wrong reasons." "That this aggression was a blow for independence by the once-secessionist MNLF is a revelation of its deeper meaning and implication," he says. It was in Zamboanga City that Nur Misuari, a university professor, formed the MNLF in 1970 to fight for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. In 1996, after decades of fighting and thousands of deaths, Misuari and the government signed a "Final Peace Agreement." Calvo is perhaps being diplomatic when he says it has been "badly implemented." Now it is the rival MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), not Misuari's MNLF, who sit in the official peace talks with the government. If and when peace and an autonomous Mindanao is established, it will presumably be the MILF who will take the credit. Misuari will be a footnote, embittered and betrayed. But who is to pay for that bitterness? "It is the poor and innocent who have died and suffered in this senseless, naked aggression," Calvo says. "Regardless of how lofty the cause, there is no justification in the use of violence against another defenseless man." When the rebels came on Monday, he says, "thousands of children were hijacked of their school and play; families suddenly lost houses, livelihoods and loved ones, while wholesale terror and anger seized the city. "Only madmen commit such evil."