A PERSONAL ACCOUNT FROM THE BASILAN WAR ZONE
Roland G. Simbulan
(The author, a University of the Philippines Professor, was one of the two Filipinos in the 14-member International Peace Mission which recently visited Basilan province from March 23-26, 2002.)
“We welcome the American troops
with open arms,
with open legs,
with open everything.”
– Mayor Rubio Biel of Isabela City, Basilan
during meeting with the International Peace Mission,
March 25, 2002
War zone Basilan is as controversial and complex as Isabela City Mayor Rubio Biel who is quoted as making such outrageous statements as the above. It was a view that was seconded by its equally bullyish governor Wahab M. Akbar. But Basilan, as I will show in this personal account, is ridden with complex divisions and contradictions, even among its top local officials. Last February 6, 2002, the Basilan Provincial Board (Sangguniang Panlalawigan) officially passed “A Resolution strongly opposing the Balikatan Exercise of the Joint U.S. Military Troops and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to be conducted in the Province of Basilan.”(Resolution No. 02-025)
I was one of two Filipino members of the International Peace Mission consisting of 14 members from 11 countries, which recently visited Basilan last March 23 to March 26, 2002. Basilan, which in recent years has been tagged as “the kidnapping capital of the Philippines”, is now a war zone, dubbed by the Western media as the “second front in the war against terrorism next to Afghanistan.” A total of 160 U.S. Special Operations Forces have been committed to Basilan since last February, 2002. Meanwhile, in nearby Zamboanga City, 500 more U.S. troops have been deployed. More U.S. troops are expected to pour in. Zamboanga City is one hour away by regular ferry boat, or half an hour by fast craft to Basilan island province.
The objectives of the International Peace Mission to Basilan were first, “to investigate reports of civilian casualties, arbitrary arrests and displacement of affected communities in Basilan and Zamboanga;” and second, “to assess the conduct of joint U.S. and Philippine military operations and their impact on the Christian – Moro conflict and the Moro separatist struggle.”
Never has the small province of Basilan been so heavily militarized with both Philippine Army and U.S. Special Operations Forces combing the island to go after a rag-tag bandit group of Abu Sayyaf kidnappers numbering no more than 60 armed men, according to Brigade Executive Officer (EXO) Major Calanoy of the 103rd Infantry Brigade, Philippine Army, which is under Colonel Alexander Aleo, Brigade Commander. An estimated 5,000 Philippine Army troopers are in Basilan today, supported by 160 U.S. Special Operations Forces equipped with the most modern infantry weapons and technology available in the U.S. armed forces. Even at the height of the anti-MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) military campaigns in the ’70s and early ’80s, Basilan never experienced this much concentration of military forces in this small island of 326,000 people, homeland of the Yakans. While Yakans comprise 40% of Basilan’s total population, other ethnic Muslims (Badjaos, Tausugs and Maranaos) combined comprise another 30% while Christians are said to make up 30%.
Seven Philippine Army combat battalions (one battalion equals 500 men) are presently deployed in Basilan: the 10th Infantry Battalion in Lantawan; the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion and 55th Infantry Battalion in Isabela City; 32nd Infantry Battalion in Tipo Tipo municipality; 18th Infantry Battalion in Lamitan town; and two Philippine Marine Battalions in Maluso municipality. The headquarters of the 103rd Infantry (Haribon) Brigade, Tabak Division of the Philippine Army, in barangay Tabiawan, Isabela City, serves as the main camp for the ongoing operations of both Philippine and U.S. Special Operations Forces in the island. Tuburan and Tipo Tipo municipalities are known Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) strongholds on the east of Basilan while Sumisip is also said to be influenced by the MILF.
In the capital city of Isabela as well as along the road to and from the headquarters of the 103rd Army Brigade, we met U.S. Special Forces wearing body armor bullet-proof plates with “camel back” vests for water supply, brandishing their short, lightweight modified M-14 assault weapons with laser scopes. Philippine Army troops with contingents of gun-toting Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUS) usually provided back-up security for U.S. forces whenever the latter would go to Isabela City for supplies. Paramilitary CAFGU forces number 500 in Isabela City alone, according to its mayor, out of a total of 12,000 CAFGUS and paramilitary CVOs fanned out in the entire province.
