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Zamboanga City mayor: From novice to warrior

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MAYOR IN CHARGE Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco-Salazar helps evacuees at Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in Zamboanga City. EDWIN BACASMAS

Before she became a politician, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar was a Carmelite novice, a guidance counselor and a teacher.

But on Sept. 9, she found herself becoming a warrior—although without a gun—to defend her city from a band of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels, some disgruntled over their peace agreement with the government, others simply lured by money.

For three weeks, the mayor, popularly known here as Beng Climaco, had to show strength and composure to assure her constituents that the nightmare that fell on their city would soon end.

Zamboanga City woke up on Saturday with government’s top security officials declaring that the three-week crisis was over as all the remaining hostages have been rescued. The hunt for MNLF commander Habier Malik, a loyalist of the rebel group’s founding chair Nur Misuari and leader of the siege, has begun.

The guns may be silent now but Climaco, 48, has her work cut out for her: to rally Zamboangenos into rebuilding their broken city.

It was on Day 13 of the siege that the Inquirer spoke to Climaco in her deserted office in the hundred-year-old City Hall, located at the downtown area not far from the coastal villages where fierce fighting was taking place.

The city government has begun to identify temporary relocation sites for the thousands of displaced residents and eventually, permanent ones.

Under a “Build Up Better Program,” Climaco said houses worth P100,000 each would be built for the residents who lost their homes in the conflict.

“We’ve already tasked the city planner to make a landscape for this and also put a military installation permanently,” Climaco said.

The P3.8-billion rehabilitation package earmarked by President Benigno Aquino III for Zamboanga rests on the shoulders of its leaders, primarily Climaco.

‘Woman’s touch’

The mayor’s friend, Maguindanao Rep. Bai Sandra Sema, said Climaco’s leadership style has a “woman’s touch.”

“She’s very sweet but she’s strong, diligent and systematic. It’s like how you would plan for your household. She identifies right away what is needed the most,” Sema said.

Before politics beckoned, the mayor entered the convent for two years but later decided that her real calling was to become a teacher and a guidance counselor.

She taught English and religion at Ateneo de Zamboanga, and was a guidance counselor as well. Two of her students were children of Misuari.

In her brief talk with Misuari at the height of the siege, Climaco recalled the Moro leader raising his voice at her. “He softened a little after I told him that I was a guidance counselor of his children,” Climaco said.

At 43, Climaco married retired Gen. Trifonio Salazar, choosing Feb. 28 as her wedding date. It was the birthday of her late uncle, Cesar Climaco, the tough, motorcycle-riding mayor of Zamboanga City who refused to cut his white hair until martial law was lifted.

To their relatives, the two Mayor Climacos had so much in common.

Cesar would go around in a motorcycle, without bodyguards. Beng does not own designer bags or shoes, and will not mind shopping in an “ukay-ukay” (used clothes) market, a niece said.

At times, Climaco could be “fearless to a fault” like her uncle. She could disregard her personal safety at times. She gives a personal touch to her leadership, like her uncle.

“I don’t want to defend my husband. It was really … we were overpowered,” Climaco said about the talk that there was a failure of intelligence on the part of government. Salazar is the director general of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA).

Her husband has been helping her deal with the crisis, she said. But the tactical operations were left in the hands of the security forces.

Climaco was heavily criticized in the local media for her alleged failure to preempt the crisis.

A few days before, she was at the SM Mall of Asia for the launch of the city’s tourism campaign “Zoom in Zamboanga.” On Sept. 7, she quietly celebrated her birthday with a dinner with her family in Manila. She returned to Zamboanga City on Sunday, and learned about the siege at around 5:15 a.m. on Monday.

Some of the hostages who were released vented their anger at her. She later learned that they had been brainwashed by the rebels into believing that she and the government had abandoned them. The debriefing and counseling by social workers opened the minds of the hostages to the real story.

800,000 lives

There are the lives of 800,000 people to think about, Climaco said, referring to the city’s population.

Climaco said there were relatives of some of the hostages who came to her and told her they were willing to sacrifice their family for the rest of the city. Climaco’s staff members, most of whom were her former students at Ateneo, told the Inquirer that the only time the mayor broke down was when she met with the city council and they all found out the identities of the hostages.

“There were responses of selflessness and courage but this is only from the perspective of those with freedom. But in the minds of the 20 (still captives of the MNLF at that time), if you empathize with them, you can hear them say, ‘We need you most at this time, you should not let us down,’” Climaco said.

There was a heated debate on what to do, what choice to make. Climaco praised President Aquino for making a stubborn stand: Save the hostages at all cost.

“When I look back, I know that I will never regret that decision,” she said.

Climaco said she regains strength “from the people I serve.”

Suffering from asthma, the mayor said she missed her shots that should have reduced her sensitivity to allergy triggers but she needs to be strong.

Her longest sleep since the crisis began on Sept. 9 was five hours. But she is not complaining. She said her health is “no match” to what the people of her city are experiencing now.

 

First debriefing

She had her “first debriefing” on Friday from a Department of Health team.

“It’s good that I managed to bring out my emotions. It’s ironic because I was a guidance counselor before,” she said.

“Maybe the media would see this as drama, but deep inside me I was really hurt by what had happened to the Joemie Ando,” she said.

Ando is the 2-year-old boy who died after having been hit by a bullet in the head while being held captive by the MNLF forces in Barangay Santa Catalina.

Her grandchildren in Manila have been giving her a much needed boost. They regularly call her, saying: “Lola, don’t worry, it will be over. Lola, are you OK? When I visit Zamboanga, I will shout at all the bad guys there.”

Climaco became an instant grandmother when she married Salazar, a widower, in 2009.

Michael Saavedra, a staff of Climaco, sees the mayor as strong even in the face of crisis.

“When I first called her up at dawn of Sept. 9, after Col. (Jose Chiquito) Malayo reported the incident, the mayor was calm and quick in instructing me to announce the suspension of classes and work,” Saavedra said.

“There were very few instances when she was impatient. She was generally calm throughout the crisis. I don’t think she has slept over two hours per day since this started,” Saavedra said.

The mayor said the city loses P344 million daily as a consequence of the crisis.

“That amount and the cost can be recalibrated once we are into normalcy. What I cannot accept is the loss of lives of innocent people and we still have 21 hostages down there,” she said.

As of yesterday, the Department of Social Welfare and Development has reported a total 118,819 people displaced by the fighting.

The military lost a dozen of soldiers and more than a hundred wounded. Three policemen were also killed in the fighting.

“Every day, I wake up physically drained. I pray and I know God would not give me a trial I cannot bear,” she said.

While Zamboanga City’s local economy has lost an estimated P5 billion in the three-week crisis, Climaco is optimistic that the city will recover its losses.

“The Zamboangueños are peace-loving, fun-loving and warm people,” said Climaco, who cried with the freed hostages and those who lost their loved ones in the fighting. “They don’t deserve this.”

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