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Don’t Go To Jolo – Part One

This is the first instalment of Matthew Thompson’s account of his 2014 journey into the Sulu Archipelago, a violent, beautiful and contested region of the southern Philippines, where US colonial troops first faced Islamic warriors and suicide attackers more than a hundred years ago. In the aftermath of September 11, which like the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was largely planned in the Philippines, American forces were sent back into the Sulu for a dozen years, the mission ending only months before Dr Thompson’s recent visit. Nevertheless, violence and lawlessness continue in this declared theatre of the ‘War on Terror’, where instability and stability can be different words for the same thing.

Read Part Two of Don’t Go to Jolo here.
Read Part Three here.
Read Part Four here.
Read Part Five here.

Lamitan City, Basilan, Sulu Archipelago, southern Philippines, October 2014

Pushing aside a bulletproof vest lying loose on the back seat, I slide in and lean forward, grinning and babbling about how great it is to see once again Lamitan’s el jefe, Roderick ‘Oric’ Furigay, a thickset fellow in jeans and a polo shirt who nods from the front. Police with automatic weapons climb in beside me, more mount the Toyota pick-up’s rear tray where a bench seat has been installed down the centre, and another climbs into the front, carefully placing his assault rifle beside his seat. Another pick-up loaded with half-a-dozen more armed men waits for the go-sign for our little convoy to roll out from Lamitan wharf, which squats on the lip of bulging hills thickly covered with palm trees and has grown a narrow shanty town that spreads along the shoreline. Many of the corrugated-iron shacks are built over the water on stilts; canoes and small thin boats with outboard motors are tucked into some of the stilts or pulled up onto mud and rock.

In the second vehicle is Joaquin ‘Boy’ Puri, a council administrator. Oric ordered him to pick me up (in a van with a pistol bullet rolling at my feet) in Zamboanga City yesterday for some hospitality, ahead of escorting me on this morning’s ferry. Boy seemed chuffed to accompany an international visitor to his perennially embattled hometown on the island of Basilan; he took pride in sitting me up on the bridge beside the pilot and chief engineer, accidentally introducing me as ‘Matt Damon’.

My connection with Oric is fleeting, going back to a single day eight years ago when the army collected my wife and me from the wharf and took us to lunch with the then-mayor, at the time new in the job. We enjoyed the Philippines’ frontier qualities but, unfortunately, that day even fistfuls of pills could not hold at bay a punchy bout of food poisoning that had struck early in the morning. Lunch was a grim ordeal of bolting for the toilet amid foggy conversations about the challenge of being a Christian governing a municipality under siege by Islamic guerrillas and about the area’s great tourism potential. Afterwards, an armed convoy of Humvees, which had to keep pulling over so my wife could get out and vomit, took us to a scenic waterfall so we could have a puke with a view.

Oric hit the consecutive term-limit for mayor in 2013 and is now vice-mayor under his wife, Rose, whose election victory kept in the family the substantial discretionary power that Philippine mayors have over money and firepower. I didn’t meet Rose all those years ago and I won’t this week either, as she is away on official business.

For some reason, the slightly awkward man who seemed to want to say more than he did had stuck in my mind after meeting him that queasy day. So when I got to Zamboanga City on the southwestern tip of Mindanao to seek a toehold for a climb into the Sulu Archipelago’s terrible twosome, Basilan, which is apparently going through a bit of an IED phase at the moment, and the even more crazily dangerous Jolo, where a pair of German hostages are due to be beheaded shortly, the best idea seemed to contact Furigay.