Abu Sayyaf Atrocities and Victims
Our team met with many Abu Sayyaf kidnap victims, both Christian and Muslims, who narrated various atrocities committed against them by the bandit group. It is estimated that at least 500 people had been abducted and kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf from 1992 to the present. It is also estimated that during this period there have been 47 beheadings. We heard testimonies of kidnappings and rape and other unspeakable atrocities committed by the dreaded bandit group.
Impact of Philippine-U.S. Military Operations
Contrary to the notion that the deployment of U.S. Special Forces and Philippine Army battalions has eased the tensions in Basilan, a climate of fear persists among the many local communities there. The entire island is virtually a war zone with Philippine and U.S. troops seen in all parts of the island, their trigger-ready fingers holding their powerful assault weapons.
Atmosphere of Fear
But Abu Sayyaf tactics have also been employed by Philippine Army forces and their paramilitary units against the Abu Sayaff. Dirty tricks and other dastardly crimes are not the monopoly of the Abu Sayyaf. Warrantless arrests and extrajudicial killings of Abu Sayyaf suspects are now a common occurrence in Basilan. Summary executions of male residents are alleged to have occurred in communities where Abu Sayyaf members have relatives, and later reported as “encounters”. Two Yakan women from Tipo Tipo told the mission how their husbands, though unarmed, were shot by the military right in front of their families. These two women are now in hiding with their children in fear for their lives. In April 2000, the governor’s men kidnapped the mother, sister, and sister-in-law of Khaddafi Janjalani at Barangay Malaji in Maluso municipality.
While officially there is no curfew or a state of emergency in the island, nobody dares to venture out of their homes when it is dark. Basilan, including the capital city of Isabela, is like a no-man’s land by 8pm as if it was telling us, “Don’t go out, for it is at your own risk”. In the barangay of Tabuk, Isabela city, at least 45 residents have been picked up by military operatives in ski masks without warrants of arrests. Some had been brought to Bicutan, Metro Manila, while others are languishing at the provincial jail without any lawyers. The atmosphere is best expressed by the parish priest of Lamitan, Fr. Cirilo Nacorda, who thanked the members of our International Peace Mission and said we were “risking our lives” in going to Basilan to seek out the truth.
Residents talk in hushed voices about the death squad organized by the governor himself, and which is composed of Abu Sayyaf “surrenderees” who still have ties with the bandit group. The governor is said to be implementing a policy of “balance of terror”. It is claimed that the governor, WHO ADMITS BEING ONE OF THE ORIGINAL FOUNDERS OF THE ABU SAYYAF IN THE EARLY ’90s WITH ABDURAJAK JANJALANI, has used the anti-terrorism campaign against his personal and political enemies whom he accuses of being Abu Sayyaf. Residents in Isabela City and Lamitan however allege that the governor has actually maintained his links with the Abu Sayyaf, and that they had often seen Abu Sayyaf members under the governor guiding Philippine Army operations against the Abu Sayyaf! Some citizens of Basilan we interviewed made the serious allegation that the governor himself was still with the Abu Sayyaf and was making money from every kidnapping and hostage deal as negotiator. They claim a symbiotic relationship was existing between the governor and some elements in the military on one hand, and the Abu Sayyaf bandits on the other. This is why this problem is very complex to solve through a military operation or even with the full backing of the United States Armed Forces, because this symbiotic relationship means that any technical support provided by the U.S. to the Philippine Army could soon be in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.
On our last day at Basilan, our security escorts intercepted a radio message allegedly from among the governor’s men who were reportedly planning to create trouble — by either inflicting harm on members of the International Peace Mission or kidnapping them. Could they be planning to inflict harm on us or kidnap us and blame it on the Abu Sayyaf? Our Philippine National Police (PNP) security escorts backed up by former MNLF fighters who had been providing close-in security for our mission went on double red alert on our last night. The previous days, the governor’s men had put up posters and streamers all over the city calling the probers on human rights abuses in Basilan as “Abu Sayyaf lovers”. The underlings of the Basilan governor had also been seen leading a march of demonstrators who claimed that they were victims of Abu Sayyaf atrocities and that it should be the bandits who should be investigated for human rights violations.
