Tawi-Tawi continues bracing for arrivals from Sabah

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews/16 March) — One hundred eighty-four Filipino evacuees from Sabah arrived in Taganak in the Turtle islands Friday for fear of being rounded up by Malaysian authorities, a
Department of Social Welfare and Development official said here Saturday.

Hania Aliakbar, DSWD provincial officer, said that a Navy boat was on the way to fetch the paguys, a Tausug term for those returning without being deported by Malaysia, and brought them here.

Taganak is about seven to eight hours from this town.

HOME SOON. Some of the evacuees at the Mahardika Institute of Technology in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi await their transfer to their homes in Jolo, Sulu. Mindanews Photo by Bong Sarmiento
HOME SOON. Some of the evacuees at the Mahardika Institute of Technology in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi await their transfer to their homes in Jolo, Sulu. Mindanews Photo by Bong Sarmiento

Aliakbar said that social welfare officials are still bracing for more arrivals but that things have been prepared in this town to address their needs.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman was expected to come here Sunday to check and discuss the situation on the ground with local officials and social welfare workers, Aliakbar said.

“So far the situation remains manageable in terms of the evacuees and we are expecting more will be coming back,” she told MindaNews.

The evacuees that were documented by the provincial welfare office reached 1,095 as of Friday with Aliakbar saying the number could have been much bigger since others may have opted to return back to their
places without registering with social welfare workers or the local government units.

Majority of those who arrived and were documented by the provincial welfare office have already returned to their respective hometowns that include places like Leyte, Dipolog, Cagayan de Oro City and Zamboanga del Sur, Aliakbar said.

Tawi-Tawi Assemblywoman Dayang Carlsum Sangkula- Jumaide, told MindaNews that Filipinos in Sabah are voluntarily coming home because they are afraid that Malaysian authorities will go after them in retaliation for the action of the armed followers of the Sultanate of Sulu.

“The tension in Lahad Datu and Semporna towns remains high,” she said, citing relatives she contacted in Sabah.

But she stressed that even before the Sabah crisis erupted, the Malaysian authorities have already launched a crackdown on undocumented Filipinos in the area.

The Malaysian authorities intensified their crackdown against Filipinos there after the Sabah conflict erupted, Jumaide said.

Aliakbar said the provincial government did not declare the area under a state of calamity because the  situation is still manageable.

Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali could not be immediately reached for further comments.

At least 63 people, including eight Malaysians, were reportedly killed since the clashes erupted last March 1 in Lahad Datu, where Sultan Jamalul Kiram’s followers have holed out supposedly to assert their claim over Sabah. The sultan’s followers had rejected calls by Philippine and Malaysian authorities for them to return home to avoid bloodbath.

Jumaide appealed anew to the Malaysian and Philippine governments and the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu to peacefully resolve the problem, noting the economic effect especially on the small traders here who cannot buy products in Sabah.

Evacuation centers ready

The provincial welfare office has identified five relocation centers—with a capacity to house 1,500  individuals– in case the arrivals would become massive, she said.

At the Mahardika Institute of Technology here where at least 51 Tausugs, including women and children, have been staying in the last four days, the sentiments of those interviewed by MindaNews were basically the same.

They all fled Sabah’s Sandakan town for fear they would be rounded up by Malaysian authorities and that the conflict might spread there.

Mimi Ibba, a 30-year old evacuee at the Mahardika Institute, told MindaNews many more fellow Filipinos from Sandakan, where she worked at a restaurant, want to come home for fear of Malaysian backlash.

“We were lucky to come home. It’s better for us to leave with the possibility that the conflict would spread to Sandakan,” she said.

Ibba was with her relatives when they left Sandakan on March 8, and according to her, there were 20 people that were not accommodated in the overloaded boat bound for Jolo in Sulu.

Those left behind were allegedly arrested by Malaysian authorities, she said.

Ibba said they were stranded in Taganak for four days after the overloaded vessel was stopped by a Philippine Navy boat to decongest the passengers.

Ibba said they were later fetched by another naval boat and brought to this town.

The 51 evacuees at the Mahardika Institute were set to board a passenger ship bound for Jolo Saturday afternoon, said Cecilia Fabricante, the institute’s vice president.

The institute, Fabricante said, is willing to house the incoming evacuees because their training center is currently not being used.

Majuk Taraji, a construction worker who also fled Sabah, said that Malaysian authorities were allegedly venting their ire on Tausugs, who are called Suluks in Malaysia.

“They arrested even those with passports,” he alleged.

He said their construction company temporarily closed the project for fear the conflict would spread in Sandakan.

When we left, there was a noticeably heavy deployment of Malaysian security forces in Sandakan, Taraji recalled.

Without work, he said he is worried how he could help his four siblings go to school.

Taraji’s brother, also a construction worker, also fled Sabah.

“We could no longer help our parents because we are now jobless. In fact, we left Sandakan without money,” Taraji said, adding he earned a daily pay of 30 ringgit or P400. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)