Tropical little Jolo is where American soldiers had their first taste of Islamic suicide attacks, having inherited the jolting phenomenon from their conquistador predecessors when the US bought the Philippines from Spain in 1898 for $20 million. The Spaniards, who had failed to ‘pacify’ the Sulu region in more than 300 years as occupiers, called the ritualised attackers juramentados from a word for ‘oath takers’. To find honour through martyrdom, Jolo’s juramentados not only took oaths, but also followed ritual preparations, removing the hair from their bodies and shaving their eyebrows into the shape of auspicious phases of the moon; they also bound their genitals and pre-tourniqueted their limbs to slow blood loss from wounds sustained in their berserker attacks. Then they smuggled a kris, the traditional wavy-bladed sword, into a gathering of their occupiers and swung it for all they were worth at everyone within reach until the hapless infidels got it together to shoot them dead.

The mighty juramentados are often credited with prompting the US army to upgrade its standard sidearm from a .38 calibre revolver to the harder-hitting Colt .45. Yet, despite the US having every advantage in firepower and committing outrageous massacres and killings and negotiating deals with local warlords to end what it dubbed the Moro Rebellion, juramentado attacks continued. A week before Japan’s 1941 surprise strikes on Pearl Harbor and other Pacific targets, Time magazine reported that juramentado attacks on US troops and personnel in Jolo were a weekly occurrence. The War on Terror that George W. Bush declared in 2001 (in which he included the Philippines as one of three fronts, the other two being Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa) may feel to America like a bad dream that is dragging on too long, but empires have come and gone during the dream of Jolo and its surrounds. The War on Terror is nothing new in the Philippines. It’s more a state of nature.

Perched on a stool at the waterfront bar of the Lantaka By The Sea hotel in Zambo City three nights earlier, I was asking bar staff for advice on how to reach Furigay (the contact details on Lamitan’s official website didn’t work) when a Westerner approached: the only one I’d seen since arriving from Manila.

‘The intelligence at the moment is,’ he said straight up, before pausing to look me over. ‘Well, I don’t know if you’re aware of it or not, but it’s fairly severe.’

His tone and manner were quiet as he talked up the danger of bombs and kidnappings, even while downplaying some of the local terrorist groups’ recent pledges of allegiance to Islamic State as macho posturing. The gentleman certainly stressed the need for bleary old me, blabbing as I had been at the bar about wanting ‘island time’, to get more paranoid – even in big old Zambo, which last year was infiltrated by scores of guerrillas, many of them from Basilan and Jolo, who were cheesed off about another rebel group’s peace deal. The guerrilla attack triggered over a forthnight of combat that was waged close to the Lantaka, came complete with airstrikes, left about 200 people dead, whole neighbourhoods blasted and burned, and thousands homeless. The group that staged that attack took a hammering, but there are others here, some that prefer sticking to the shadows to keep the money rolling in from kidnapping and extortion.

‘They have spies all around the city,’ the Westerner added, his smile a little strained. ‘And there is activity,’ he said. ‘They’re on the move.’

‘Right, well,’ I replied. ‘I’ll take precautions.’

We chatted briefly about other things, the man’s smile growing broader and a little blander, and then within minutes he was gone.

A chorus of foreign governments and no shortage of Manileños give dire warnings about spending time even in Zamboanga with the heavy military presence of WESTMINCOM (Western Mindanao Command), let alone venturing into the wild, lawless Sulu Archipelago, which stretches from Basilan to within spitting distance of the Malaysian state of Sabah. The State Department warns against visiting this region ‘due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travellers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism’, advising anyone stubborn enough to come here to exercise ‘extreme caution’. The Australian government’s advice is more blunt: travelers in the region should ‘leave immediately’. Nevertheless, people do come every now and then, with a select stream joining numerous less well-publicised locals as kidnap-for-ransom hostages held in jungle pits for months and sometimes years.

After a few more beers came the idea of simply looking in the phone book. And wa-hey, a listing for Furigay.

Oric was happy to host an international visitor in his municipality of Lamitan in the north of Basilan – so now I’m in a pick-up truck full of armed men and a politician whose opponents don’t just try to vote him from office but also to blast him out with rocket propelled grenades and IEDs. Hence our gunned-up little motorcade, complete with the chief of police clutching a customised M4.

