Essay: Matthew C. Thompsonon Jolo

Don’t Go To Jolo – Part Five

This is the fifth and final 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.

Gun and liquor
Large numbers of people carry weapons in the Sulu and Mindanao; this .45 calibre polymer pistol was produced in a show-and-tell over drinks in Zamboanga City. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Read Part One of Don’t Go To Jolo here.
Read Part Two here.
Read Part Three here.
Read Part Four here.

Zamboanga City, Mindanao

Why do I always get lost? The Lonely Planet map of downtown Zambo seems wrong – or, no, there were two damn streets with the same name and after skirting the jam-packed central plaza to a mall for supplies I must have hoofed it out the wrong way. Now I’m fuck knows where: some dark walled street away from the shopping centres and with every single person coming this way peering at me in amazement. Jesus fucking Christ, I don’t really want to be blundering around at night, although the boss of the security agency in Manila said the snatchers usually watch people for about three days before making a move and it’s only been two since I returned from Lamitan.

I wave on or ignore the moto-tricycle rickshaws coming past until an older driver with a crucifix dangling approaches. He’s gobsmacked as I climb in and ask for the Lantaka Hotel.

‘Are you with someone?’ He looks around as he opens the throttle.

‘No, well, not now. Sometimes.’

‘You see,’ he says, and nods towards a pair of teenage boys standing by a wall watching the traffic. ‘They all have phones. They see you and send a message for others to come to take you. They give the boys money. Daytime maybe it’s okay for you to walk around but not now.’ The driver looks down at me again. ‘You’re military?’

It is the eve of Zamboanga’s annual fiesta – the first in two years given last year’s was cancelled due to open war in the city – and with road restrictions in place the driver drops me with police guarding an intersection near the Lantaka.

Waiting at the hotel’s waterfront bar is Mike, a sometimes undercover project manager for infrastructure jobs in contested areas. ‘Did you have a security detail?’ asks Mike as I slot in beside him, signalling for a beer.

‘No, but I’ve been taking precautions.’

Mike calls over a friend who is taking leave of a table down by the pool. The solid fellow is Luisito ‘Chito’ P. Magnaye, the Philippine National Police’s director of criminal intelligence for an area including Zamboanga, Basilan, Jolo, and other nearby islands.

‘Busy times?’ I ask the haggard-looking Chito.

He looks wistfully into his beer and laughs, loading a small plate from a dish of pork in vinegar and garlic that Mike ordered. ‘Four hours sleep is a fantastic night,’ he says.

We’ve barely started chatting when Chito’s phone rings and he dashes out.

‘Bomb in the plaza,’ says Mike. ‘We’ll hear more later.’

Mike has a friend in military intelligence who is stationed in Jolo who he says will help me, but first I would have to get to his base. ‘He can’t be seen going to get you and even though the base and the pier are not far from each other, you won’t make it.’

‘I just read that another couple thousand troops have been sent into Jolo. Tan’s got thousands of his own. The cops must have plenty. I don’t get it – how can that one little city be so dangerous? It’s a small place, right?’

‘Look Matt, even Furigay, a man who has good police and does everything he can to secure Lamitan, cannot prevent all the bombings and killings. In Jolo, you do not have a man such as Furigay. You have politicians who could make towns more secure but choose not to. You have police who are related to the terrorists. You heard about the Red Cross workers? They were taken from just behind the capitol; the kidnapping was organised by police.’

‘Right.’ Brings back memories of when I first went to Jolo with my wife. The Marines had taken over policing, saying the cops were doing nothing about the shootings, bombings, and other mayhem that were rolling on with numbing regularity. I have to get there, though.

Mike has worked with enough Westerners to know to get blunt. ‘Matt, if you cannot get military protection, don’t go to Jolo. Do you understand? Look at you; before you even get off the ferry; even when you are boarding here, there will be people telling their contacts in Jolo to expect you. You are a marked man. The only white civilians in Jolo are hostages in pits.’

‘But I don’t understand why everything’s gotten so secretive,’ I say. ‘Before I came to the Philippines this time I asked the US Embassy in Manila for a briefing about things here – something they did years ago with no problem. But this time? Won’t say a word. And the military: same thing, all zipped up. Is it embarrassing to the military and their US advisers that a decade ago they were saying it will all be sorted out soon and now it’s just as crazy as ever?’

‘Maybe. But I think also they don’t want another hostage crisis.’ We swig and look out at the light of boats. ‘Matt, sometimes you can’t get what you want.’

Details emerge about last night’s discovery of a bomb in the plaza that I had walked by about half an hour earlier. A woman left a thermos in the plaza toilet and then scurried away, prompting a police officer to clear the area and call in the bomb squad. Inside the thermos the cops found a cell-phone detonator, explosives and nails. Today with the fiesta in full swing, cell-phone coverage has been shut down.

An Abu Sayyaf member turned government informant comes to visit at the hotel, asked by one of my contacts to fill me in on how things work. The man, whom I’ll call Bong, is a steely, gaunt-looking guy of around 50 with cadaverous eyes and spidery hands. He says he joined at the beginning, back in 1990, when the Basilan-born militant group went under the name Al Harakatul al Islamiyah, meaning the Islamic Movement. Bong took part in the 1995 attack that put the Abu Sayyaf on the map. About 200 guerrillas infiltrated the town of Ipil, north of here on the Zamboanga peninsula, slaughtering more than fifty people, looting banks, and burning down the town center.

‘How did you feel about doing that?’ I ask.

‘I did not think anything,’ he says. ‘I am blind at that time.’

‘What did you think it was all for?’

‘The promised land,’ he says of the Muslim heartlands including Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. The terrorist group was then focused on secession and independence, an aim he says was consistent with what was being taught in the mosques. Recruitment was restricted to highly religious people, he says, the movement growing ‘every year, every month,’ from an initial core of twelve men. ‘At that time, if you did not know how to pray, you are rejected. Now, even if you are drug addict, I can get you in,’ he says, laughing.

The group changed its name in 1997 to Abu Sayyaf (apparently in acknowledgement of Afghan warlord and recent Afghan presidential candidate Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who let South East Asian jihadist groups including Jemaah Islamiyah train on his land.

‘Did money come in from al Qaeda?’

‘I remember in 1991 uniforms came from Afghanistan,’ he says. ‘Used clothes. I remember that: the first delivery. The uniforms were very big,’ he says, chuckling. ‘And money.’ The shipment first landed in Cotabato in central Mindanao, and then stopped in Jolo, followed by Basilan.

‘Where were you living at the time?’

‘Basilan, Jolo, Zamboanga,’ he says, punctuating his speech with flicking rolls of his spider hands. ‘It was my job as a member of Al Harakatul al Islamiyah to be receiving money and to make plants in the city. It was my duty.’

‘What was the money coming from?’

‘Extortion,’ he says, looking at me like I’m a simpleton. ‘If you have a store – every month.’

‘Did the government know who you were?’

He takes a breath. ‘Actually,’ he says, with another flick of those long leathery fingers. ‘When I started I am pro-government. So I have an official handler.’

‘Huh? From the beginning you were pro-government?’

‘Yes, I served the government.’

‘You were giving information?’

‘All the information. It was a big secret. Even my wife didn’t know.’

‘Did the Abu Sayyaf ever discover what you were doing?’

‘Until this time, no.’ He talks about going from being a money-man to a kind of conduit, helping move people or materiel, and how he remembers seeing American and European hostages during the major kidnapping crises of 2000 and 2001 that eventually prompted the US to send in thousands of troops in a mission that really only wound up a few months ago. During this time he saw the then-governor of Basilan, Wahab Akbar, handing over a bag of central bank cash as a ransom, remembering him from a decade earlier as a member of Al Harakatul al Islamiyah.

‘Are there informers inside all the Abu Sayyaf camps?’

‘That have penetrated them? Yes. Like me.’

‘But it goes and on.’

‘Yes. Actually the problem is if in a barangay you have 100 families, ten will be Abu Sayyaf sympathisers delivering ammo and medicine and whatever. That is the problem.’ He twists slightly in his seat, adding that another problem are sympathisers in the military. ‘They have uncles, cousins, in the Abu Sayyaf.’

‘So everyone is penetrated. In all directions.’

‘Oh, yes.’

Dan and Henry turn up at the Lantaka. They’re in Zamboanga for a police conference, and tonight where else do we sit but in the humid splendour of the waterfront bar, Dan and I beering like there’s no tomorrow while Henry sips a Sprite. Feeling my pain about the military stone-walling that I’m getting on Jolo, Dan calls some police buddies stationed there.

‘Okay,’ he says when he’s off the phone. ‘I have personally vouched for you so they will protect you. They will even accommodate you in their camp.’

I put down my beer. ‘Really? But I keep getting told that I can’t trust the police, that they’re related to the rebels and have been involved in kidnappings.’

‘Not my friends,’ says Dan. ‘They are Christians from Luzon and I went through the academy with them. You can trust them 100 per cent.’

‘You serious?’

‘Yes,’ he says, reaching to shake my hand.

Salamat,’ I say, Tagalog for thank you. Jolo here I fucking come.

‘Time for one more beer,’ says Dan, finishing the meal we ordered.

Henry seems unsettled – perhaps because this is the first time we have sat together during a drinking session; in Lamitan he was always positioned away to guard the festivities. Maybe being up close to the drunks is unpleasant. Why wouldn’t it be. He has been talking about the different colored jinns, with the black variety being malevolent, and I ask why Allah made black jinns. ‘What is the purpose?’

‘Maybe – same as with the human being – he created bad individuals. Black in color; black in character.’

‘Do they have free will like humans?’

‘Yes,’ he says.

‘What about on these islands?’ I ask. ‘Are people who are committing violent crimes against people – the Abu Sayyaf or other groups – under the influence of black jinns or some kind of evil that’s greater than the people involved? Are there bad things at work here spiritually?’

‘I can say yes,’ Henry says.

‘The Abu Sayyaf say they’re Muslims, they follow the Koran, they’re Islamic, but do you think maybe they’ve been tricked by black jinns.’

‘I don’t think so. But maybe they have the same perceptions as the black jinns.’

‘Have you spoken to your jinns, your friends, lately?’

‘Of course,’ Henry says. ‘Would you like me to ask them something about you?’

‘Sure. Don’t know what, though – um.’

‘Okay, I will ask them something about you.’ Henry’s smile is back in full effect. ‘You are hiding something,’ he says, a heartbeat later. ‘Something which you will not reveal to us, for example the true profession that you have. You are connected to some agencies – the US government agency – and you did not reveal this to us.’

‘I’m not a government agent.’

Henry smiles, a little coldly.

Jolo, Sulu

Dread sets in as the most dangerous island in South East Asia comes into view, making me wonder if catching the three-hour express ferry instead of the all-day sail might have been a bad idea. Perhaps I needed more than three hours to prepare for surrendering to Jolo. But it’s so beautiful; smaller than Basilan yet imposingly wild, a sea-born eruption of mountains and dollops of rock, its surface blanketed in palm jungles so thick and high that, abruptly, everything makes sense about hostages and pirates and guerrillas and terrorists and whatever else is meant to be hidden in the manically dense interior of this anarchic, indomitable realm. As the main city, Jolo Town, draws near, its coastal outskirts crammed with stilt houses, I see the island looks almost all interior, the city squeezed to the edge by a giant forest wall. One could do anything in town and then be uncatchable in a heartbeat.

Houses near water
Between the dense crush of the forest and the expanse of the Sulu Sea stand stilt houses of the Samal near the port of Jolo Town. Photo: Matthew Thompson

The port is a crush of commuters, soldiers, police, coast guard, porters, and goods for loading, but as soon as I step off the gangplank a phalanx of cops surround me and shepherd me into an SUV. Mike said to get them to take me straight to army headquarters where his intelligence friend is waiting – we’ve been exchanging texts – but the police insist their orders are to drive me directly to the main police compound ahead of my appointment with Sakur Tan. The cop next to me says that I will be accommodated at the Peacekeepers Inn, a hostel within the police compound. Amazing there is not even one secure hotel here, I tell him.

‘You know the Abu Sayyaf?’ he says. ‘They like foreigners.’

Through the streets we go, trucks full of soldiers rumbling by. The Abu Sayyaf has said that it will behead a German tomorrow if its demands are not met, and the military is building up its forces in the neighbouring guerrilla stronghold of Patikul, a municipality that wraps around this one, with the exception of land due west, Indanan municipality, another piece of turf under the sway of the jihadists. A few months back a MNLF member was arrested in Indanan and charged with making an IED that killed two American soldiers and a Filipino Marine in 2009 as they rode in a Humvee to a school building project in Indanan. The armed forces took my wife and I to rural schools here all those years back to watch them hand out books in the company of US special forces advisers, and when I later heard of the fatal IED attack I better appreciated why our textbook drop was made in a large convoy punctuated with armoured cars.

In the course of our small talk, the cop says he is from Patikul, where the military is piling in. ‘Is very wild,’ he says.

Jolo Town is considerably bigger and more developed than Lamitan, but with more of a still-raw, still-forming feel: lots of road works in progress and swarms of trikes and jeepneys and motorbikes and greenery bursting up everywhere they can – everything in motion.

man selling fish

How strange it is that we are each born into this family or that, this nation or that. Here fate has delivered the bustling thousands around me into the most notorious, most feared patch of land in a country with many very dicey, very nerve-wracking places. Seeing the bustle and muscle of making a life in a wild zone where history is amped up, still vividly in progress, wakes me, invigorates me, and gives hope.

We pass through gates into the police headquarters but I’m confused because it’s not a secure compound; even with cops on the move in here, it looks like just another barangay with civilians walking the roads. God knows how many are spotters for the enemy.

‘This is the Peacekeepers Inn, Matt,’ an officer up front says, pointing at a nondescript run of buildings off to the left. ‘You’ll be staying here later, but for now we have to go to the head office.’

Jesus, unless they are going to surround it with firepower I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep tonight. This is not a secure compound. ‘Okay.’

Inshallah. Inshallah.

There seems to be no one much around at the dilapidated head office complex. The officer smokes and chats while we wait for a public affairs officer that has been assigned to me. After a while an intelligence officer appears and has me sit in his office for a lengthy questioning about why I’m here, exactly what I’ve been doing in the Philippines, who my father was and whatever else he can think of to ask before the public affairs officer finally appears looking excited. We exchange pleasantries and start talking about leaving for the provincial capitol to meet the esteemed Sakur Tan when he receives a phone call and excuses himself.

He looks embarrassed when he returns. ‘Sir Matt, I have news,’ he says. ‘Unfortunate news.’


‘The commander of the joint task force for Jolo has requested that the Philippine National Police withdraw its protection from you.’


‘I am sorry, sir Matt, but we have been ordered to withdraw our protection,’ he says, looking genuinely uncomfortable. ‘We cannot accommodate you at Peacekeepers Inn. In fact, you have been requested to leave Jolo on the first available ferry. That will be today.’

‘But I just got here.’

‘I’m sorry, sir.’

‘This is the military ordering this?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But I’ve got the appointment with Vice-Governor Tan.’

‘Yes, sir. We can still accompany you to the meeting but then you have been requested to leave. There is an overnight ferry to Zamboanga.’

To finally claw my way to this island and now this. ‘Do I have a choice?’

He smiles awkwardly. ‘Not really, sir.’

I’m dumbfounded but the cops are acting decently about it, offering to show me around Jolo Town in my downtime. A few officers are dispatched to pick me up a ticket on this evening’s el cheapo overnighter return, and when they get back they hand me my change and a ticket with someone else’s name on it. ‘There were none left,’ one of them tells the public affairs officer.

I point at the name.

He shrugs. ‘And don’t worry,’ says the officer. ‘There will be police travelling with you.’

The fantasy that vice-governor Tan – who I keep hearing has at least 2000 men in his private army – would be another Furigay, picking up his phone and telling the military to be hospitable is quickly dispelled as we sit around the conference table in his expansive, pristine office.

‘They told you to get back on the boat because you are a foreign national,’ he says without missing a beat, asking if I have heard about the ultimatum facing the Germans. ‘We do not want targets for snatching.’


Uncannily youthful for a man of 64, the mixed-Tausug-Chinese Tan has all the self-assurance and smoothness that Oric lacks. Now I know why I remembered Furigay after all these years – despite his born-to-rule lineage, he isn’t closed, isn’t walled off; his awkwardness suggests not everything is decided in advance.

Tan runs through his political pedigree: a father who served as mayor; Tan’s time as a councillor in the early 1980s; his 1987 election as a congressman in the first vote after martial law; his winning the governorship of Sulu in 1996, and, after a loss, again in 2007, and then again in 2010. ‘In 2013 I thought I should hand it over to the younger generation and my son won hands down,’ says Tan, who successfully ran for vice-governor. ‘And it is the way of the southern Philippines to keep it in the family. Like Roderick Furigay and his wife.’

I ask about what else is in the way of things. ‘What is the nature of this place?’

‘Sulu is paradise.’ Other parts of the Philippines might be more peaceful, he says, ‘but here I find peace of mind.’

‘When you were a boy, did people have to be careful? Was there banditry?’

‘Of course, some banditry, some cattle rustling, but nothing that the constabulary couldn’t contain.’ He settles back in his chair. ‘Life was not that hard.’

‘Your father didn’t need whole teams of bodyguards when he was in politics?’

‘He had bodyguards; in fact my father died a violent death,’ says Tan adding that the constabulary killed him in 1971, the year before martial law, but not on government orders.

All hell broke loose in Jolo after martial law was declared, with the island ravaged by heavy fighting between the MNLF and the security forces. Families were divided by pro-rebel or pro-government loyalties, he says, including his own, and everybody suffered.

