PATIKUL, Sulu (MindaNews/17 March) — At the privately-owned Hadji Warid Wharf here on Friday noon, Amelia laughed as she admitted how she repeatedly texted Ibrahim, her 20-year old son in Sandakan, Sabah, to beg him to come home.
Ibrahim, a construction worker, was torn between leaving and staying on. In Pilipino, he said, “I wanted to go home but not immediately.” It was March 9 and payday was still six days away. He had no 200 ringgits (around 3,000 pesos) for the fare home but his mother was adamant. “Borrow money,” she ordered. He did.
Records of the Sulu Area Coordinating Center (SACC) showed that Ibrahim is just one of 1,677 persons who fled Sabah and arrived in various ports in Sulu since March 7.
Of this number, 1,470 were monitored to have arrived directly in Sulu from Sabah while 207 persons, according to provincial social welfare officer Maydelyn Malli Bahjun came via Tawi-tawi and had been documented there.
Since the aerial and ground attacks in Lahad Datu, Sabah on March 5 signaled the start of Malaysia’s Operasi Daulat (Operations Uphold Sovereignty) and the subsequent crackdown on suspected members and supporters of Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, hundreds of Filipinos living and working in Sabah, particularly those without legal documents, have fled Sabah.
Governor Sakur Tan on Friday said Sulu likely has more evacuees from Sabah than Tawi-tawi. This was confirmed by Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman who met with provincial officials Sunday afternoon in the governor’s hometown in Maimbung.
The DSWD record showed a total of 2,416 persons who fled Sabah as of Sunday — 1,470 in Sulu and 946 in Tawi-tawi.
Amelia said she didn’t care anymore if there would be no remittance coming from Ibrahim who has worked for a year in Sabah. All she wanted was for her son to be safe at home.
In the rush to leave Sabah, Ibrahim said they boarded M/L Fatima Editha III, a wooden hulled boat which he said was supposed to load sacks of rice but did not because the owners took pity on those who wanted to leave Sabah.
The boat carried 512 passengers when it left Sandakan at 3 p.m. on March 9, nearly thrice its passenger capacity of 180, Ibrahim said.
He narrated that the boat reached Taganak in the town of Turtle Islands, Tawi-tawi that same evening and spent three nights there because authorities did not allow the overloaded boat to proceed to Bongao. A Philippine Navy boat came to transfer the other passengers.
Ibrahim said they left Taganak for Bongao at 4 p.m. on March 12, arriving there at 10 a.m. on March 13. The boat left Bongao for Patikul in Sulu at 9:30 p.m. arriving here at 12 noon March 15.
Stranger in the land of his birth
Inside the garden tent set up by the SACC to welcome and attend to the new arrivals at the Hadji Warid wharf in Barangay Mauboh here, 21-year old Usman wondered what fate awaited him in Zamboanga City, the last leg of their long journey on board M/L Fatima Editha III from Sandakan.
Usman, also a construction worker like Ibrahim, has no idea how Zamboanga City looks even as he was born there. His family moved to Sandakan before he reached the age of 2. He has six siblings, four of them born in Sabah.
With him on the boat were 12 members of his family: his parents, five of his six siblings (a sister stayed behind in Sabah with her husband) and nephews and nieces.
Fazlur Rahman Abdulla, SACC Executive Director, said several government and non-governmental organizations have been mobilized to welcome the evacuees or paguys, a Tausug word to describe those who fled Sabah without having been arrested, detained or deported through the Malaysian immigration process.
Abdulla told MindaNews that various government and non-government agencies have come together under the “Sulu Humanitarian Reception for Sabah Evacuees” – the Department of Social Welfare and Development at the frontlines, feeding the newly-arrived as soon as the boats dock and the Department of Health providing medical assistance.
He said part of the reception line are the mayors or barangay captains, the Red Cross, the military and police. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Regional Human Rights Commission and the NGO Mindanao Human Rights Action Center have also sent representatives.
Abdulla said the stories told by the “paguys” were not only about their fear of war or complaints of human rights violations as earlier reported but also of the kindness of people. He said the owner of a cargo boat threw away 50 empty drums that were supposed to be filled in Sabah, to ferry the evacuees home.
Erma Carpizo, coordinator of the Health Emergency Management of the Integrated Provincial Hospital Office in Sulu said that as soon as the evacuees are fed and attended to by social workers, health workers approach them and encourage them to have a medical check up.
Carpizo said they also explain to them that the government has a program against malaria and since malaria is endemic in Sabah, it would be best if they go through a blood test for malaria. But she said the test is voluntary.
The DOH also hands out insecticide-treated bed nets to the evacuees. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)