It has been more than a year now since several hundred people from the village of Tigtapul fled from their homes in the middle of the night to escape the shots of Philippine army soldiers engaged in a house to house search for Moslem rebels.
Today, the villagers are still refugees in a makeshift camp in this city. As night begins, candles flicker, kerosene lamps burn dimly and people move about preparing food and comforting crying babies.
Although Moslems themselves, the occupants of the camp are bitter at the rebels as well as at the predominantly Christian army units. Most of them say they want to return to their village to live in peace but it is a sign of the seemingly interminable nature of the civil war here that they are still afraid to return home.
Six years after martial law was declared in the Philippines, the More National Liberation Front - which seeks autonomy for two million Moslems in the south - is still active. Militarily, the government forces have the upper hand. But the guerillas have not been defeated and local army commanders acknowledge that a military victory will be difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Meanwhile, Moro political leaders have expanded their search for intenational support.
Representatives of Raschid Lucman, one of three men mentioned as leaders of the rebellion, recently visited Tokyo and Washington to rally suppert among critics of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. These representatives visited congressional aides and depicted the Marcos governments's campaign against the Moslem rebels as a major violation of human rights.
Although the clash is now mainly a military one, the roots of the trouble are religious, cultural and anthropological. Arab and Chinese traders brought Islam to the southern part of the Philippines centuries ago. Since then; the Moslem tribes and ethnic groups have maintained their independence despite 300 years of attempts by Spaniards, Americans and now the Philippine government to bring the area under the law and authority of Manila.
What the government in Manila views as a rebellion is seen by many of the Moslems as a desperate struggle to preserve their culture and their ancestral homelands in the face of military and economic penetration by the Christian minority from the north. Filipino and multinational companies have moved into Mindinao to exploit resources such as timber, coconut, rubber, iron and fisheries.
These ventures often are carried out on land that has been used for centuries by the hunting, farming and fishing people of the area.
In the Sulu Archipelago, the dominant group are the Tausugs - the "people of the current" - so named because of the vicious currents that swirl in the islands and channels between Mindinao and Borneo.
The Tausugs, with their own strict code of honor and law independent from Philippine law, have proved to be particularly fierce resisters.
In his book on the Tausugs, "Violence and Law in a Philippine Moslem Society." authropologist Thomas M. Kiefer wrote prophetically that "the (Tausug) striving for justice is so great that it sometimes seems as if they are willing to bring down the whole world in chaos in order to achieve it."
Given then deep misunderstandings and the cultural schism between the government and the rebels, some local military commanders say the key to peace may be in winning support from the local population rather than in pure military victories.
"I impress on our troops that we are fighting in our own country," said Col. Salvador M. Mison, soft spoken commander of troops in Basilan. "Rebel activity is like a cancer. We need the support of people and we recognize that the behavior of our troops, the protection of the economy and property, are important in this."
If recent soundings are any measure, Col. Mison's troubles are far from over.
Several weeks ago, Moro leader Nur Misueari warned in an interview that he was "assessing the wisdom of extending our revolution to the northern part of the Philippines - to all important cities." Misuari, a sparkling-eyed, goateed man who has sworn to gain independence for Philippine Moslems, claimed that Moro guerrillas already were in the northern island of Luzon. "We no longer fight alone," he declared.
"The Islamic world will back the Moro National Liberation Front with everything it needs." he said.
Philippine officials doubt that the Moros have the logistical ability to carry the rebellion north. But they acknowledge that radical Arab support for the Moros is real and conceivably could create problems for Philippine oil supplies. Misuari lives in Tripoli, with the backing of Libyan ruler Muamer Qaddafi.
Qaddafi is credited with arming and financing the Moros in the early 1970s, when intercommunal violence erupted in the southern Philippines. In December, 1976, he sponsored the agreement between the Marcos government and the Moros calling for a creasefire and steps toward autonomy. The ceasefire quickly broke down and Marcos has declared that a halt to terrorism is a precondition of political concessions.
In this situation, Philippine Army commanders see little hope for an early end to the violence that has taken the lives of 20,000 Moslems adn Christians and created some 100,000 refugees in the western part of the huge island of Mindinae and the Sulu Archipelago.
Guerrillas have been able to fade back into the forests, or escape to off shore islands when theatened by government troops. Money is not apparently a problem for the rebels. Military officials here say that although the flow of Libyan funds apparently has diminished, the rebels have been able to finance their activities with copra trading revenues and by demanding and getting "protection money" from businessmen.
In Basilan island, just across the narrow straits from Zamboanga, some 12 miles of the island is 80 miles of road are considered unsafe despite the presence of four infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, an armored company, a special forces company, police units and civilian home defense forces.
There have been recent clashes between guerrillas and these units with casualties on both sides, and rubber plantations on the southern part of Basilan island have been attacked from time to time.