One of the policemen, (let us call him SPO Q) who escorted our mission, narrated privately to me that he was one of the first group of policemen to respond to the call for help from the Jose Torres Hospital last June 2, 2001 in Lamitan where a group of Abu Sayyaf had arrived in three jeepneys with hostages to get medicines and supplies. There was an exchange of heavy gunfire between police and the Abu Sayyaf, but the former had them cornered, since walls and houses closely surround the hospital. It was five hours later when well-armed reinforcements from the Army, backed up by Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) arrived. The military commander of the Army told SPO Q and the other policemen to withdraw, saying, “Kami na ang bahala dito”(Leave this to us). The police contingent went back to its headquarters in Isabela City. It was a few days later that the police contingent found out that the cornered Abu Sayyaf had just “walked away” with their hostages at the back door, leaving behind the jeepneys they had used. Apparently, the soldiers who were guarding the back entrances of the hospital were ordered to withdraw. When I asked SPO Q if he suspected collusion between the military and Abu Sayyaf, the policeman who had served 20 years in the Basilan police force said, “Mahirap na lang magsalita” (It is just very difficult to talk about this).
These suspicions of collusion that allowed the Abu Sayyaf to get away in that Lamitan incident are reinforced by statements from Fr. Cirilo Nacorda and residents of Lamitan. Fr. Nacorda and 7 citizens of Lamitan gave us copies of their affidavits submitted to Congress and recounted to us how they had seen the Abu Sayyaf walk away untouched after the governor was seen talking to the Abu Sayyaf in the hospital. The military aide of the then commander of the 103rd Brigade was also seen bringing an attaché case just before the escape, according to Nacorda and the witnesses.
Contribution of U.S. Military Forces
There is a resident JUSMAG (Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group) operating from the headquarters of the SOUTHCOM (Southern Command) in Zamboanga City. JUSMAG at Southcom is headed by U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Christian. JUSMAG is a permanent U.S. Military Advisory Group stationed in the U.S. Embassy compound in Manila under the U.S.-Philippine Military Assistance Agreement (1947). SOUTHCOM, to which the resident JUSMAG is assigned in Mindanao, has a total of four Army Divisions under its command. As one lands at the Zamboanga City International Airport, one immediately notices the U.S. military aircraft, including Chinook helicopters and other equipment, surrounded by sandbags and battle-ready security detail. Our lone American mission member, Mr. Earl Martin, who lived in the central plains of Vietnam for five years during the Vietnam, commented that these U.S. military hardware and high-tech equipment at the Zamboanga City Airport reminded him of Vietnam. Despite its technological advantage, he said, the United States, his country, humiliatingly lost the war to lesser-equipped people’s army of Vietnam, composed mostly of guerrillas.
Local Culture and Complications
A local Muslim leader, Mr. Candu Muahib, a former MNLF commander and ex-Basilan Congressman, warned that in dealing with such problems as the Abu Sayyaf, authorities must understand the local culture. In Moro culture, Mr. Muahib said, blood is settled with blood. So if you kill a Muslim, even an Abu Sayyaf, all his brothers and relatives may take his place to avenge the death of a relative. It is an endless cycle, unless you settle it by “blood money”.
He said he knows the Abu Sayyaf and their families, having lived in Basilan all his life. He said that the average age of the Abu Sayyaf bandits is 18 and the youngest that he knows is only 10 years old. This present crop of Abu Sayyafs, he said, has degenerated from a highly ideologically fundamentalist group organized in the early 1990s to the present crop of ruthless bandits. Many of the members of Abu Sayyafs, he said, are children of Muslim victims of military operations during the late 1970s and early 1980s, who had witnessed so much violence against their elders committed by Army, police and even paramilitary groups. But, you have to be aware of these and seek a more realistic solution, he said. Mr. Muahib, who today heads the newly formed Muslim-Christian Alliance for Justice and Peace in Basilan, hinted that engaging in warrantless arrests, torture and the killing of Abu Sayyaf suspects will only create more fresh recruits for the bandit group “for if you kill one, two to three will go up the hills”. They will surely exact revenge, that is local culture here, he said.
