A MORO IN EXILE: Smiling Back at Kuya Sammy

As heartbreaking as news of his demise was, I still couldn’t help but smile while reminiscing about this fellow who recently left us.

I can still picture him popping up at my office in the former MinHRAC (Mindanao Human Rights Action Center). I usually hear him first before seeing him. With that raspy and Barry White-like voice of his, he would call out “atorni” as soon as he entered the building and proceed to my office to share with me the latest bit of interesting news or funny anecdote he recently got his hands on – but not before engaging in playful banter with my female colleagues first. Unable to resist his charm, they would indulge him.

The humblest and most unassuming NGO worker that I have ever known, you couldn’t help but be charmed by his self-deprecating sense of humor. As another colleague narrates, he often bragged that, because of his sexy voice, he has won many fans just by talking to them on the phone . He then adds that he quickly loses those fans as soon as they see him in person.

Underneath his humor and relaxed demeanor, however, was a serious and genuine commitment to help others. It did not matter to him whether you are a friend or a stranger. If you needed help, he will give it, no questions asked. Those times that he went with us on rescue missions, he did not personally know who we were going to help, “let’s just go, atorni”. He was not eveb a paid staff of my office and he had his duties as Sec-Gen of CBCS. But that did not stop him from volunteering.

He was also not the type who sought recognition for his efforts. As quickly as he would appear to join us in missions, he would quietly disappear once our task was done. It seems he genuinely just wanted to help, especially those whose basic human rights are in danger. Once he has rendered his service, he would quietly excuse himself. In his words, “I just don’t want them to experience what I went through”, he explained. “I was incarcerated in Fort Bonifacio during Martial Law and subjected to all sorts of physical and psychological torture and I know the feeling of being forgotten, the fear that even if you disappeared from this planet, no one will care, no one will look for you”, he added. He then shares matter of factly “when they put me in solitary confinement, I ended up talking to the ants in my cell”.

Tributes are now coming in for this down to earth and gentle person from his friends and colleagues. I can guaranty he deserves the accolades. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen him in action, let me show some pictures. The first two are of him at the North Cotabato Provincial PNP.

“The humblest and most unassuming NGO worker,” according to the author.

Two youngsters were arrested the day before and our office wanted to look into their condition. We had reason to believe they would be subjected to “exotic” interrogation techniques. We needed to show numbers when we went to the PNP with the CHR but was having a hard time looking for volunteers. He heard about it the morning of our mission and he immediately said “I just woke up, let me just wash my face, make myself some coffee and you can pick me up”. We picked him up moments later, handed him one of our vests, and off we went. Getting him on board was that simple.

Once we got to PNP-North Cotabato, he had none of the nervousness that I sometimes see in other Moro HR volunteers, at least those who are brave enough to actually go on missions with us. He was calm and composed in dealing with the police. This was the first time I saw him in action and this was also the time he shared with me his experience in Fort Bonifacio during Martial Law.

The other two pictures were taken at the roundabout along the national highway in Datu Saudi. I had just attended an emergency meeting at the ORC between NGOs and government agencies. Fighting had broken out between the AFP and BIFF and civilians were in desperate need of assistance. Assistance was ready for dispatch but the fighting was getting close to the highway and aid agencies were reluctant to risk sending a convoy. There was an unverified report that fighting already reached certain portions of the highway. So, my office volunteered to go on reconnaissance mission and, if needed, punch a humanitarian corridor between Cotabato City and Datu Saudi or at least show to the other agencies that it is possible to send an aid convoy.

Sammy Maulana with lawyers Naguib Sinarimbo (left) and the author, Zainudin Malang, then Executive Director of MinHRAC.

He was also in the meeting. He looked at me and, without saying anything, I already knew he wanted to tag along. Long and short of it, we managed to show the road is passable. The smiles on our faces in the picture belie the fact that we were just a few hundred meters from the frontline. We actually took a video footage of an APC exchanging fire with BIFF combatants just 200m from where we were. That is how him and I, and our other colleagues were. We never waste a good joke, even in the tensest of moments.

Brother, I can somehow see you now, with your signature checkered scarf around your neck, looking down and smiling at all of us your friends, with your clenched fist raised, telling us “tuloy lang ang laban, mga kapatid.

Today is a Friday. I will say a prayer for you, brother. I too will raise my fist and say “you are finally free, Kuya Sammy, until the next time we see each other”. And then smile back at you.

(Editor’s note: Sammy Maulana passed away early morning of June 20 in a hospital in Manila)

(Zainudin Malang is a lawyer from Mindanao who spent years on deployment in acute emergencies in East Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he was the founding head of a human rights and civilian protection organization in Mindanao and was one of the five members of the peace process monitoring body.)