Stranded in Davao, 33 Zambo debaters anxious to go home

Sep. 16, 2013
AdZU debater Kelvin Culajara (left) and WMSU's Khaled Lutian (right) with another WMSU debater wait for news to go home as they had stayed for a week already in a hotel in Davao City ( photo by Tyrone A. Velez)

AdZU debater Kelvin Culajara (left) and WMSU’s Khaled Lutian (right) with another WMSU debater wait for news to go home as they had stayed for a week already in a hotel in Davao City ( photo by Tyrone A. Velez)

Davao Today

Davao City— As the battle rages in Zamboanga City, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines extended the suspension of Zamboanga Airport operations beginning today September 16 to 21 forcing airlines to extend its cancellation of flights as well.

The extension meant another week for the 15-member debating team of Ateneo de Zamboanga University (AdZU) who have been holed up in this city since the standoff between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and government troops begun last week in Zamboanga City.

They were supposed to go home elated and proud for winning the 28th Mindanao Parliamentary Debate Championship among college students held here in Davao.

But instead they woke up to the news of the siege in Zamboanga City September 9 and that all flights have been cancelled.

Kelvin Culajara, one of the debaters, never thought they would stay this long.

“Although we have been getting support (from Ateneo de Davao University), and it’s been comfortable here, we are still anxious for our families. We badly need to go home,” Kelvin said.

Teacher coaches and 16 other debaters from Western Mindanao State University (WMSU) and Ateneo de Zamboanga High School are also
anxiously waiting news when the Zamboanga standoff would end.

WMSU debater and tournament adjudicator Arnold Cuboi said he received a message from WMSU’s Presiden  Dr. Milabel Enriquez-Ho that the university had limited funds and that it poured resources to displaced civilians who evacuated to the university grounds.

Both Kelvin and Arnold said they were grateful that people came to help them shoulder their additional hotel expenses as their pocket money for the debate last September 6 to 9 was already depleted.

“We panicked (last Monday) because banks were closed in Zamboanga and our parents could not send us money,” Kevin said.

Arnold said they were relieved when the inn owner assured them she would look for resources for them.

“She approached us and understood our situation,” said Arnold. Last Sunday, the owner took the students to a tour at her mountain resort, “(S)o we won’t feel idle staying here,” according to Kelvin.

The AdZU Student Council and administration contacted their counterparts in Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) to help the debating team. AdDU President Fr. Joel Tabora visited the students last week and told them they would shoulder the hotel expenses of the AdZU teams.

WMSU alumni based in Davao also provided goods and picked up the WMSU team’s laundry expenses.

For the past week, Kelvin said they had more “bonding” moments by talking and practicing debates.

“We debate, we practice, we discuss anything. But we don’t talk about what happened back there,” he said.

“As much as possible, we stay away from what’s happening from home. We just focused on things outside,” said Khaled Lutian, another WMSU

The students also spent time on Facebook and on phone texting to keep in touch with family and friends.

Khaled and Kelvin said they had been going back and forth to airline ticketing offices in hopes there are flights open.

“The problem is all flights are connecting flights, either Davao-Manila-Zamboanga, or Davao-Cebu-Zamboanga.  There is risk we
might be stranded in Cebu or Manila,” Khaled said.

Kelvin said the AdZU team is planning to take a flight by batch this Monday and Tuesday nights to Manila and wait for a flight.  He said an
alumnus would accommodate them there.

Among the 33 students and teachers, it was Arnold who lost his home when fire hit Barangay Sta. Catalina in the midst of the siege.

“My parents and my sister were safe, but we lost our pet dog. It was still painful,” Arnold said.

“I wanted to do something at that time. Right now, I really wish that there would be peace, but someone has to be held responsible for this mayhem,” he added.

Arnold and four other debaters went to Manila last Saturday to join a peace debate sponsored by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “I hope I can get our message across, to help the situation,” he said.

Another AdZU debater, co-winner Glenn Alcala expressed frustration on how government has handled the situation.

Kelvin shared that they already heard rumors last month of MNLF planning to march the streets.

“One of my classmates even announced this on class. But the city government advised us not to spread this because it was all hearsay,”Kelvin said.

During a special mass last Sunday at the inn, the officiating priest asked each of the debating team members of their thoughts. And all of them had only one thing in mind: “home.” (Tyrone A. Velez/

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