“IT is difficult to go to Jolo now,” said a Filipino contact I met in Zamboanga City, southern Philippines on Jan 9. “Because the Abu Sayyaf has entered (Jolo) town. If they see anyone whom they don’t recognise, they’ll kill them.”
“There’s killing in Jolo town every other day,” he added.
On the day before I arrived in Zamboanga City, a popular gateway to the notorious Jolo island about a three-hour fast ferry ride from the city, a Philippines Air Force personnel was shot dead outside a church in Jolo.
At 5pm, gunmen suspected to be Abu Sayyaf members killed Andre Burias Nono, a 27-year-old Jolo native who was back in his hometown for a holiday.
On Christmas day, a motorcycle-riding gunman, believed to be an Abu Sayyaf member, shot dead a soldier, Private Bryan Aquino Sanoy, in Jolo town.
The two deaths do not include soldiers killed in gun battles with the Abu Sayyaf in their hideouts outside Jolo town.
“Why has the Abu Sayyaf entered Jolo town?” I asked, as usually the bandits operated in their jungle hideouts.
“They want the military (which lately has been intensively pursuing the Abu Sayyaf) to pull out of Jolo island,” said the contact. “Local politicians are also raising money for the 2016 Philippines elections and they are using the Abu Sayyaf to kidnap people in Jolo town.”
I had met the contact to put the final touches to a trip to Jolo. Two weeks ago, via Facebook messenger, he had confirmed that the military would provide security escorts for me in Jolo town.
“How many military escorts will we have in Jolo?” I asked.
“We have two teams, sir,” he said.
“How many in a team?” I asked.
“12, sir,” he said.
However, the recent killings of the soldiers and civilians spooked the top military brass in Jolo. They decided to pull back the security escort.
“They don’t want you to come to Jolo. They are afraid another Ces Drillion case will happen,” he said, referring to the kidnapping of a famous Filipino news anchor Ces Drilon in Jolo island on June 8, 2008.
(In 2014, I met Ces in Manila for coffee and she told me that she walked into a kidnapping during an assignment to interview Abu Sayyaf commander Radulan Sahiron.)
“The problem is many people know that you are going to Jolo. They also have spotters everywhere. The moment you leave Zamboanga City on a ferry to Jolo, they will know you are on board,” he said.
“The Abu Sayyaf will be thinking they do not need to bother to go to Sabah to kidnap as a Sabahan has entered Jolo for them to kidnap.”
“But why was it that in 2014, I went to Jolo town twice and I only needed to be escorted by two armed policemen?” I protested.
“That was not enough security for you. And at that time, not many Abu Sayyaf gunmen were in town. I was in Jolo town yesterday and I saw their faces. There were many of them. They’ve cut their hair and are dressed like civilians,” said the contact who has close links with the military and Abu Sayyaf.
“Jolo is a no no for a foreigner. If you come tomorrow without any security, they will kidnap and bring you to their hideout.”
Jolo has become more dangerous than it had been 15 years ago.
In 2000, I was on the island to cover the story of 21 hostages – nine Sabahans, two Filipinos and 10 tourists from Europe, South Africa and Lebanon – abducted from Sipadan in Sabah and taken to Jolo.
I was able to go to the Abu Sayyaf hideout twice to meet notorious Abu Sayyaf commanders such as Commander Robot, Commander Global and Mujib Susukan, and the Sabah hostages. I even slept for a night in Talipao, about an hour’s drive from Jolo town, in the same wooden house as Commander Global.
At that time, although I thought it was dangerous to have a face-to-face encounter with the Abu Sayyaf gunmen (a German and two French journalists on two different visits were temporarily held hostage and released only after a board and lodging fee was paid), the Abu Sayyaf still had some honour.
Now, no sane journalist would try to go to their hideout and have an exclusive interview with them.
The situation in Jolo town too has become more dangerous. Back in 2000, we did not need any security escort.
We didn’t venture into many parts of the town without our Tamaraw (a Filipino-made jeep) as there was a threat that someone would blow off our heads with a pistol. But still Jolo town was relatively safe for journalists.
In 2014, I was told that I needed, at the minimum two armed policemen to keep me out of harm’s way when I visited Jolo town. This year, I’m told that a truckload of policemen would not be enough.
“You might have policemen surrounding you but what if 100 Abu Sayyaf gunmen tried to kidnap you? What could the policemen do?” asked the contact.
The risk of visiting Jolo has also increased. Previously, if you were abducted, all you needed to do was rot for months and hope the powers-that-be paid your ransom. But now, after the beheading of Malaysian hostage Bernard Then last year, there is a chance that you might be murdered even if you are a high-value hostage.
It is tragic that Jolo island has become a no man’s land for foreigners. It has great tourism potential.
Each time I see photographs of Jolo on the Facebook of my friends living on the island, I wish I could visit them in the place which is still stuck in the 1970s. I salivated when I saw the photograph of fresh fish grilled, using coconut husks, which Noenyrie Asiri shared.
Unfortunately, Jolo is not for tourists or journalists. It is not worth losing your head over the beautiful island made forbidden by the Abu Sayyaf gunmen.