KISSA AND DAWAT: The 1974 Battle of Jolo, narratives and quest for social conscience

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 08 Feb)Yes narratives, plural, because the February 1974 battle of Jolo was not just a narrative of one or a narrative of victors. Because it was not undertaken by a lone group or it is a question of win-loss mentality. Between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) locked in tight combat with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were tens of thousands of civilians.  We will never know how many died and were maimed exactly.

The Tausug has a term for innumerable, “mataud tuud!” (too many) and it came down to us as such – too many destroyed, too many dead, too many burned, too many maimed, too many scarred for life, too many orphaned and widowed, too many in diaspora and never to return again, because their pre-1974 Jolo was shattered forever.

This year, aside from their narratives, it is also worth discovering what and where Uncle Sam, our big brother, stands on this issue. Thanks to WikiLeaks, official diplomatic cables are now available to us.

The victims’ narratives

I was born in Tulay, Jolo, Sulu, in 1972 and was barely two years old when the Battle of Jolo occurred in seven bloody days in February 1974. It was roughly seven bloody days of destruction, death and displacement at a scale unimaginable.  It was because of this war that our family was forced to seek refuge in Tawi-Tawi.  As I was growing up, the horrors and agonies of that war was repeated in stories from my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunties, and elders cousins.

Fazlur-Rahman Abdulla, the head of the Sulu Action Coordinating Center (SACC) in his Facebook post remembers the “families fleeing to the hinterlands and others staying at pier for days. The port of Jolo was fortified with soldiers and civilians wait for navy ships to transport them to Zamboanga.”

Warina Ismuraji, Coordinator for Western Mindanao of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), recalls her family’s dangerous route around town in the midst of an active battle, seeking temporary shelters, until they left the town proper and found refuge among relatives in an adjacent municipality.

Former National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) Secretary Atty Mehol Sadain wrote and posted a short poem in his Facebook account.

The Aftermath of the Battle of Jolo
February 7, 1974 

The day Jolo burned was the day
Our martyrs rose from their graves
The day we rose from our slumber
The day we saw the last of the fires
The day we found in our hearts
The fervor of the old days
The wailing of the dead
From the depths of the earth.
The day Jolo burned was the day
We re-ignited the blaze in our hearts.

His brother, Said Sadain Jr.,  wrote about his so-called “Jolo-caust” experience and this was published by MindaNews. Please follow this link to read –

The world needs to know violence was brought to our shore, as OBYA-ARMM Executive Director Amir Mawallil wrote in his latest article. In the beginning it was the Spaniards, then a succession of one colonial after another. The Spaniards, the Americans and the Japanese have left, but the violence remains and has become a culture, a stereotype and a prejudice against a peaceful people seeking their proper place under the sun. Heart-breaking but true.

The MNLF narrative – Fighting neo-colonialism

The MNLF narrative on the Battle of Jolo is published in their website. You can read them in full here –

For the MNLF, Jolo joins a succession of military genocides in Pata, Patikul, Indanan and Maimbung. In their website, they argue, “the two-day continued Philippine Navy (PN) battleships bombardments from the sea, and the Philippine Air Force (PAF) jet fighter planes, T-28 ‘Tora-Tora’ warplanes and helicopter gunships bombardments and machine-gun firing from the sky led to the burning of the central Tulay mosque, Chinese Pun Tai Kung temple and the entire commercial town of Jolo, killing more than 20,000 Muslim, Christian and Chinese civilians with countless material losses.” It was the military, not them who destroyed Jolo.

The AFP narrative – Protecting Martial Law

There is no doubt that the secessionist movement down south was further complicated by the Martial Law regime. For the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), it was to put down a rebellion against the State. There is a short account on the Battle of Jolo, particularly one against the MNLF stronghold in Sibalu Hill, from the perspective of the Philippine Air Force (PAF), “By dawn, wave upon wave of F-5 and F-86 fighters, as well as T-33 jets and C-47 gunships, took off for Jolo every minute – bombarding the enemy camp accurately and relentlessly. After each sortie – some pilots flew three sorties during that attack – the aircraft would dart back to Mactan to reload. Before the morning was over, helicopters landed at Sibalu Hill to extricate the Marines that narrowly escaped a massacre.” Additional information can be read online here –

The American Narrative

The American view regarding the Battle of Jolo comes in the form of leaked diplomatic correspondence which was classified by June 2005. One cable bearing the canonical ID: 1974MANILA01682_b dated 1974 February 13, 09:35 (Wednesday) bears the title “JOLO CITY DESTROYED IN MUSLIM REBEL ATTACK”. The WikiLeaks page is available here –

In this particular correspondence from the US embassy in Manila to the 13TH AF, Commander in Chief US Pacific Command and the Department of State, they were aware of the then South Western Command (SOWECOM) head General Admiral Espaldon’s preferred “policy of attraction” going on for the past five months, a period of rebel returnees getting back to the mainstream and given access to government resources and local positions.