There is also the symbiotic relationship among local officials, the military and Abu Sayyaf, with evident collusion between some local officials and military officers who benefit from either the ransom or the rewards put on the heads of suspected Abu Sayyaf members. Former kidnap victims including Fr. Nacorda swear that they had seen large amounts of AFP-issued ammunition and supplies in Abu Sayyaf camps when they were hostaged.
The highlight of our trip to Basilan was probably our courtesy call with Basilan Governor Akbar and Mayor Biel of Isabela City which were done on separate days. Governor Akbar was wearing a white T-shirt and smoking heavily when he met us late afternoon in a small reception room at the Provincial Capitol in Isabela City. The governor bluntly told the mission that he was in favor of U.S. forces in Basilan and that if he had his way, he would “make Basilan a part of the United States!” This line of thinking was echoed the next morning by Mayor Biel when he said without batting an eyelash that “the American forces can stay in Basilan for as long as they like, even a century or more if they want to.”
He said it was even okay for him if the Americans set up a “nuclear base in Basilan”. And, to the complete shock of our mission member Ms. Seiko Ohashi from Japan, the mayor added, “Look at Japan, it is now fully developed economically after the Americans atom-bombed it!”
Visit at Headquarters of Philippine Army & U.S. Special Forces
The International Peace Mission was able to visit the main camp at Tabiawan of the Philippine Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade which they now shared with the 1st U.S. Special Forces deployed in Basilan. Though neither General Sua of Southcom, nor current 103rd Brigade Commander Col. Aleo, nor U.S. Special Forces Commander in Basilan Colonel David Maxwell met our mission as they had promised, we were able to talk to the Executive Officer (EXO) of the 103rd, Major Calanoy, and U.S. Special Forces Ranger Airborne officers of the U.S. Army, Major Carpenter and Major Redmon, both tactical officers. At the camp, we noticed some U.S. Special Forces wearing T-shirts that said, “Armed for Peace”. There are at least 50 U.S. Special Forces technical staffers, communications and logistics personnel assigned at ehe 103rd Brigade while the rest of the 160 U.S. Special Forces were distributed among the seven Philippine Army combat battalions spread all over Basilan. We learned from 103rd Brigade
EXO Major Calanoy that the largest Abu Sayyaf group led by a certain Isnilon Hapilon (with a 5 million peso reward on his head) operating mostly in the Maluso-Lantawan municipalities was on the run and at the “annihilation phase”, and now numbered only “at least 40 to 60”.
Balikatan Jungle Training Base (Zamboanga)
Back in the Zamboanga peninsula, in Limpapa municipality 33 kilometers from Zamboanga City, we visited the Lumad (non-Muslim) indigenous peoples called the Subanens. They have been displaced by the 50-hectare Jungle Training Base which has been sliced from their 90-hectare ancestral lands, and which has been illegally offered for lease to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for the Balikatan exercises by the Zamboanga Free Port Economic Zone authorities. Already, 17 Subanen families have been dislocated from their ancestral lands to make way for the Philippine-U.S. Balikatan military exercises to be held in this Jungle Training Base. Timuway (Chief) Noval Lambo, leader of the Subanen tribe, told us that the 50-hectare jungle site for Balikatan had sliced a huge chunk of the Subanen peoples’ ancestral lands in Limpapa, near the border of Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur.
Echoing National Leaders
During our three-day visit to Basilan, local officials who seemed to have a lot to hide, had mobilized all their resources to intimidate witnesses and victims of military and paramilitary atrocities, to sow disinformation against the International Peace Mission, mobilize local residents against us and to put up posters calling us “Abu Sayyaf lovers, ” echoing an earlier attack by President Macapagal-Arroyo about those opposing the Balikatan military exercises in Basilan and Zamboanga. Perhaps, Mayor Biels’ “open arms, open legs, open everything” admonition for the Americans isn’t an isolated one either. It is a local version of the twisted minds of some of our national leaders.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted.