Disembarking from the ship from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi I happened to pass by the ticket office of ferries going to Basilan, a terrorist’s lair. It was a Holy Thursday so ferries were few with a handful of passengers making a short queue to buy tickets for the island. A bit nervous to scour and sail the sea, I have to be stouthearted just to be there and spend a week to observe how it was like in Abu Sayyaf infested Basilan during the Holy Week.
It was already 11 a.m. when passengers and I boarded the large wooden motorized boat. The aerodynamically designed boat was long but without a balance on both sides. We were already in the middle of the sea when I saw two speeding gray gunboats approaching at our direction. I was not sure if they were Philippine boats because the flag looked like Malaysian. I estimated the distance of the first one to be a kilometer away from us and the second was just about a hundred meters. They were travelling so fast parallel to our route. The gunboat’s speed accumulated a big mass of water ready to hammer our boat. True enough, the silent, swelling and bulging waves surged to our path and rammed its force directly on the right side of our boat which shook heavily. The shaking didn’t stop immediately. Passengers were shouting as they fell out from their seats leaving me alone seated for I held tightly on the window pane. “This is the end of my trip”, I quipped. Children were crying while holding unto their parent’s hands.
I thought the boat would capsize and eventually sink. But our navigator was alert enough to put off the engine. After a few minutes of floating and drifting aimlessly, the boat gained balance again as we made way to the island.
Houses on stilts were visible as we approached the waterway of Isabela, Basilan’s capital city where an unfinished lighthouse stands as if greeting its visitors from other places. At that time, the ebb tide made it hard for the passengers to disembark and unload the boat.
Catching sight of a famous fast-food chain was a relief for my protesting stomach. The strain in following it became a pressure embraced by nervousness due to the presence of so many Marine soldiers at the plaza. Police were at every corner of the streets. The whole scene looked like there was a military uprising where the plaza became a war zone of sort. I didn’t know that Marines were on high alert status in this area.
The cathedral nearby was also watched by Marines and truckloads of soldiers were dropped at strategic city streets. They were heavily armed and ready to fire their weapons whenever an Abu Sayyaf group attacks the city any time of the day.
In the morning of Good Friday, I visited the Sta. Isabel Cathedral right across the plaza, two blocks away from Sofia Hotel where I stayed. A lot of Catholics in the capital braved the rebels’ threat of aggression as evidently shown by the overflowing presence of devotees at the side entrance. Marine soldiers’ visibility near the altar was a manifestation of how dangerous it was even in the house of God. Even ATM machines have Marines on guard.
After my Visita Iglesia at the cathedral, I hanged out at the plaza and happened to know a Muslim woman who works at the Provincial Capitol of Basilan. She told me that a 10 o’ clock curfew was imposed in the city because of threats coming from the rebels. In fact, a human head on a bamboo pole was displayed at the plaza the morning after a grenade exploded one night.
For an hour, our conversation flowed smoothly and ended offering her trike that I could use to go around the city and the outlying areas. Without hesitation, I grabbed the offer with her two sons as my guide and driver. The next day we left Isabela city and headed to Lamitan District Hospital in Lamitan city, the place that once shared the headlines because it was used as a hiding place of the kidnappers. With their victims in their hands they were pursued by the military and slipped from the pursuit operation. A nurse showed me the room the rebels occupied. I also visited the Lamitan Catholic Church which was bombed by soldiers because the rebels hid inside. Now it has a beautiful interior after it was rebuilt and refurbished. Lamitan is also proud of its beautiful city hall building.
Several checkpoints spaced every three or more kilometers dotted the road. As we came nearer to the town of Maluso, the place where Ces Drilon and other reporters were abducted years ago, sand bunkers by the roadside were strategically erected with government soldiers positioned.
Every minute was a heart-stopping suspenseful journey like a post-war Iraq. I was always waiting to be kidnapped on the road.
At the checkpoint in front of a Marine’s barracks, I took some photos of the building where the soldiers stay not knowing that they would suspect me as a spy for the Abu Sayyaf. My driver told me to delete what I have just photographed while he drove past the two manning soldiers. We were stopped at the other end of the checkpoint fifty meters away. The soldier let me scanned my digital camera. Failing to see any suspicious shots that would endanger their safety, they let us go.
I heeded my guide’s request to backout from proceeding to Tipo-Tipo and Sumisip towns as there were groups of rebels roaming around those areas.
On the way back to my hotel, we passed on lonely roads and bridges. Not a single human being was seen walking on the road. It looked deserted. We stopped at a ravine where victims of ambuscades where thrown into just like dead animals.
Perhaps, hundreds of dead bodies have been hurled into the ravine and souls were searching for earthly figures to reincarnate and continue their interrupted lives.
Before I returned to my hotel, I passed by the market and I’ve finally concluded that Isabela is a progressive city. Judging from the marketplace, it was very clean and orderly and sells almost everything from clothes to construction materials, from kitchen wares to food products, from fish to detergents, etc. Passing by the Basilan Provincial Capitol Building was a pride every Basilanon felt as it is Muslim inspired. Just nearby is the Sta. Isabel Cathedral and adjacent to it is a Jollibee branch. See, business thrive in this diverse meeting of cultures. Before, my idea of Basilan was a land of war where Catholics and Muslims fight. But after the visit I discovered some tourist attractions where, sad to say, I felt I was the lone tourist in this island. But after awhile these discoveries of waterfalls, white sand beaches, rubber plantations, beautiful resorts, etc. changed my perception. It has its own share of greens making it a precious gem to be owned by anyone who wishes to unmask Basilan and experience what it has to offer. Asala malay cum!
Lamitan city captured the headlines years back when this catholic church was made as a hiding place of Abbu Sayyaf rebels when they kidnapped a businessman and hid inside this church. It was destroyed when military bombed the Abbus inside. It was rebuilt and stood imposingly beautiful in a city frequented by troubles of fighting between the military and the Abbus.