PART 2: The nostalgic
By Marco Z
Part 1: The doctor's album
JOLO, Sulu - The way
Noralyn Mustafa narrates it, Jolo's apocalypse had
a date: February 7, 1974. "First the MNLF [Moro
National Liberation Front ], then the military
burned Jolo to the ground," she says. Jolo is the
dusty capital of the Sulu archipelago, that
cluster of islands far flung southwesterly from
the main island cluster that makes up the
Philippines. Its name derives from the Mandarin
word Ho-lo, or "good community". In the past,
ancient Chinese traders would unload their goods
on Jolo's shore, and, finding them undisturbed
upon their return, would exclaim Ho-lang or "good
people". The name eventually extended to include
the entire town.
Jolo was burned for the
second time in 1974. The first time was in April
1944, when the Americans retook Jolo from the
Japanese. The American offensive left half the
town in ashes. Thirty years later it was Islamic
insurgents, the MNLF, who attempted to overtake
the town. Although they eventually were repulsed
by the military, the fighting left Jolo positively
infernal. Thousands of families fled their homes,
and bodies numbering in the hundreds littered the
streets and lay floating near the wharf. By the
day following the outbreak of fighting, 80% of the
town had been razed.
The act merely of
recounting the event has left Mustafa, a lifelong
resident of Jolo and the Philippine Daily
Inquirer's Sulu correspondent, looking stricken.
"They all left," she says; the Chinese, meaning
the capitalists, and the Christians, meaning the
intellectuals. They left Jolo to the Muslims. "And
what emerged," she continues, visibly disgusted,
"was a culture of violence, a town run by
warlords." What emerged was retrogression. The
MNLF, stealing down from the hills, became the new
politicians. Business devolved into smuggling,
extortion, kidnapping and monopolized services.
"Have you been to the town?" she asks pointedly.
"It looks so drab and gray. It feels temporary."
She sets down her teacup and walked into
her garden. "I get coughing fits whenever I go
into town," she explains.
looks distinctly out of place in dun-colored Jolo.
The various shrubs have grown so lush with care
they seem almost overgrown, like extremely
well-fed children. Bats hang in the eaves and
birds perch in the trees. A heavy scent of flowers
keeps the town's vague, ubiquitous odor of dust
and fuel outside the garden's walls.
raised these walls to preserve a bit of the old
Jolo," she says, waving toward the 10-foot tall
stone perimeter enclosing the garden. One wonders
if old Jolo could really have been this luxurious;
could it really have felt this enchanted? Or has
Mustafa cultivated a garden conjured out of
nostalgia? "The spirit of the tree left a muddy
footprint here," she says, recalling the time the
elemental let out "a thunderous boom" when drunken
carousers cut across the path behind her garden.
"It protects me," she adds..
Sayyaf found a foothold here," says Mustafa, and
not just as criminal entrepreneurs but also in
politics. "When elections come, anyone with the
Abu Sayyaf on their side is sure to win. These
politicians," she sputteres, "they should be lined
up and executed - but that would be too benign a
Her words for the military are
similarly tempered. They are "abusive, oppressive,
cruel, indiscriminate, congenital liars, they burn
civilian houses and steal their tools of
livelihood". And later, as if she forgot to
complete her denunciation: "I saw a soldier back
up on a man then drive over him again. When [the
Abu Sayyaf's] Commander Robot accidentally bumped
a child with his jeep, he brought him to the
hospital and left 3,000 pesos. Yes, yes," she
concedes irritably, "the military does keep the
Abu Sayyaf in check, but is [their presence] worth
it just to catch a handful of bandits?"
Mustafa can see one way out: "Only America
can save us," she says, then paused a moment to
qualify her bluntness. "I am not a colonial model.
I was a student activist," she added. "You see
that electric post?" Mustafa asks, pointing to the
post just beyond her walls. "The Americans put
that up. They had it shipped from the States, and
it's still in use."
