“ZAMBOANGA City is very tense. Not a good time to go in.”
That’s what a Malaysian intelligence officer advised me when I told him that I was going to the southern Philippines city.
On the day he told me this, a suspect switched off a nearby streetlight and flung a grenade into a mosque about 20 minutes after midnight on Jan 30.
Two were killed and four injured.
The mosque attack came three days after two bombs exploded during Sunday mass at the Jolo Cathedral in Jolo island about 150km from Zamboanga City in mainland Mindanao.
At least 22 were killed and 100 others injured. It was one of the deadliest terror attacks in the restive Philippines.
On Sunday night, I arrived in Zamboanga City. It is like a second home for me. My first time in the city was in 2000 when covering the Sipadan hostage crisis, where 21 people were abducted from the east coast of Sabah and held in Jolo island.
At 10.30pm the city was quiet. Usually, it would be bustling with life.
“Why are you here? There’s a red alert because of the attack in Sulu,” said Joy, a certified massage therapist, referring to the province where Jolo island is located.
“I’m here for the Jolo bombings,” I said.
“Are you IS (Islamic State)?” said the 23-year-old Zamboangueño.
“No,” I said.
“Are you military?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Are you a friend of Duterte?” she asked.
I told her no and why I was in her city.
But I didn’t elaborate on the why. If I did, I would have told her that to understand the Jolo bombings, it was better to be on the ground. The closer you are to ground zero of the conflict zone, the closer you are to the murky truth.
“Why don’t the Abu Sayyaf attack a mall? Why attack a church? Isn’t that a double sin?” she said.
“I always go to mass on Sundays. But today, I didn’t go. I’m afraid. I don’t want to die. I want to get married. Only after I get five children, I don’t mind dying.”
According to Joy, since the bombings at the Jolo Cathedral, she has had fewer customers.
Usually, she has seven a day. Now, it is down to four. Her customers would rather stay at home as they are afraid that the Jolo bombings will spread to their city.
Zamboanga City is the fourth biggest city in the Philippines after Metro Manila, Davao and Cebu. It is closer to Sandakan in Sabah than Davao in Mindanao or Manila in Luzon.
It is arguably the last bastion of Spanish heritage in the Philippines. Many of the Christian-majority population are like Joy, who speaks Chavacano, a Spanish-based creole language.
The next day, I met up with my good friend Rodrigo Balbon. I know him as he was the right-hand man of the Zamboanga City tycoon who negotiated – together with Malaysian politicians – for the release of the Sabahans abducted in Sipadan.
“The security situation is not really good. The supermarkets should be full as tomorrow is the Chinese New Year holiday. But there are not many people shopping.
“The traffic is usually horrendous but look outside – it is running smooth,” said Rodrigo, 63, a columnist for Daily Zamboanga Times.
“People are expecting the situation to become precarious. We don’t know when the next bombing is coming.”
Rodrigo said there were too many rumours – via text messages – warning not to go to a certain place as an improvised explosive device (IED) was planted there.
Here’s a sample: “Auntie, don’t go to KCC Mall or places where there are many people. Our psychologists are the ones counselling the bomber from Basilan, who assembled the IEDs that exploded in Jolo.
“The bomber said he had assembled 10 IEDs intended for General Santos, Davao, Ipil, Cotabato City and Zamboanga City.”
It is fake news. But the effect is not fake.
“That is why people are afraid to go to the malls, downtown, churches or mosques. They are taking precautions,” he said.
When there is a bombing in Jolo or Basilan, according to Rodrigo, there will be an escalation in Zamboanga City.
“When the situation is tight in Jolo or Basilan, rebels will come. If they can do it in Jolo and Basilan, they can do it here,” said Rodrigo, who survived the Zamboanga City siege.
(In 2013, an urban armed conflict between the Philippine government and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front brought part of the city to a standstill for 20 days.)
Last Friday, security forces shot dead a man in Zamboanga City. They found a detonator, blasting cap, gunpowder and a .45 calibre gun in the suspect’s backpack.
On my fourth and last day in Zamboanga City, I lit candles at the outdoor Roman Catholic Marian shrine in Fort Pilar. The fortress was built by the Spanish colonial master in the 17th century.
In the past, before travelling to Jolo island, I would pray there for my safety. I also prayed as I’m told it will make me return to Zamboanga City.
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