Oric acts like he remembers me, but I don’t know that he does. Compared to most other political or security-force leaders I have met in this dog-eat-dog nation, he is muted, seemingly unequipped with the showiness, loquaciousness, or sinister edge that commanders here usually display. This man is shy: hard to read.

‘Matt,’ he says, as the driver signals the second vehicle. ‘Later we will have lunch together somewhere very nice. My men will first take you to your lodgings so that you can rest and then bring you to meet me.’

On this morning’s ferry from Zambo, the ship’s chief engineer told me that, as a foreigner, I would be a prime kidnapping target in Basilan. He raised his eyebrows when I mentioned staying for a few days.

‘Is there a secure hotel?’ I asked.

He shrugged. ‘I would prefer to stay with the deputy mayor – in his house,’ he said, sending my eyebrows up, having read that last year Oric’s house was bombed and his brother shot.

Attacks can come at any time out here, but I have a particular dread of insecure lodgings, of a bedroom being a trap, a convenient place for bandits and terrorist gangs to collect their prey. Of course, as advised, I ‘take precautions’ when travelling in ‘unstable’ regions: avoiding routine behaviour, watching for watchers, getting advice from trusted locals but maintaining contact with someone in another area, jamming the hotel-room door with rubber wedges, covering the windows, and having a mobile phone primed to call someone who might be able to do something in time. But if the hunters know what they are doing, then it’s mainly an illusion of control, a placebo to aid sleep.

‘The vice-mayor will protect you at all costs,’ said Boy when I asked about accommodation. ‘He will instruct his men to guard you day and night.’

Nevertheless, an SMS from an intelligence analyst I consulted burns a hole in my pocket. ‘Not even Furigay can guarantee your safety,’ he wrote. ‘Don’t stay too long.’

Our yellow Toyota is the lead vehicle as we roll out of the wharf, the vice-mayor pointing to  labourers working on an expansion of the port facilities that he has ordered to help boost Lamitan’s exports of rubber, corn, copra, cassava and other commodities. The shanty town’s roadside edge is lined with vendors, mostly women and older men selling snacks and cigarettes, while little kids flit about in the muddy alleys.

‘They an indigenous group?’ I ask Oric, nodding at the slum.

‘The Samal,’ he says. ‘Sometimes called Badjau. Sea gypsies. I don’t know where they come from. They live like this on many islands.’

‘Do they join the armed groups?’ I ask.

‘No. A peaceful people. Fishermen. Very poor but peaceful.’

We discuss the ethnic make-up of Basilan’s Muslim population, indigenous to which are the Yakan people. Traditionally farmers, they have been joined here by Jolo’s indigenous people, the Tausugs, who are also Muslim, but more associated with fishing and being fearless warriors. The Philippines’ Muslims are known as Moros, a Spanish variation on ‘Moors’.

Past the shanty town we drive into the lush, bulging green interior of Basilan, everything wet and sumptuous, mist hanging in the forested hills. Dog packs and strays trot along, sit by the road, or lie beside the wooden shacks that stand here and there with kids and women working and playing in and around them. The traffic heading to and from the city is almost entirely small motorbikes, some with families of four squeezed on them, and motorised tricycles selling rides. The rain lurches from light to a heavy downpour as we weave around a military checkpoint.

‘Rain a lot like this here?’ I ask.

‘Every day,’ says Oric, looking out impassively as we pass clusters of laughing girls in Muslim head scarves and girls with crosses walking along, teenage boys, leather-faced farm workers, vendors, mosques, and rubber trees. ‘I hope you will enjoy your stay in Lamitan. You are free to travel anywhere you want here. Of course, my men will be with you to provide security.’

I glance at a policeman beside me; he has six extra rifle magazines and a .45 strapped to his chest. ‘What would happen if I wandered around alone?’

Oric winces. ‘You are safe with my men.’

The hostel runs along the top floor of the Lamitan City Transportation Terminal and is apparently for official visitors, of which I seem to be the only one. Two men with ArmaLites are stationed at the bottom of the stairs, another two in the lobby, while a third pair is checked into a room across from mine. The private intelligence analyst texts to ask how I am, saying to keep checking in with him and under no circumstances to go to a place called Tipo Tipo. ‘100 per cent you will not return,’ he writes. I have asked him for help with getting protection on Jolo, where I am dying to go next, but no dice yet.

En route to lunch, the police are chattier without the vice-mayor in the vehicle, especially Henry, the fellow with the .45 over his heart. When Henry hears that I want to go to Jolo after Basilan and that I am interested in getting a Tausug perspective on the archipelago and its instability, he sits bolt upright and grins. ‘I am a Joloano: a Tausug,’ he says, his eye contact sparkly and sustained. Henry explains that his parents left Jolo after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, coming to Basilan where he was born.

I am curious about the warrior reputation of this Muslim tribe, I explain, and whether being born into it makes someone likely to be a formidable fighter.

‘Based on history, yes,’ says Henry. ‘But now there is no [born] warrior. It depends how strong our faith is: how strong is our heart to fight bad people.’ He crooks his head, drilling me with a hyper-focused smile. ‘Being a warrior does not come from tribes but from the individual,’ he says, adjusting the rifle between his knees so he can face me more squarely and nodding in agreement with himself. ‘Even in other countries there are also warriors. Even in Mindanao not only Tausug are warriors. Yakan and other tribes have warriors. But when we were colonised by the Japanese, by the American, and then the Chinese, only Jolo wasn’t able to be conquered by them. That’s why we call the Joloano the warrior. Other places in the Philippines they were able to conquer.’

The air gets ever whiter with rain as we woosh out of the metro area for a beach rendezvous with the vice-mayor.

‘I hope that you enjoy the kiliwan,’ Oric says, placing before me a serving bowl of raw fish with vinegar and sliced red onion. ‘This fish is very fresh,’ Oric announces, turning from the beach and its rain-curtained view of smaller islands to look behind at a row of ponds along the foot of the hills. ‘Caught here today and prepared fresh for our lunch. If it were not for the peace and order problem, Lamitan could have a lot of tourism.’

Piling up my plate, I ask about assassination attempts.

‘There have been many. Even here! On this road,’ he says, glancing back down our approach route along the long strip of beach. ‘One day I saw a couple of teenagers standing near a tree back from the road. I didn’t know what they were doing – something with their hands. The next day a bomb was found by the road, a large bomb. They had some problem with the detonator.’

‘You always take the yellow Toyota?’

He shakes his head and reaches for the rice. ‘Sometimes I have someone else drive it and I will be travel in a different vehicle. I don’t like to make it too easy.’

‘As mayor of a city where you do have to worry about bombings and attacks, do you get afraid?’ I ask, the succulent raw flesh resting on my tongue. ‘Does it keep you up at night?’

Oric tidies his food with his fork. ‘In our place you have to always be on alert because we don’t know what will happen next,’ he says, clearly yet gently amidst the chatter and rain. ‘But for us, we were raised here, we were born here, so maybe I may say that I am going to die here.’

‘I read that last year your house was bombed.’ An attack launched while Oric was holding a meeting inside wounded four of his staff, two critically.

‘Not only last year; four years ago they bombed also my house,’ he says, finishing his Pepsi and laughing in a shy, almost embarrassed way.

‘Is there any way out of it?’

‘What?’

‘What’s the way out of it? Or is it just part of life?’

‘That they bomb you? Here in Lamitan, in Basilan, that’s true; that’s part of it. Here you have to take care of yourself. I have had so many death threats it’s breakfast to me.’ Oric talks about living with violence ever since the modern Muslim rebellions began on a large scale in 1972. ‘We experience strafing, and in our house before we have to make a foxhole. That was during my elementary days until I go to high school, and at high school we often experience these things. So in every house here in Lamitan you would see to it that you had your foxhole.’

