Don't believe the hype-not even my hype. It's dangerous here. But it's not Baghdad. I got off the boat feeling pretty nervous. Julie Alipala met me right away. She wore a lime green bandana and was sporting a t-shirt that read "I'm saved by Jesus, Are you?" Pretty bold statement in a land where Catholics are a tiny minority and have been killed for not believing in some wacked-out version of Islam. The Armed Forces of the Philippines didn't have to bring in more boots from the mainland to chase Malik. Close to 5,000 soldiers are already stationed on this 345-square mile patch of volcanic mountains that juts ut from the Sulu Sea. They've spent the last 15 years fighting the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf with some success. However, the effort to stamp out virulent terrorism in southwestern Mindanao has cost many lives and created a distaste for the military among Tausugs. Still, the Marines, Army and Navy trudge on in their quest.
The Army now claims Malik may be in cahoots with not only Abu Sayyaf members, but perhaps even two or three Jemaah Islamiyyah suspects believed to be hiding out down here. They include Dulmaten and Ulmar Patek, two shady dudes who had a hand in the 2002 Bali bombings. Total annihilation of the Abu Sayyaf remains the stated goal. It's definitely become a weaker, more rag-tag band of extremists with only marginal civilian support.
American and Filipino officials believe that by wiping them out through both soft and hard warfare, Sulu may end up being the tropical paradise it looks like 500 yards off shore. One Philippine navy officer said the large string of islands with its white sandy beaches even had the potential to compete aesthetically with resorts like the world-famous Boracay. "If only there would be peace and order. It's not in the culture here," he lamented. What is not in the culture here I wondered? A desire for peace? Another officer implied Tausugs wouldn't know what to do with hotels even if they had them. No wonder Tausugs hate the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Julie whisked me off on the back of a flatbed green Tamaraw pick-up that had definitely seen better days. We stopped at MNLF member's house for lunch, then proceeded directly to Panamao. There were four of us, including our happy driver Bhy, stuffed in the front cab. The fuel tank wobbled around at our feet and sometimes splashed gas onto our pants and shoes. And Bhy had a serious addiction to blowing the horn every 5 minutes to clear kids, chickens and cows out of our path. We arrived at a Marine checkpoint in which a poster of all JI and Abu Sayyaf suspects hung from bunker's wall. A soldier walked up and began checking off all wanted suspects who have been killed or arrested. There were a lot of checks on the mugshots.
After waiting at another checkpoint where Malik detained Gen. Dolorfino last February, we finally got the clearance to drive to Camp. Jabal Uhot. It took the Marines a couple of days to seize the camp from Malik's men. I believed they raised a Philippine flag outside Malik's pagoda-shaped quarters on Apr. 15 or 16th. The small complex had sustained heavy small arms and mortar fire. Several houses had been destroyed and coconut trees were torn in two. If it hadn't been for the signs of war, Jabal Uhot could have been a venue for a small fiesta. Marines sat around playing guitar, eating chow and resting in hammocks. Col. Tony Ga showed Julie and I around and pointed out that a stash of mortars found buried under a building were marked US insignia printed on them. Hmm… yet another conspiracy theory?
It was a short trip that generated few photos. The signs of war were there, but the war itself was now in the surrounding mountains. Col. Ga estimated that Maliks' men may be hiding within three or four kilometers.
On the way back we stopped at the same Marine base near the lake to thank Col. Mel Ordiales for giving us access to the area. They had just seized 25 sacks of bomb-making chemicals off a jeep 30 minutes after we left the camp for Camp Jabal Uhot. That's 600 kilos of bad, bad shit. Three US soldiers appeared to inspect the find, and then started up a billiards game with the Filipino marines. I said what's up, but there was no time for an interview.
It was getting dark. We made a night drive back toward Jolo. The road was rough, and a million stars dotted the night sky. How serene it felt. I tried not to envision an ambush. Hopefully our old green beater for a car didn't look too much like an army jeep. My dad asked me not to take risks while down here. I can't think of a greater risk than to travel through a war zone at night. Maybe one day I'll learn. While eating dinner back at Pang Lima's house, the 35th IB began shelling the mountains behind us. The explosions sounded so close, literally just behind the hill. Turns out the rounds landed at least 2 or 3 kilometers away and were targeted toward Kahid Adjibon's MNLF troops. It reminded me of the time I stood next to a 105mm gun in 2003 back in central Mindanao and photographed soldiers as they fired more than 20 rounds toward MILF positions in the Liguasan Marsh. There's something grossly fascinating about the sounds of war.
Julie and I made a quick stop at an evacuation center in Indanan. Close to 8,000 people had turned classrooms into a safe haven after fleeing recent hostilities. The Atta family had erected a plastic tarp beneath the roof of a bus stop and was busy eating dinner when we arrived. The children said they heard the artillery fire and got scared. They went to bed that night listening to entirely different sounds than what was coming from the Marine's guitar.