Mustafa wants the
Americans to do in Jolo what they did in Basilan;
that is, establish their presence. She hopes that
an American presence would scare the Abu Sayyaf
into hiding, tame the military's excesses, and
curb lawlessness in general. "First thing [the
Americans] should do is disarm these idiots," she
said with a wave meant to include anyone in Jolo
with a gun, which is practically everyone.
"But this little town is worth its weight
in gold, you know," she sighs, looking either
relaxed or defeated. Her frustration, which had
built up over the course of her account, ebbs, and
she delights in another accounting, that of the
beauties of Jolo: a fertile land, a temperate
climate, a beach rich in marine resources and "the
color aquamarine". Jolo, of course, is not without
such natural assets now, but their potential, even
their actual beauty, seems somehow annulled by the
town's present dreary reality. Mustafa might as
well be describing a Jolo that had never been
But perhaps more than mourning the
town's past, she is pining for its future. "God
simply set down to make a paradise on this small
island," she says, adding with a flash of
bitterness, "but look how grateful the people have
JOLO - Behind museum curator Oswalda Cabel
is an enormous frame upon which Allah's name is
written 100 times in Arabic. But one wouldn't know
it immediately, even if he or she understood
Arabic. Each inscription makes its own picture -
one looks like a pair of doves, another like a
fish, and another like a woman's uterus. They all
look like they could have been lifted from
"Isn't it lovely?"
Cabel asks. "It shows that God can be anywhere,
that He is everywhere." Cabel is probably older
than the museum she curates. She is old enough,
certainly, to remember Jolo's colonial days. "The
Americans built roads and bridges. Our avenues
were tree-lined and asphalted. It was a paradise,
our 'little cup of silver'."
occupied Jolo in 1899, shortly after having
purchased the Philippine islands from Spain for
US$20 million. More than infrastructure, they
altered the way Joloanos lived. In Cabel's word,
they "civilized" them. They taught the natives to
wear shoes, to brush instead of blacken their
teeth, and they sponsored public education. But
after World War II, "they dropped us like a hot
potato", and Jolo, devastated by war, could hardly
keep pace with its development needs. The town
The latest question was
whether the Americans should return to Jolo, not
as a colonial power but as a partner to the
Philippine military in a second installment of
Balikatan training exercises that began in 2002.
Cabel is quick to answer, "Most educated and sane
people would want them to come", and even quicker
to qualify, "but people remember Bud Daho."
Bud Daho has come to represent the other
side, the underside, of American colonialism. The
name means Mount Daho, and was coined after an
American soldier, trekking Jolo's hills, exclaimed
of one hill, "It looks just like Mount Idaho."
Today, people forget the trivia for the
massacre. On March 7, 1906, General John "Black
Jack" Pershing and his army killed nearly 1,000
Moros, as the Muslims were called, for resisting
his policy of disarmament. The Moros had turned
against the Americans for other reasons too. They
resented Sulu governor Leonard Wood's imposition
of a two-peso head tax as well as his efforts to
force Moro children into public schooling, which
they saw as a covert means to Christianize them.
The Moros remained recalcitrant, even
after Bud Daho. Several years later, in 1913,
another massacre of even larger proportions
occurred in Bud Bagsak. Two thousand Moros,
including 196 women and 340 children, were
reported killed. The Moros were so fierce in their
resistance that, as legend has it, Pershing
commissioned the manufacture of the .45-caliber
pistol. The .38, he believed, had little effect in
stopping the onrushing juramentado (suicide
These stories, a blend of fact
and fiction, of historical event and
embellishment, are what have survived the
vicissitudes in the minds of Joloanos. They are
passed on from one generation to the next through
a lively oral tradition. So when Joloanos without
the benefit of Cabel's longevity recall the
Americans, they remember Bud Daho.