‘Still?’

He shakes his head. ‘Gradually Lamitan becomes peaceful.’ Given the drumbeat of killings, clashes, and bombings, I am wondering where to start when Oric qualifies himself. ‘What we have now is something like petty crimes – we consider that petty crimes.’ He leans forward to make a point. ‘Actually, the criminals are not from Lamitan; they’re from neighboring municipalities who want to create some chaos here.’ Last year, says Oric, when the security forces were busy with the battle of Zamboanga, some of the guerrilla groups joined forces to assault Lamitan through the rubber plantations, but were repelled by police and the army. I recall news reports of airstrikes and schools and terrain being seized and shoot-outs at the wharf. ‘Our people here are so alert and alarmed, always, and vigilant,’ he says. ‘Lamitan is composed of multi-racial tribes; we have Christians, Muslims – the Yakan, Tausug – from the Christians we have the Chavacano, Visayan, Ilocano,’ he says, listing groups from up north. ‘But we live harmoniously.’

‘With bandits gathered on the borders.’

Oric pushes back from the table and signals for water. ‘We are like Israel here, surrounded by – you know.’ As he relaxes, he talks faster. ‘Once upon a time – it was just as imagination, although most of my friends also agree – I told them: “What if one month of our salary – our IRA: we call that Internal Revenue Allotment coming from the national government; something like 20, 22 million [just under half a million dollars] – we will spend that to build a fence, a security fence in our perimeter, our political boundaries. Let the road be open but there’s a checkpoint.”’

Oric and the police look at each other and chuckle. ‘At that time I was a little bit frustrated with what is happening,’ he says. ‘They just come here and shoot people and they run; they go back to their place.’

The cop leans in, mentioning a string of a dozen or so attacks. ‘The terrorists’ UTG wing: Urban Terrorist Group. It is a training exercise,’ he says. ‘For them, killing a Christian is a training exercise: something they do to graduate.’

‘Is Lamitan majority Christian or Muslim?’ I ask.

‘Mixed. We have Muslim – Yakan, Tausug and Samal – and we have Christian, many from the Visayas,’ he says, referring to one of the Philippines three major island groups: Mindanao-Sulu being the southernmost, the Visayas in the centre, and Luzon (home to Manila) dominating the north. Visayans, in particular, were previously encouraged to come as ‘settlers’ to Mindanao and Sulu, often marginalising the region’s generally poorer Muslim and indigenous tribes. ‘We are multicultural and we also have good police. Sometimes in the Philippines police are not so good, not to be trusted, but I appointed a new chief. He is only in his twenties – very young – but he is very intelligent, very good at finding ways to stop the lawless elements from doing what they want. That is why you can come here and travel around Lamitan. But outside the borders?’ He draws a semicircle with his finger. ‘No. I cannot guarantee your safety. Around Lamitan is Muslim and the peace and order situation is not so good. It is very likely that something will happen.’

After lunch, Oric orders our convoy up a steep hill overlooking the beach, the vehicles slip-sliding in the reddish muddy soil but eventually reaching an open-walled cabin under construction on a slope bulging with black volcanic rock. Labourers (‘They’re all Christians,’ he assures me) are busy with a concrete-pour. But the structure with its natural tree-trunk internal columns and balconies fenced with arrays of driftwood is already welcoming for rest and relaxation. Boy tells me they have had great times here playing cards and drinking beer. The view is panoramic, taking in the long beach and looking out to smaller islands, some shrouded by the rains, and then across a bay to another stretch of Basilan’s coast, steeply rising, as here, with heavily forested ridges and peaks.

‘Love to explore over there,’ I say, curious about the rugged rainforests.

Oric shakes his head. ‘It is not under control. Please stay in Lamitan,’ he says, spreading his arms on the balcony railing and leaning into the breeze. ‘There is much to enjoy here.’