However, as of January 1974, there was an increasing number of government forces on Jolo Island in preparation for a major offensive because the MNLF had started taking over other towns. By late January, the skirmishes between these forces were becoming more frequent and closer than ever before.

By February 4, AFP forces landed in Jolo to retake areas from MNLF control and by February 7 the MNLF had attacked the Army’s main post defending the airport. An American observer based in Zamboanga learned from AFP sources that between February 7 and 9, in a period of three days, the airport was lost to and retaken from the rebels twice, in a cat and mouse duel, I suppose!

On February 11, the AFP was strong enough to hold back the MNLF forces and made possible the visit of then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and chief of staff General Espino. The Americans knew napalm was used by the PAF. The Embassy knew napalm bombing “may have added to fire, which quickly destroyed most of the town. Government officials have claimed that rebels set torch to the city”.

Napalm is an incendiary weapon considered as “effective against fortified positions, like bunkers, caves and tunnels, as well as vehicles, convoys, small bases and structures. It clings to whatever it touches, creating a large, hotly burning area around the target. This feature also decreases the need for accuracy when dropping napalm bombs.”[1] Earlier during the Vietnam War, the American dropped around 388,000 tons of napalm during 1963 -1973 period [2] It was only in 1980 that the United Nations banned the use of incendiary weapons on civilians.

The local police, under the command of town mayor, was found to have fired on the government’s air forces rather than the rebels, and together retreated to the interior where they were sought by the AFP. The mayor’s son was among those dead and led the attack from the MNLF side.

As of February 13, 1973, what the embassy knew then from the AFP intelligence chief General Paz are the following:

  • 40,000 persons were made homeless in Jolo.
  • 18,000 of these refugees were transported by Coast Guard boasts to Zamboanga.

Initial government relief efforts were in the form of funds, nutribuns and clothing. Ah … the popular nutribun that was used to feed students in public schools!

The Embassy’s comments regarding the Jolo battle: The confusing political situation and polarization would benefit consolidation for the MNLF and flare up discontent in other areas.  If so, it will isolate the AFP and reduce its local support.

Back then as it is now, the local belief is that the government is bent on military solution to the insurgency, because the government’s development benefits have not really trickled down. The promises, too, did not materialize.

A few days ago, the incumbent Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana,  was quoted to have reiterated the “all-out-war” policy. Have we not learned lessons from the Battle of Jolo in 1974 and other similar operations?

43 years after – the quest for social conscience

Four decades after the Battle of Jolo, the military solution is still the government’s default policy. This default has come to symbolize something – a phrase to explain what you can’t defeat or do not fully understand; a routine military work with no relevance to overall goal of nation-building; a term to justify internal corruption; a palliative balm to sooth the majority of the people momentarily; a knee-jerk response to the media when you can’t think of anything substantial at the time of interview; and a government action gone berserk by killing its own people.

Under the current government, with the President hailing from Mindanao and claiming Moro blood and affinity, it has accommodated the different MNLF factions and pushed the latter back in the peace process. This is good for the meantime to keep the relative peace and order situation. But in the long haul, the Battle of Jolo reminds us, that undelivered promises are just a stick away from mayhem of the 1974 magnitude.

Those seeking violent redress of their grievances, the Battle of Jolo provides us a classic lesson – does the end justify the means? Imagine a crude version of napalm bomb can yield this destruction: “A 2,500-square-yard area could be engulfed in flame by a single bomb. However, dropping napalm from high-speed aircraft was not so accurate. This resulted in a large number of innocent civilians suffering serious harm.”[2] In the Vietnam War where napalm effects were documented, “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine … water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212°F). Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius (1,500–2,200°F).” [3] That was 20th century technology. Imagine now the capacity for destruction of 21st century technology!

There is no doubt that there is money to be made and interest to be protected in war. This is an aspect of the Military Industrial Complex that continues to fuel local obsession with conspiracy theory. Then and now, the war in Mindanao has become a microcosm of global anti-terror war, complicating what is already one of the longest protracted conflicts in the world!

We cannot depend largely on leaders. The Battle of Jolo was led by them on both sides. We need a social conscience that will not provide refuge for violence and destruction. The Mindanao Problem is not just a program of the Moros, it is a Filipino Problem. Since we have created this country and insisted on its unity and included those peoples who have been lukewarm from joining since Day One, it behooves the majority to show social conscience.

In the online Cambridge Dictionary, it says, “If you have a social conscience, you worry about people who are poor, ill, old, etc. and try to help them.” The Oxford Living Dictionaries views it this way, “a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society”. This is the mindset and the attitude we need. This is not dependent on leaders; this is dependent on a critical mass of Filipinos to complement the peace-loving and conscientious Moros from within! It is only then that sustainable peace and inclusive change are possible.

[1] “How Napalm Works” ,
[2] Napalm in Vietnam War”,
[3] “Napalm Survivor Tells of Healing After Vietnam War”,

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue).