One Man's Meat

Published: Saturday July 26, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday July 26, 2014 MYT 12:11:30 PM

I didn’t want to make the news

An interview with a former hostage in Jolo turned out to be in an area too hot for my comfort.

TWO Wednesdays ago in Jolo island, I had a walk on the wild side.

My plan to visit the cross-border kidnap capital of the Philippines went awry when my 9.20am flight from Zamboanga City was delayed to 1pm because of Typhoon Glenda (Rammasun) that killed 94 Filipinos.

At around 1.20pm, I arrived in Jolo Airport to be greeted by familiar faces – facilitator, security detail and friends – whom I had met three months ago in the tadpole-shaped island the size of Perlis.

At the airport, I was pleasantly surprised that four tudung-clad local women asked if they could take their photograph with me. I obliged, wondering about their unexpected request.

My facilitator, Noenyrie H. Asiri, posted the photograph on Facebook and tagged me. A friend cheekily messaged: “Maybe they are Abu Sayyaf spies and they wanted a photograph of you so that the Abu Sayyaf knows who to kidnap.”

“Lol,” I replied.

(The second generation of Abu Sayyaf leaders, who are in their teens and 20s, are in fact active on Facebook. They’ve posted photographs of themselves holding high-powered weapons with their smiling hostages.)

I noticed that there was a platoon of marines and policemen at the airport. There must be somebody important flying out of Jolo, I thought. Later, I was to find out that the somebody important had noticed the presence of two foreigners – my editor P.K. Katharason and me – in the airport.

Since I had lost four hours of working time in the island, I was in a rush to meet up with my contacts. I told my 32-year-old facilitator to set up interviews for me.

“Sir Philip, Octavio said come to his house as he waited for you the whole morning at his office (in Mindanao State University) and he thought your flight was cancelled because of the typhoon,” Noenyrie said.

“Ok, let’s go there,” I said, without much thought as I had assumed that kidnapping expert Octavio A. Dinampo’s house was in Jolo town.

In a Tamaraw (a Filipino-made “jeep”) with two policemen guarding us, we headed to Octavio’s home while I checked on the flurry of Whatsapp and Twitter messages that I had received.

A few minutes later, I noticed that the road had changed from asphalt to gravel.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“We’re in Indanan. We’re in Abu Sayyaf area,” a friend joked.

“We’re really in Indanan?” I asked, surprised that we had left the municipality of Jolo and entered Indanan municipality.

The day before, Filipino police intelligence sources had told me that Zakiah Aleip, the 26-year-old police constable kidnapped by a group of armed men from Pulau Mabul on July 12, was held in Indanan.

Filipino intelligence sources had told me that Zakiah is held captive by the Abu Sayyaf group of Alhabsi Misaya in a sparse jungle hideout about 18km from Jolo town in southern Philippines.]

The area surrounded by fruit orchards and coconut trees at the border of Indanan and Parang municipalities is not far from where bombs were dropped to kill the most wanted Al Qaeda-linked terrorist Zulkifli Hir @ Marwan and Abu Sayyaf leader Dr Abu Jumdali in early 2012.

Marwan escaped but Dr Abu and several other Abu Sayyaf leaders were killed in the bombings and Dr Abu’s grave is near to the hideout where rising Abu Sayyaf leader Alhabsi is holding Zakiah.

A top-rank police officer in Jolo said Alhabsi and a Moro National Liberation Front commander Ahadun Agak @ Adun had about 30 fighting men but the number of gunmen would increase to 50 or 70 once a ransom demand was made.

“When there is a hostage, other gunmen would join forces with the captor as they want to make money from the ransom payment,” he said.

Our Tamaraw reached a ghostly abandoned resort project by Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari which was bombed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines when he declared a rebellion against Manila in 2001.

The homeless had turned the abandoned building into their home.

Its majestic structure gave a glimpse of what Jolo could be if there were peace and order in the island. It could be a tourist haven with its unexplored white sand beaches.

At the next turn, we arrived at a village by the seaside. We walked through the houses on stilts that were made mostly of bamboo. Scruffy-looking children and adults were playing tikam tikam (a gambling game) while others were loitering and playing volleyball.

Warning bells rang in my head. Someone could text or call the Abu Sayyaf gunmen that there were “live commodities” in their neighbourhood.

“Is this place safe?” I asked Ahmad Shinoda, a policeman armed with an M16 and pistol.

“Safe. They are Samal (or “Bajau” as they are called in Sabah).

He’s a Tausug (or “Suluk” as they are called in Sabah), which is the majority ethnic community in Jolo island. The Tausugs are known as a warrior race.

About 200m away, we reached Octavio’s wooden house and we interviewed him for an hour. He was kidnapped with famous Filipino news anchor Ces Drilion and others when he led them for an interview with Abu Sayyaf commander Radulan Sahiron in Jolo island on June 8, 2008.

It was the longest one-hour interview I ever had. I kept imagining that the Abu Sayyaf gunmen would appear and outnumber the two police escorts. I imagined how I would feel if Abu Sayyaf gunmen appeared – my heart would go cold.

Soon after we returned to our lodge in Jolo town, a top police officer entered our room. He politely told us that his big boss had seen us at the airport and had ordered him to escort us out of Jolo island and back to Zamboanga City.

After much negotiation, we managed to convince him that we didn’t have any plan to go to the Alhabsi hideout in Indanan, as we didn’t want to become the news.

Tags / Keywords: Philip Golingai

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