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They Left Their Hearts in Zamboanga

Philippine expatriates show they're not afraid to vacation in an area marred by violence.

January 08, 2006|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — The bullet holes have been in Susan Camins Sanz's house since the day in November 2001 when about 30 Muslim rebels died in a shootout with police.

It's the sort of thing that has happened often enough to give this port city of 700,000 in the southern Philippines a bad name.

"I wouldn't dare go there," said Huy Le, 21, a resident of Manila, the capital, which lies about 500 miles north of this once-popular tourist destination. "I'm afraid they might chop off my head and put it on a stake."

A Southern California group has been taking steps to change that perception. More than 1,700 former Zamboanga residents living in different parts of the world made a pilgrimage back home to try to reclaim dusty streets from the indignities of its recent past.

"We wanted to set an example," said Randy Dagalea, a Long Beach flooring contractor who, with the help of Zamboanga Hermosa Club of Southern California in Anaheim, organized the visit. "If even we Zamboanguenos are afraid to go back to our own city, how will other people feel?"

Zamboanga was once a frequent stop for cruise ships visiting the island of Mindanao. But the region has become a center of conflict between the government and separatist Islamic and communist groups.

With a population that is 30% Muslim, Zamboanga also is viewed as a breeding ground for organizations such as Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic militant group that favors an independent state. Suicide bombings, high-profile kidnappings of tourists and shootouts in recent years prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning for the region.

The result has been a large drop in tourism, inflicting serious economic damage on one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. Zamboanga, whose narrow streets teem with beggars, has taken the brunt.

Yet officials say the danger has been greatly exaggerated and the city's bad reputation is not accurate.

Because the Philippine military's southern command is headquartered in the city, regional tourism director Ricardo A. San Juan said, reporters often file their stories from the Garden Orchid Hotel rather than the remote areas where most of the violence occurs -- so their stories are datelined Zamboanga City.

And although Zamboanga has experienced militant attacks, San Juan said, violence has diminished considerably in the last three years in part because of the increased presence of Philippine and U.S. soldiers.

Army Lt. Col. Mark Zimmer, a spokesman for the Joint Special Operations Task Force that has had as many 1,000 American soldiers training Philippine troops, makes no guarantees of the city being safe but says government forces are "making progress."

The idea for the pilgrimage to Zamboanga came about when Dagalea began talking to San Juan, a distant cousin, during a business trip in 2003. The men scheduled the event for the week of Oct. 12, 2005, to coincide with Fiesta Pilar, the celebration that honors the city's patron saint.

During two years of planning, Dagalea said, he spent more than $3,000 of his own money on postage, telephone calls and faxes soliciting the participation of hometown associations worldwide.

Encouraged by special discount airline fares, more than 1,700 people made the trip, including about 200 from Southern California, which has the largest community of Zamboanguenos outside the Philippines. They were joined by groups from the East Coast and Northwest regions of the United States.

There were also contingents from Britain, Canada, Egypt and Oman. Some former residents hadn't been home in 30 years.

"We did it for love of the city," said Dagalea, who left his hometown in 1982. "We wanted to show the world that it's safe to go there."

The visitors were welcomed at the airport by a brass band, a dance troupe and Miss Zamboanga handing out leis. For two weeks, San Juan said, participants were treated to parties, fashion shows and dances.

"This was the grandest and liveliest fiesta ever in the history of Zamboanga," said Mayor Celso Lobregat.

"It was very serene," said John Buenaventura, 18, who made the trip with his Zamboangueno father. "The beaches are beautiful, and so are the women. It was very festive there."

Organizers say they hope to make the homecoming an annual event.

All of which is good news to Sanz, the owner of that house full of bullet holes.

After spending her youth in Zamboanga, she moved to San Francisco in 1968 and didn't return for 34 years. "My kids have never been here because they're too scared," said Sanz, 52, who came back in 2002 to tend to the affairs of a deceased relative.

She divides her time between Northern California and Zamboanga, where she is restoring the family home.

Her plan is to turn the place into what may be western Mindanao's first bed and breakfast.

"This is my home," she said. "I sense an incredible connection. You can't let fear rule your life."

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