SEMPORNA: The water village of Simunul in Semporna is still recovering from the brutal attack and ambush of policemen by Sulu gunmen last year.
A year on, some semblance of normalcy has returned to Kg Simunul but the scars that run through the stilted wooden village have yet to heal.
Locals have picked up the scattered pieces of their lives which were turned upside down by the Sulu incursion.
Many stilt houses have been demolished and physical marks of the attack have been washed away and repaired but the water village of 4,500 people remains wary of strangers.
Villagers look suspiciously at outsiders walking around and some even venture to demand what the visitors are doing in their village where each house now bears the name of its owner and his identity card number.
“Kau orang mana? Datang dengan siapa? (Where are you from? Who did you come with?),” a villager brusquely asked a passing journalist.
After an explanation, the villager warmed up and offered a smile.
“I left when the attack happened. A month later, I returned but I was still a bit fearful. That feeling is now gone,” said a 35-year-old Bajau stall owner.
Asked if there was still danger, 41-year-old Norpaidah Samad dismissed feelings of anxiety over another attack.
“Three days after the incident, I returned home with my family. I am not afraid anymore. The village head asked for us to come home and we did,” said the mother-of-five.
Kg Simunul village head Panglima Ramlee Saraman said they were working together with the police and providing information on outsiders.
Guiding the way through a labyrinth of rickety walkways above a muddy ground, Ramlee helped break the ice between villagers and journalists.
Although what happened is a tragedy, Ramlee said the incident had brought a sense of unity and awareness.
As the 57-year-old village head moved across rows of houses, villagers called out greetings – there is no doubt that the village head is a well-respected man.
During the exchange of fire last year, it was Ramlee who gathered a group of villages and crossed into invader-controlled Simunul village to recover the bodies of fallen police officers and Sulu invaders.
“If the commandos had gone in, there was fear that they may have been shot. So, I asked for body bags and went in with the help of the local Islamic authorities instead. Before entering, we called out to explain our purpose and were let in and out without any harm.
“By then, the bodies had been left for two days and were in a bad state,” he said forlornly.”
The fishing village of about 1,217 houses is also home to workers in the tourism industry, government servants and private sector workers.
As to what becomes of the villages after this, no one knows. Word has been going around of a planned relocation but no decision has been made.