Councilor Edilwasif Baddiri's staff - two
secretaries and two bodyguards - and the
grade-school teacher waiting for Edil to return
are not short on opinions. They want the Americans
to come, largely because they saw how much good
Balikatan did for neighboring Basilan. Yet they
can only come up with reasons why, in their case,
the Americans should stay away.
Ismi, the grand imam of Sulu, is apprehensive
about the indiscriminate use of American power.
"If the Americans come, their mandate should be
clear. That they are not against us but against
the kidnappers." His son, Yusop Ismi, the
president of Southwestern Mindanao Islamic
University, doesn't want the Americans to come at
all. "You think they'll be here just for
'training'?" he sneers.
Haji Ahmad Jali,
assistant director for the Department of the
Interior, Labor, and Government for southwestern
Mindanao, believes that the proposed Balikatan
exercises are merely a pretext for the United
States' broader geopolitical agenda. "Do they mean
to tell me that they're sending in Americans to
fight this Abu Sayyaf? The CIA [Central
Intelligence Agency] probably founded the Abu
In any case, the question has
since become moot. The Balikatan exercises planned
for Jolo have been quietly shelved following a
controversy over the exact nature of the
deployment. The Americans called them "operations"
and hinted that their soldiers would be free to
engage in combat. The Philippines, meanwhile,
insisted that they were strictly meant for
training. Both governments may have decided it
wise to forego Balikatan 03-1 for another reason
as well: Iraq.
The war and now the
occupation of Iraq have profoundly colored
perceptions of America in Jolo. And it has done so
not by creating new stereotypes but by
underscoring old ones. Since it happened, Bud Daho
has never loomed so large in the minds of
Joloanos. So many other memories have been
squeezed out. It now would seem to conflate with
Iraq as an indictment of America always having
been anti-Muslim. Who would want the Americans?
Jali's demeanor seems to say; "The US is evil in
the eyes of the world."
The education of an idealist
JOLO - The delegates to the very first
Sulu Union of Student Council's Leadership
Congress convene in a tree house, their teenage
faces vexed with intent. They are struggling with
a question raised by one of their number: Why do
our Muslim brothers kill each other?
Misunderstanding, pride, rivalry, the students
offer; each answer pursued by another. Their
intent on finding the right answer suggests an
unbroken faith in themselves as the generation
destined to deliver Jolo from its troubles.
When one student proposes poverty as the
reason behind inter-Muslim conflict, Councilor
Edil Baddiri takes the microphone. "Poverty is the
result of the problem. Never accept that it is its
cause," he says. The students respect Edil. They
see him as someone, at 28, who is close to their
age, and they see in him someone who shares their
Bespectacled and clean cut, Edil
looks different from most Jolo politicians;
somehow more refined rather than rough. Not only
students like him, their teachers like him too.
You can tell because when their school needs
something - a new roof, more books - he is the one
they ask. Even crotchety Noralyn Mustafa likes
him. "Edil is the only politician I trust," she
declares. "If I were a fairy, I'd multiply him by
twenty. But he's only one. The rest are a gang of
Edil is liked precisely because
he is an exception. His political career wasn't
launched, as is usually the case in Jolo, from an
advantage in business or insurgency. His capital
has always been his education. Edil studied under
nuns in grade school and under Jesuits from high
school through to law school.
his Catholic schooling - a consequence of growing
up in Zamboanga, where his family fled to escape
the 1974 burning of Jolo - he has retained a clear
sense of Muslim identity. "As a boy, my father
would make me read the newspapers," he recalls. "I
felt a sense of injustice against my people. I
wanted to join the MNLF. I later learned that some
of my relatives already had."
disuaded from these ambitions in college, deciding
instead on a career in politics. He graduated from
the country's most prestigious law school, the
first in his ethnic Tausug clan to do so, and took
the bar on a bet with God. "I told God that if I
passed the bar I would return to Jolo and run for
office." God took his bet: Edil ranked 25th out of
4,000 students who took the bar. So he ran for
councilor, despite being an outsider, and once
again entrusted his fate to God. "I would have
been happy if it didn't work out," he claims.
