This article is a travelogue on Sulu province in Mindanao, Philippines. Yet my travel to the place was in the context of a war so bitter and devastating that instead of the usual paeans to beautiful places one reads in travelogues, I cannot help but write about misery, fear, and resentment.
Prior to my trip, equally clueless yet well-meaning friends told me that Sulu is the veritable wild west of Mindanao. Thus, I expected gungho, gun-totting Tausugs and street fights between bandits and soldiers. The place, after all, is the birthplace of Muslim separatism, the “next battleground,” as it were, in the “international war against terrorism.”
My Sulu sojourn was a life-threatening gamble, but I would not have missed for a lifetime. Held last April 19-23 and organized by local Tausugs (under the organization Concerned Citizens of Sulu) and human rights alliance Karapatan, the fact-finding mission was composed of human rights advocates, churchpeople, Moro activists, and journalists from across the country.
The mission members arrived in Jolo, Sulu after a 3-hour fastcraft boat trip from Zamboanga City on April 19. When we arrived at the port, I noticed that the place looked dusty and earthy, like old photographs from another time.
Jolo’s buildings are dilapidated and rotting, its markets heavily peopled with headdress-sporting entrepreneurs and consumers. Ukay-ukays abound. The restaurants mostly serve seafood cuisines and local food fares. Tricycles and bikes with sidecars are kings of the road, clogging the streets.
It was a very strange place for me, depressingly different from even the poorest non-Moro towns in the country. And to think that this was the birthplace of “civilization” in the Philippines, in existence even before Magellan’s “discovery” of Limasawa in 1521. In our Sulu situationer session, one of our hosts, Ogah Dinampo, said the Sultanate of Sulu was established in 1451.
During our rides to the Jolo town proper, we noticed that soldiers in huge groups were stationed in almost every corner of the market. The locals said this is because civilians, apparently out of sheer hatred, were frequently attacking the troops. The most recent attack happened the day we arrived, when bolo-wielding civilians attacked two army soldiers. The national papers, based on army claims, later reported that the attackers were Abu Sayyaf members. Yet the locals, or at least those we talked to, insisted they were irate civilians.
What could be causing this resentment for the soldiers? I soon realized the answer as the mission visited the areas where military operations were done. We visited the towns Indanan, Patikul, Parang, Panamao, and Talipao. What we found out there was unbelievable and horrifying.
In the two years since the 2000 Sipadan hostage-taking incident, Sulu was subjected to military operations under the pretext of crushing the Abu Sayyaf bandits. Most of the towns being attacked are known to be Abu Sayyaf-free, but are known Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) strongholds. A peace accord was signed between the government and MNLF in 1996, and the latter’s strongholds are recognized to be legitimate MNLF areas that government soldiers should not have attacked.
Yet based on our interviews and investigations, these strongholds, or at least the civilians in it, have been the primary victims of military operations against the Abu Sayyaf.
The team to which I belonged went to Barangay Upper Tiis, Talipao, Sulu. There, amid a backdrop of a majestic, unspoiled jungle, villagers told the most horrible stories I have ever heard.
On October 2001, the villagers related, government troops under a certain Major Maningo attacked an MNLF camp, murdering 5 disarmed MNLF members and wounding three. After which, the troops shelled a village mosque, killing an MNLF member who sought sanctuary there. The troops then fired at a pile of Qur’ans (the Muslim holy book).
According to the villagers’ account, these soldiers proceeded to run over with their chemite tanks the nearby civilian houses. Those houses they didn’t destroy, they looted. Goats, chickens, cows, expensive Muslim dresses, appliances, even doors and roofs were carted away. The villagers’ claim of the looting is an interesting one. Before our interviews with the residents, someone from Jolo told us that once in a while he would spot a military truck in town filled with tables, appliances, goats, chickens. On our way back to Zamboanga City, I saw a navy boat docked on the pier, stuffed with long tables, appliances, and narra doors.
These stories were told by the civilian victims themselves, and they all told of the same horror. We interviewed the wounded, the widows, the terrorized children – they saw what the government troops did. And this was only in one barrio. In Talipao alone, there were 49 more barrios that were reportedly victimized the way Upper Tiis was. There are 18 municipalities in Sulu.
The reports of aerial strafings targetting civilian areas were confirmed by our experience in these areas. Last April 21, one team conducting interviews and occular inspections in Indanan was strafed with machine guns by two military helicopters. Luckily, some were able to hide at a civilian foxhole while others used a balete tree for cover.
It was a deplorable, apalling sight, one that moved Karapatan Secretary-General Marie Hilao-Enriquez to tears when she visited the devastated areas. Whole villages were razed to the ground with none of the public’s (our) knowledge. Civilians were massacred in the Patikul town, and then reported in the mainstream media as Abu Sayyaf bandits killed in action.
We passed by one “empty” Barangay after another, most of their houses burned to the ground, all “no man’s lands.” As it turned out, the villagers were forcibly evacuated because of ceaseless artillery shelling by the troops. The sight was akin to that described in a Joey Ayala song: “Wala nang tao sa Sta. Filomena/ walang aani sa alay ng lupa…”
Crops that were source of livelihood of entire villages were destroyed, like the coconut trees that were said to have been chainsawed by soldiers in Patikul. The farmers who previously evacuated there have been forced into “guerilla farming,” that is, “stealing” the crops from their abandoned farms.
The military attacks the villagers told us about are so brazen and unmitigated that instead of abating the rebellion, it seems to have fuelled it. The resentment and anger is apparent in the faces of the people we interviewed. During our testimonial hearing, women witnesses were moved to tears, recounting how their husbands and sons were slaughtered, how their houses were looted, how their lives were utterly and permanently shattered.
The anger affected even the mission members. It enraged us, provoked us, and challenged us to tell their story to the world.
This travelogue is part of that telling.