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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 20, 2005

PART 2: The nostalgic garden
By Marco Z Garrido

Part 1: The doctor's album

Chapter 4
The nostalgic garden

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.

Mustafa's garden 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.

"I 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..

"The Abu 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 death."

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 razed.

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 been."

Chapter 5
Occupational hazards

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 Picasso's sketchbook.

"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'."

The Americans 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 deteriorated.

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 warriors).

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.

Yacob 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 Sayyaf."

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."

Chapter 6

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 idealism.

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 thieves."

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.

Yet despite 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."

Edil was 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?"

The 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."

These 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 allies.

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.

Chapter 7
Small, humble steps

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 hated Muslims.

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."

Christian 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 prejudice."

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."

Rebollos argues, "We don't need grandiose goals, but gestures of peace: small, humble steps."

Of the 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".

Lim, 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 awarded scholarships.

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 prayers.

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 "multicultural".

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, humble steps.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


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