When the vice-mayor must return to his duties we re-board the pick-ups. The armed men piling on the back of Oric’s vehicle wear a generic old khaki, rather than the blue of the cops or the camouflage of the military. ‘They police?’ I ask the officer sitting in front of me.

‘No,’ he says. ‘City security force. Extra protection.’

Grinning Henry sits beside me for a leisurely drive around the lush backroads of Lamitan, the police following Oric’s instructions to show me around. The houses are intriguing, idiosyncratic structures. We pass a two-storey dark wooden hodgepodge posted with an Oric sticker, half of the top floor – which isn’t quite lined up with the bottom – built with vertical boards and the other half horizontal; one window is partially filled with precarious, multicoloured panes of stained glass, another with rugged planks. Chatting with Henry as I soak it up, I learn he has only been back on the island for a couple of months, having been transferred here to accompany the senior policeman up front on his new posting.

‘He is my companion for every assignment,’ says a senior cop, who does not want to be identified so I’ll call him Dan. Henry can predict attacks, Dan says, where incoming bullets will strike and when to move, adding that it is a talent he values highly since getting shot seven times in an ambush when his Tausug companion was not by his side.

‘How do you know what is going to happen?’ I ask Henry.

‘My friends tell me.’

‘The rebels?’

‘No,’ Dan says. ‘His friends are jinns.’

‘Huh?’ I turn to Henry, who fixes his smile on me as the jungle blurs by behind him. ‘Jinns?’

‘God created man and jinn to worship him,’ he says. ‘They are just like us.’

Dan turns in his seat and looks at me. ‘I hope you don’t mind. But because you are interested in experience, I would like you to experience what I experience from him,’ he says, looking at his right hand man.

‘I have the capability to predict the future,’ says Henry, diction crisp, eye contact piercing, and grin mad. ‘Through the help of my friends. Because they keep on telling me, “Do not go with that guy, because he is like this or like that and in the future this will happen or that will happen”.’ His grin freezes; perhaps he is waiting for a particular response or maybe his friends are reading me. ‘I can predict and evaluate the true behaviour of mankind,’ he says. ‘I can even predict a man’s future and I can even predict what is in his heart.’

‘How does it work?’ I ask. ‘Do you get a sense, a feeling, or thoughts?’

Henry shifts the rifle between his legs to face me more squarely. ‘I can see them. They can speak different dialects, different languages, even English – the kind of dialect you are speaking.’

‘What do they look like?’

‘Just like the human,’ says Henry.

‘But different?’ I ask. ‘Like angelic beings?’

‘No. They just come beside me; they accompany me; then they talk with me,’ he says. ‘Just like us.’

‘Since you were a boy?’

‘Since I was in third year high school. At that time I was fourteen or fifteen years old.’

‘He was still a virgin,’ Dan says.

Henry laughs and then says his friends even lead him to their secret places. ‘Acacia trees, rocks; I can go with them to their homes.’

Dan gives an instruction to the driver and then turns again to me. ‘If this is the first time you hear my man you will think he’s a fool, he’s a crazy man,’ he says, prompting more laughs from Henry. ‘Really. But you know why I go with this guy? It’s not because I believe in him but it’s because he believes in me.’

Must help in policing, I suggest, if you get a sense about someone; if you can see whether they’re lying to you or not or putting you in danger or not.

‘Yeah,’ Henry says. ‘They just come in and tell me, “Do not go with that guy or something will happen. Do not go with him because he is a bad imprint”.’

‘A bad imprint?’

‘Yeah, and then if something happens they will attend to me. They say, “Tomorrow, or this day, this will happen”.’

‘And it does?’

‘Yes,’ says Henry, Dan agreeing wholeheartedly.

‘I can even ask a request of them. “You go and locate this man.” They will go just for a moment, one second, two second; then they will come back and say, “He is living that place; he is doing like this”.’

Dan repeats that he is wedded to his jinn-seeing colleague not because he shares Henry’s beliefs, but because Henry believes in him.

‘Because he is very much kind-hearted,’ Henry says of Dan.