"Losing would free me of my commitment to God. But
I couldn't find my place until put to the test."
God upped the ante: Edil won by a landslide. It
would be in politics that he was truly tested.
Shortly after being elected councilor for
the district of Indanan, the mayor moved the site
of the municipal government to far away Timbangan,
in order to make his own commute more convenient.
Government employees grumbled at the inconvenience
to them but dared not protest. Edil, incensed by
such a despotic display of power, filed a case
against the mayor in court. He prevailed, but
incurred nothing more than the mayor's wrath. "No
one even thanked me," he says. "I had to ask
myself, what am I doing this for?"
infractions grew more serious. Edil discovered
that the mayor withheld 20% of the development
fund allotted to Jolo by the national government.
This amounted to millions of pesos. He immediately
filed a case with the government's anti-graft
court, only to find out that the mayor had
effectively blocked his case through a combination
of contacts and bribes. But Edil's offensive did
have one effect: it scared the mayor into
disbursing a part of the development fund among
his councilors. Edil refused his "share" in
disgust. "That first year I lost my faith in the
system," he recalls. "I would have lost my ideals
if not for my trust in God, my surrender to His
will. I kept praying. My model was the Prophet
Mohammed, the servant leader."
experiences left Edil chastened and lacking much
of his reformist zeal. "I know [the people]
support me but they will not rescue me," he says.
So he reluctantly adapted. "You have to use your
head to keep your friends. Do God's will, yes, but
keep it in your heart. Don't be self-righteous.
Compromise comes in ... you can't antagonize
people. You have to know how to win." Edil's
rehearsal of these bitter lessons also sounds like
admonitions to himself, reminders of the costs of
staying elected. For, he reasons, "What good can I
do if I lose?" At the same time, he is not unaware
of the devil attending this logic, namely: How
good can I be if I keep giving in? It is a fine
line, he admits, but one he doesn't think he's
crossed. "It took a long time to get this bad. It
will take decades to change the system," he
acknowledges. And for this to happen he will need
Hence the Student Leaders
Congress, a special project of Edil's. He hopes
that by focusing on character-building, on moral
reformation, he will encourage a breed of
politicians in his vein. But the idealism of
student leaders seems less in need of being
cultivated than vetted. "You have to use your
head. You have to be practical," he urges the
students gathered in the tree house, intent on
tempering their idealism in order to sustain it.
ZAMBOANGA CITY - The Italian
priest Father Angel Calvo remembers that Abdurajak
Janjalani had attended Claret. To think that the
founder of the Abu Sayyaf had gone to Catholic
school, the very one at which Father Calvo has
been teaching for decades; to think of him in a
white, button-down shirt and blue shorts, with a
face as guileless as all the boys who have ever
gone to Claret. The priest remembers the fact -
trivia, really - for its incongruity with
Janjalani's fate, the Janjalani who came to his
end, fittingly, with a hole in his face.
Other facts seem more helpful in
explaining his radicalization. He went to Jedda on
a scholarship, then to Tripoli, where he met Nur
Misuari, founder of the MNLF. Then, of course, he
went to Afghanistan, where he fought the Soviets
as a mujahedeen in the guerilla brigade of a
Professor Abu Sayyaf. He became a terrorist there,
in the Middle East, in Afghanistan - that's what
Zamboangenos would like to believe. Father Calvo
believes that if Janjalani became a terrorist
abroad, he learned to hate here, in a city that
Many Christian Zamboangenos
still hate Muslims. They hate that Zamboanga is
becoming as much a Muslim city as it is a
Christian one. "Christians still have in mind the
Zamboanga of 50 years ago," an exasperated Father
Calvo explains. "They have this attitude that
Muslims are spoiling our city."
bigotry, he argues, enables the Abu Sayyaf. "They
are not just bandits. Their kidnapping, their
extortion, their murder finds justification in
ideology. Not a systematic ideology, maybe, but an
expression of anger over dispossession and
This feeling of grievance
would seem to license their criminal activities -
and not just in their eyes. "You can hear the
silence of Muslim communities," laments the
priest. "There is no overwhelming sense of
condemnation [against the Abu Sayyaf] but a sense,
instead, of ... what? Solidarity? Vindication?"