When Jolo Town was hammered by a government assault on the rebels in 1974, ‘there was nothing to eat; there was no commerce; even the markets were empty and dead bodies were scattered all over town. Everything was razed to the ground. We had no money: all the businesses were destroyed. Burned to the ground, too.’

Tan and his uncles on his father’s side fought against the MNLF, which included many members of his mother’s side of the family, pulling out of rebel-occupied towns and defending government buildings in Jolo Town.

‘Did you expect to be killed? That your life would be short?’

‘Anywhere you go, you have to have that kind of expectation. You can die a violent death anywhere,’ he says. ‘My father died a violent death, so that expectation is always there, and in an area like ours revenge and vengeance are part of the culture.’

‘Does that make you feel like making the most of every day?’ I ask.

‘It makes you more alert. You are always on guard. Your eyes are always on alert, and you move faster, you know?’ says Tan, laughing. ‘You don’t take things for granted.’

‘How many attempts on your life have there been? Assassination attempts.’

Tan thinks back, and says attempts to kill him started before he was in politics. The first time he remembers was a family party with dancing and drinking that got shot up. ‘Perhaps because of the noise people got irritated, and they shot at us. One cousin and one nephew were killed, and my right-hand shoe was hit,’ says Tan, glancing down at his foot. ‘I was also bombed here, and at Zamboanga airport. That was 2010, August 5. And on May 13 of 2009 I was also bombed on my way home. A roadside bomb exploded right [beside] where I was seated. And there were other attempts.’

‘Do you fear death?’

‘Of course! Nobody does not fear death.’

‘But not enough to walk away from here and from this job.’

‘One time I was asked, ‘Why do you want to be governor? Isn’t it dangerous for you to be governor here?’ But I told them it was more dangerous if I wasn’t governor, so I might as well be governor. It lessens the danger because I can be better protected.’ Tan leans back in his chair and stretches. ‘Besides we have already learned to live this kind of life. To us it adds spice. It adds life to life.’

While discussing Jolo’s early Chinese presence, I mention my first visit to Jolo taking my wife and I to a hill that the Marines has just recaptured, at some cost, which on top has Chinese tombs dating back a millennium. In today’s atmosphere of restriction and secrecy, visiting it is, of course, out of the question.

‘I am proud being a Chinaman mixed with local, and then to be governing a place like Sulu,’ he says. ‘This is an opportunity not available to just anyone. This is something very extraordinary. I look at myself and feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity by god, by Allah, to govern this Muslim region. They say the peace and order is very bad here but to us we are happy to be here. They say that it is more peaceful to live in other countries, rich countries, but look at them: they are in more trouble than us. If you are able to survive, to live, to enjoy in an area like ours – this is something.’ Tan nods to himself. ‘You cannot buy this anywhere.’

Now I’m nodding, although it’s hard not to laugh. After telling Tan about a time on my first trip here when the Marines shut a road and took up firing positions around a bank so I could safely change money, I say that I’m amazed at how all these years later and with thousands of troops here, ‘not even one hotel can be secure here’.

Before I’ve even finished the question, Tan launches into an irrelevant account of all the high level talks about the German hostages he’s been in over the last few days. But it will pass, he says, and Jolo will revert to the pre-martial law society that has US Peace Corps volunteers roaming all around unmolested. ‘It was only after martial law that people started to fight against government and started snatching,’ he says. ‘It taught people to hate the law.’

Tan’s secretary signals to him that his time is running out, so I thank him for the meeting. ‘I hope no one blows you up again,’ I say, getting up to shake hands. ‘What was it like, anyway, at the airport that time?’

‘The bomb was planted on an individual; he did not know he was carrying a bomb. He was asked, perhaps, to meet somebody but when I was beside him somebody must have switched the radio transmitter so it exploded.’ Tan sweeps his hands down his shirt and trousers. ‘That man was like corned beef, you know,’ he says. ‘Flesh and blood all over me.’

A couple of people were killed and several wounded, but Tan was fine, not even knocked off his feet.

‘How far away was the bomber?’

‘About one metre,’ says Tan. ‘But perhaps the bag was on the side and I was covered by his body. My companions were hit but only my shoe, my right shoe was hit.’

‘Your shoe again?’

‘My shoe,’ he says, looking proudly down at his feet.

‘What’s with your right shoe?’

He shrugs. ‘Italian shoes.’