We enter the centre of Lamitan town, where motorised tricycles ply for trade around a central plaza ringed by a bank and Western Union, pawn stores, a bakery, chemist and other small businesses.

‘This is the normal situation in Lamitan,’ says Dan. ‘Even though there is a bombing in the morning, at noon – like this,’ he says, pointing to the people talking outside stalls and heading into eateries. He tells the driver to stop and we get out, the cops on the rear tray jumping down with their guns to take positions around us as we stroll the main street. Every single person here stares at us, their curiosity met by a magnanimous smile from Dan who raises his voice over the trike’s rasp and thrum. ‘Their lives go on. They are not afraid.’ He nods to a juice-seller and tells me that it is police policy to smile and wave at civilians: ‘You can get the heart of the people.’ The juicer calls us over, wanting me to take her photo.

‘Don’t get many foreigners?’ I ask Dan.

‘Oh we do,’ he says. ‘Malaysians, Egyptians, Indonesians: they come to help the terrorists; to show them how to make better IEDs. But people like you? No. You are too valuable to too many people. You will make them greedy. It’s not safe.’

‘Lot of armed groups around, huh,’ I say, reeling off a list of the region’s rebel crews, starting with the modern mothership: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a guerrilla army that kicked off the contemporary era of Muslim armed resistance to the state in the early 1970s and was led for decades by a former university professor from Jolo, Nur Misuari, who made a peace and regional autonomy deal with Manila in 1996. Misuari has since been largely disendorsed by his own movement, but he flexes muscle via his band of faithful, some of whom attacked Zamboanga City in force in 2013, piling a couple hundred more corpses on the mountain of dead. The biggest MNLF splinter group is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has battled Manila into a new peace and autonomy deal, the details of which are still being worked out, while a much smaller MNLF offshoot, born in Basilan but rampant in Jolo, and with networks in Zamboanga City and other parts of Mindanao, the jihadist-cum-bandit Abu Sayyaf Group, continues to extort and kidnap and bomb and ambush and keep the situation dicey. And then there is a relatively new MILF splinter group of still unknown strength, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which rejects the latest peace deal and has pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Floating around in camps and terrain of the non-MNLF groups are bomb makers from the predominantly Malaysian and Indonesian terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). There is another group or two, I’m sure, but the names escape me. ‘Gets confusing,’ I say to Dan. ‘I mean, how many different armed groups are you –’

Dan cuts me off and lifts his index finger. ‘One.’

‘But –’

‘Yes, there are many different names. And,’ he says, tapping his Philippine National Police shoulder patch, ‘different patches for different days. If the police or military are restrained against one group because of peace talks then he will wear that group’s patch. But when he wants to conduct an attack or kidnap someone he will take that patch off and be in another group. It depends on what is best for him.’

‘So when the government or the Americans talk about how there are only so many fighters left in any particular group,’ I say, thinking of how for a decade or more Manila has been saying the ASG is down to about 300 fighters and soon to be finished off, ‘it’s kind of meaningless?’

He shrugs. ‘It is a cell operation that doesn’t need many official members. Maybe there are thirty, but when they launch an operation each recruits five guys so all of a sudden there are 150. Or more. And whenever we fight in a Muslim area we will encounter fighters who are in no groups – they are just farmers or laborers – but if the police or military conduct an operation then they will join in to defend their brothers. So you can be chasing or fighting ten men and very soon you find that you are fighting 50 men, 100, 150, 200 men. We call it pintakasi. It means something like “swarm”.’

‘Jesus.’

Dan laughs. ‘So I do not take seriously the talk of different groups. There is one.’

The plaza is crowned with a bronze statue of a man wielding a kris, the traditional wavy-bladed sword, in his right hand and in his left a flaming torch. ‘The vice-mayor had that built for the city,’ says Dan. ‘It is Datu Kalun, the founding father of Lamitan and the vice-mayor’s great grandfather.’