Frontline World

PHILIPPINES - Islands Under Siege, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Islands Under Siege"

On the Front Lines in Mindanao

Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines

Population, Government, Economy

Muslim Rebels, U.S. Presence, Politics




Reporter's Diary: Orlando de Guzman
Arriving in Jolo: Insurgents in Paradise

Palm trees line the beach

Jolo and its surrounding islands are home to some of the world's most enchanting beaches.
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.

Kids collecting water

Kids collect water at a popular beach resort near Jolo.
"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.
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.

Volcano in the sunset

One of Jolo's many extinct volcanoes.
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.

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 the barracks.

Homes built on stilts on the water

Jolo's dense neighborhoods are built on stilts to combat the swelling tides.
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 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


back to top