As we finish up, Tan looks me up and down, his smile becoming less plastic. ‘You like to be here in Jolo,’ he says.

I nod.

‘Other people are afraid. We like to invite visitors but now that you’re here we’re sending you back.’

We stare at each other. He claps once and shows me to the door.

The police discuss Tan as we go sightseeing around Jolo Town, never staying still for long lest someone lines us up. ‘Looks so young for his age, and it’s amazing how he’s never been hurt in all those attacks,’ I say as we park at an intersection where a pair of castellated Spanish towers stand each side, watching the crossroads.

‘It is said that he has powers,’ says the cop beside me. ‘That he cannot be harmed.’

After dodging swarms of fumy trikes and noticing the towers are dated 1924 – during America’s colonial era rather than Spain’s – we cruise the waterfront and on to the central mosque, Masjid Tulay, where the evening custodian shows us into the currently empty prayer area and then up a spiral staircase to the roof where minarets rise from each corner and a dome from the centre.

The mosque stands above everything in Jolo Town and its views are peerless, whether out to sea, down into the crush of the main street-market, or behind at the forests and volcanic mountains, haunted as they are by guerrillas. Prominent about six miles to the city’s rear is the conical rise of Bud Dajo, where in 1906 American troops attacked a rebel community taking refuge in the crater of its 2100-foot peak, killing perhaps a thousand men, women, and children. Jolo’s provincial museum has an odious photograph of US soldiers posing amongst corpses. The massacred rebel community had not fallen into line with Pax Americana and its meddling changes and reforms, which included building schools and abolishing slavery, which the Tausugs had practiced for centuries.

The crater massacre and other slaughters that US forces carried out followed a 1903 letter to President Theodore Roosevelt from America’s incoming Governor of Moro Province, Major General Leonard Wood.

Wood, who had been Roosevelt’s commanding officer in the Rough Riders volunteers that fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, told his comrade-cum-president that subduing the Muslim corner of their new empire would be straightforward enough: ‘I think one clean-cut lesson will be quite sufficient for them, but it should be of such character as not to need a dozen fritting repetitions.’

With night falling we return to the police compound, passing the Peacekeepers Inn and heading up a muddy road to a mess hut for fish and beers. The police like to let off steam, tense as it can be out on the streets and byways. ‘A policeman was shot for his weapon last week,’ says a cop, cracking another round. ‘This will help you sleep on the ferry,’ he says.

Oh yeah, history is spitting me out. The hour approaches for the slow boat from Jolo.

Passengers on the overnight ferry from Jolo Town to Zamboanga City wait as goods and produce are loaded. Photo: Matthew Thompson


The next day the German hostages are freed on Jolo, with the Abu Sayyaf Group claiming to have received a ransom of US$5.6 million. The ASG release a photograph of its members standing around a huge stack of crisp new bills. Many other people have since been kidnapped and taken into the Sulu. Most victims are Filipinos, but there have also been Malaysians snatched from Sandakan, Canadians and a Norwegian grabbed within the Philippines. One of the Malaysians is freed in November of this year after a ransom is paid, but the other is beheaded on Jolo.

Also dying a violent death this year is occasional Sulu resident, electrical engineering graduate of a US university, and bomb maestro Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan. Zulkifli, a Malaysian, was a member of Jemaah Islamiyah when, among other outrages, it carried out the 2002 Bali bombings.

The Filipino military had thought it killed Zulkifli in a 2012 airstrike in Jolo, but he resurfaced and in January this year US intelligence track his phone use to a rebel-dominated community in Mindanao. Suspecting that many local soldiers had ties to the rebels, the US instead tips off a group of more lightly armed but American-trained police commandos. Operating without heed of the cultural practice of pintakasi (wherein all Muslim men of fighting age put aside their differences to repel an interloper), the police penetrate the farming community by night and shoot Zulkifli dead in a hut, but are then swarmed.

In ‘one clean-cut lesson’, Moro fighters kill 44 policemen.

The January 25 bloodbath sends shockwaves through the country, delegitimises a tortuously negotiated peace agreement with a major rebel group, sparks the first significant coup chatter in years, and triggers battles that send more than 100,000 people fleeing their homes.

Meanwhile in nearby Australia coverage is minimal, the news swamped the next day by Tony Abbott’s announcement that he is awarding a knighthood to Philip Mountbatten, AKA Prince Philip.

Our future is not in the stars – it is the clod at our feet which will also claim us in the end.

F. Sionil José

Read Part One of Don’t Go To Jolo here.
Read Part Two here.
Read Part Three here.
Read Part Four here.