TIPO-TIPO, Basilan (MindaNews/23 September) — Abdulhusin Inam had yet to learn how to walk so his parents and siblings would carry him as they flee the village of Baguindan at the height of the Moro revolution in the 1970s.
As soon as he learned to walk, Inam’s father taught him how to run fast to save his life as hostilities wracked their village in the jungles of Tipo-tipo town.
More than four decades later, life in Baguindan has not changed.
Members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) once took the village as a strategic site. Soon after the peace deal was signed in 1996, the breakaway group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) established the village as one of their many “areas of temporary stay” in the island province of Basilan.
Things took a turn for the worse when the Abu Sayyaf took over the village and made it their safe haven. Here, many kidnap victims were kept in the community.
Since then, the Abu Sayyaf has lorded over the village. Isnilon Hapilon, one of the most senior leaders of the Abu-Sayyaf, even attempted to declare this village, along with other areas in Basilan, as part of the Islamic State as they pledged their allegiance to the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“Life here is difficult,” said Inam who is now in his 40s. He has long learned to run away from the sound of gunfire, and has mastered the art of evacuating.
While he knows how to count, he no longer remembers how many of his relatives and neighbors have been killed by the armed conflict.
Many of the villagers have stopped building their homes in Baguindan. They only return to the village once in a while to look after their farms and livestock. Most of the residents grow coconut trees from which they harvest the fruit and sell the dried meat for cooking oil, and rubber, a major agricultural crop in the island province.
“When there is a military operation most of our crops are destroyed. Our livestock are either stolen or killed in the crossfire,” said Bisahari Hantian, village chief of Baguindan for more than nine years.
“We don’t want to stay here anymore since we are constantly being harassed by the Abu Sayyaf, often forcing us to join them,” Inam lamented.
Early this year, law enforcement operations intensified to root out the threat of the Abu Sayyaf, following a surge of kidnapping activities in the Sulu archipelago. These operations were done in coordination with local government units and the local police force.
The operations in Baguindan have resulted to the killing of a Moroccan citizen named Mohammad Khattab, believed to be propagating extremism in the area with the support of the Abu Sayyaf.
By mid-August, Baguindan was eventually wrested from the hands of the Abu Sayyaf by government forces.
“When we arrived here on August 16, the smell of gunpowder still lingered in the air and the atmosphere was tense,”
Lt. Col. Ernest John Jadloc, battalion commander of the 74th Infantry Battalion (IB) said.
“During our first few weeks here, there were still sporadic clashes. But I hope that as time passes, peace will eventually reign in this area,” he said.
The success of the joint operations signals the start of the transformation of Baguindan from a notorious hideout for bandits into a peaceful community.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) acknowledged the many challenges to reclaiming the village from its history of armed conflict.
“Hundreds have been killed in this area. People here are tired and sick of the war which began more than 40 years ago as the Moro revolution was waged by the MNLF and MILF, and now as terror is sown by the Abu Sayyaf,” said Hataman, who is a native of Basilan.
Hataman said it was his first time to step inside Baguindan on Sunday, September 18, as he brought along different regional government agencies with him for a humanitarian mission.
“It has always been my dream to visit Baguindan,” Hataman said as his voiced cracked with emotion.
“If I am scared to come to Baguindan, then who will? Basilan is my birthplace,” Hataman told hundreds of villagers from a makeshift stage littered with holes from bomb splinters – reminders of the brutal war.
With the governnor was his wife Rep. Sitti Djalia Turabin-Hataman of Anak Mindanao (AMIN) party list and two of his children.
“Sinoman sa atin, walang gustong may gulo (Not one of us wants violence). I reiterate the key for change and peace in Baguindan or anywhere else in Basilan is the people. If we don’t want the Abu Sayyaf to lord over us, then we must not support them,” he said.
As proof, the governor narrated that even his family shared the same fate.
Hataman said they have a relative who is a member of the Abu Sayyaf and who tried to seek refuge in their area.
“Even if he is our relative we fought against his presence and kicked him out in our area,” he said, adding “It was not because we hate them, but we dread their presence because of their acts of violence and we know more people will be victimized.”
The Truth of Islam
“When they (Abu-Sayyaf) come to our place, do we hear them say they will bring progress or help us rebuild our lives? No. What they teach us is to fight the government and that those who are against Islam should be killed.”
“If we follow their ideology, no one will survive the madness that the Abu-Sayyaf is perpetrating in the communities in Basilan,” Hataman said.
Citing the extremism that has become rampant in parts of the Middle East, Hataman explained that countries such as Iraq and Syria have been swayed by wrong ideology on Islam.
“Civilization in these countries has been established centuries ahead of us, but development and progress are hampered by the emergence of radical group,” he told villagers.
“What I am trying to say to the people here is that the solution to normalize in this area is not only in the hands of those in the government, but also in the hands of the communities themselves,” he said as he rallied people to shun extremism and help the government transform their community.
Hataman said it is not enough to bring basic services to the area. Just as important is getting rid of wrong teachings about Islam in the community, he added.
Among the measures to address this is to mobilize moderate Islamic scholars in Basilan.
Dr. Abulkhair Tarazon, president of the Basilan Ulama Council, said clerics in the island province have begun to teach a basic understanding of Islam in mosques as a response to the hatred being propagated by extremists in the area.
During the People’s Day in Baguindan last Sunday, health and social workers from the region’s humanitarian emergency action response team (ARMM-HEART) brought hundreds of relief food packs and provided free medical consultation along with free medicines.
To help children in school, the health department provided more than 700 school supplies. They also carried out feeding program for children.
The People’s Day was conducted in coordination with the provincial government of Basilan.
“The assistance brought by the ARMM regional government is just the first salvo towards the full transformation of this community,” said Basilan governor Hadjiman “Jim” S. Hataman-Saliman, the ARMM Governor’s older brother.
He said the military has now established a battalion to secure the village and the neighboring barangays.
“Our aim here is for us, both the government and the villagers, to prevent the Abu Sayyaf from setting up a stronghold here again,” he said.
The older Hataman said he is allocating P10-million to fund basic infrastructures in the area to spur development.
Village chief Hantian hopes the gradual transformation of Baguindan will now encourage villagers to rebuild their homes in the area.
“Years of on-and-off armed conflict in Baguindan are very traumatic. However, with the presence of the security forces and government agencies here, there is a bright future for the village,” Hantian said.
(Amir Mawallil is the executive director of the ARMM Bureau of Public Information)