Grace Rebollos, a professor at Western
Mindanao State University, delights in citing Fort
Pilar as a metaphor for how Zamboanga is changing.
The old Spanish fort, now a shrine to the Virgin
Mary, once served as a lookout for pirates -
synonymous, in those days, with Moros or Filipino
Muslims. The Virgin herself is said to have awoken
sleeping soldiers as pirate ships approached and
to have even sent tempests to scatter the ships.
Rebollos' point is that Fort Pilar was once a
figure for what Zamboanga represented: a Christian
bastion in Muslim Mindanao. But now, she points
out, even Muslims light candles at the shrine.
Rebollos agrees with Father Calvo, the
problem is cultural. Muslims and Christians don't
know how to relate to each other except as
antagonists, even as the city they share is
putting them increasingly in contact. "It is up to
the communities now," Father Calvo says, "to
dismantle prejudice and ignorance, to search for
common ground together."
"We don't need grandiose goals, but gestures of
peace: small, humble steps."
organizations that have undertaken such steps, few
seem as ambitious as Sarang Bangon. In Tausug, the
language of Jolo's Muslims, Sarang Bangon means
"well-built". This is what Edward Lim intended
when he founded the grade school; that it be built
on the rock of "right Muslim values".
an engineer by training, shares the view held by
Calvo and Rebollos that genuine peace requires
cultural reconstruction. "Poverty is not the only
obstacle to reconciliation. Politics will not
solve this [because] politicians exploit the
issue. We need to educate each other, to create a
new conscience in the larger community."
Lim founded Sarang Bangon in 1990 as a
kindergarten. He had an old house converted into
the school. The assistant principal, Noel Lariza,
remembers holding class in a kitchen regularly
visited by peripatetic chickens and cats. Now a
complex of several houses, including a mosque, the
school extends to the seventh grade.
Sarang Bangon has grown in reputation as
well. It has been ranked the third-best small
school in Zamboanga for the second year in a row.
Fully 100% of its students pass the national
high-school entrance exam, and many of them are
Because Lim wants
the kids "brought up with God", Islamic training
is a large part of the Sarang Bangon curriculum.
The school aims to cultivate not just academic
excellence but exemplary Islamic conduct. Hence,
classes on Islamic studies, Arabic, and philosophy
are included in the curriculum. Students are also
escorted to the campus mosque for their daily
But Sarang Bangon is not an
Islamic school. While most of the school's
students may be Muslims, many of its teachers,
including its principal and assistant principal,
are Christians. Lim has resisted pressure from
outside groups to impose a stricter Islamic
agenda. Teachers largely follow the national
curriculum, and students regularly participate in
activities - such as ethnic dances and
dramatizations of Muslim-Christian relations -
that, in the United States, would be labeled
Sarang Bangon is really
the kind of rarefied environment that only the
innocence of childhood can keep from
disintegrating. Lim knows that outside his careful
preserve, the children must contend with the
inherited hatreds that divide Zamboanga. This
makes him all the more anxious to impress
tolerance as part of their religious practice.
Ultimately, Lim thinks small. He believes
that communities must do the work of understanding
each other from the bottom up. "They must build
bridges along lines of agreement, work on points
of tangency, explore areas of compromise," he
says. So what he really sees in the tiny girls in
green dresses and white shawls, in the pint-sized
boys in white shirts and green slacks scurrying
from class to class or to the mosque for the
mid-day prayer are hundreds and hundreds of small,
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times
Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us
for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)