Jolo's volcanic mountains rise sharply from the turquoise waters
of the Sulu Sea. It is an island formed by fire: Everywhere you
look there are clues to its violent geological past. The terrain
is stunning, with dense jungle covering most of the island's near-perfect
volcanic cones. It would be a perfect place to set up a beach
resort -- if it weren't for the island's other, more lucrative
business. Jolo has long been home to a number of Islamic insurgent
groups -- the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF), and others. The most recent one, Abu
Sayyaf, has degenerated into a notorious kidnapping group, which
the government says is linked to al Qaeda. Dozens of foreign tourists
and journalists have been held captive on the island -- some released
only after paying thousands of dollars in ransoms.
Jolo and its surrounding islands are home to some of the world's
most enchanting beaches.
"Jolo is nature friendly, but not very people friendly," my friend
Alfadhar Pajiji, or "Fads," cheerfully reminds me as I gaze out
of our ferry's portholes, admiring the view. I could never have
made it to Jolo without the help of Fads, whom I met by chance
in Manila as he was giving a talk. Fads -- a Jolo native, educated
in Manila -- was offering up a passionate appeal to the public for
aid to civilian casualties after a military offensive in Jolo,
and arguing for an end to the military operations in his homeland.
He invited me to come for myself and see what was happening.
Kids collect water at a popular beach resort near Jolo.
Most people on the island
loathe the military. It's not uncommon for pitched gun battles
between the military and equally armed civilians to erupt
in the center of town.
There are two ways to travel safely to Jolo: You can be escorted
by a dozen or so heavily armed soldiers from the Philippine
military, or you can keep a low profile and go with a trusted
friend, as I did with Fads. Going with the military is a guarantee
that no one will talk to you.
Years of military rule have placed power firmly in the hands of
the men with the most guns -- the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Most people on the island loathe the military: even those who
do not share the separatist views of the various insurgent movements
often seem enraged by the Philippine military's occupation.
One of Jolo's many extinct volcanoes.
In the outskirts of Jolo's town center, the number of bullet holes
that mark the gates to the army's main barracks give you a good
idea of the public's sentiments toward the military. It's not
uncommon for pitched gun battles between the military and equally
armed civilians to erupt in the center of town. One such incident
occurred last year during a demonstration by residents against
the government The fighting began near the crowded market and
continued all the way to the military camp, where both sides lobbed
mortar shells over the high walls that ringed the barracks, the
civilians from outside the barracks and the military from inside
Decades of war between the central government and separatists
have insured that the area remains one of the poorest in the
Philippines. The main town on Jolo relies on expensive crude
oil to run an ailing power generator. Every night, rolling blackouts
plunge the island into darkness. The local hospital lacks basic
sterilization equipment and suffers from chronic medical shortages.
"There are only two ways the government in Manila makes its
presence felt in Jolo," a local resident said to me. "They print
the bank notes we use in the market; but besides that, the only
other government presence here is the military."
Jolo's dense neighborhoods are built on stilts to combat the
Jolo is a heavily militarized island. There are about 5,000
Philippine troops here, most of them concentrated near the town
center. The soldiers mill about in almost every street corner,
their rifles lowered menacingly. Abu Sayyaf's estimated numbers
range from 200 to a thousand men. Many on the island wonder
out loud why the government hasn't been able to get rid of Abu
Sayyaf, given that the rebels are vastly outnumbered. Now U.S.
Special Forces are going to train the Filipino soldiers how
to fight Abu Sayyaf.
NEXT: Songs of Resistance
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