Covering Jabidah Massacre commemoration circa 1988

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 18 March) – Thirty years ago, when I was a newbie promdi journalist, I got invited to cover the commemoration of the Jabidah Massacre, that story of Moro fighters secretly trained, then massacred, on Corregidor Island in the Philippine government’s covert attempt to retake Sabah.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) also considers March 18 as its founding day.

At that time, I was already comfortably crisscrossing both Lanao provinces, sometimes alone, in search of news. I was young, just a few years off college, and single. I was with the Media Mindanao News Service (MMNS) at that time, an alternative news agency, but also doing “tabo” (journalists’ lingo when one contributes stories to other agencies for extra income) for Manila Standard and Agence France-Presse.

Tausug warriors of the MNLF’s National Security Command during the March 18, 1988 commemoration of the Jabidah Massacre somewhere in Calanogas, Lanao del Sur. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

The commemoration, I was told, would be somewhere up in the mountains of Lanao del Sur. A journey on bus, banca, and lots of walking in the mountains. Exciting!

A memorable journey it turned out to be.

With me was Merpu Roa, a senior reporter from Ozamiz City writing for Ang Pahayagang Malaya. We needed someone who could speak the language. That’s where a long-time college friend, Bong Ibrahim, came in handy. He was a student leader in the Mindanao State University’s (MSU) main campus in Marawi at the time when I was also wreaking havoc in MSU’s Iligan campus at the height of the protests against Marcos.

We took a bus, then jeepney, from Iligan to Karomatan (now called Sultan Naga Dimaporo) in Lanao del Norte. Only a hundred kilometers away, but it was a long trip at that time, when most of the roads weren’t paved. Then in Karomatan we hired a fisherman so he could bring us to Malabang on his pump boat.

But the boat malfunctioned along the way. So the fisherman asked another fisherman to tow us back to Karomatan. Unfortunately, the boat was pulled backwards, so the propeller was rotating in reverse, thus loosening it. It fell and disappeared into the sea.

We stayed a few hours in a village somewhere between Karomatan and Malabang while the boatman was finding ways to fix the problem.

We reached Malabang maybe 9 o’clock in the evening, at the time when most of Lanao del Sur had no electricity. (The Lanao del Sur Electric Cooperative, we were told, owed the National Power Corporation millions of pesos).

The next day was the walk to the camp. We took a tricycle to somewhere, and then started the walk up the mountain. The trek started at 4 p.m., and we reached the camp at midnight.

Somewhere along the way, Merpu got so tired, and asked the MNLF rebels if he could please ride a horse. They let him. Unfortunately, he fell off the horse. We told him this “news” will get to the farthest corners of Mindanao. Hahaha!

Other than that, it was a very pleasant walk with several armed rebels with us, them showing us every now and then where the military detachments were. Meranao villagers in nipa huts gladly offered us water.

The next day, there was a long program commemorating the Jabidah Massacre.

Members of the MNLF’s elite force, the National Security Command composed of Tausug warriors, performed drills for everyone to see.

Various speakers took turns on the makeshift stage, and there were chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and sporadic firing of the AK-47 towards the sky, amidst the solar eclipse.

Tausug warriors of the MNLF’s National Security Command during the March 18, 1988 commemoration of the Jabidah Massacre somewhere in Calanogas, Lanao del Sur. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

When it was time to send our stories, uh-oh, how do you do that up there in the mountains way back in 1988?

Those days, we either called our newspapers in Manila by collect long distance, or we sent our stories via LBC or JRS. Mobile phones were unheard of. No emails, no fax machines. No telegrams in the mountains, too.

But Merpu was the “roger roger tango tango whiskey whiskey” kind of guy, part of those radio clubs with VHF radio transceivers that was so in vogue in the ’80s. Icom, Kenwood, etc.

We scanned various frequencies, thanks to the MNLF’s antenna up high on a bamboo pole. We chanced upon two young girls with very nice voices chatting.

“Control, break control, break!” Merpu said, as how I remembered it (I never got into this expensive hobby). “Control, sorry for interrupting.”

“Go ahead!” said one of the girls. Very nice of them to accommodate us. They were from Cotabato City, they said.

Then Merpu asked the girls if they could please transmit our stories via collect long distance telephone call to Manila? We were expecting a “no,” considering how weird a request that was, coming from strangers. But they said yes!

So we dictated our stories, word for word, over VHF radio to the girls. Then they called Manila and repeated the tedious process, to Merpu’s Malaya, then to my Manila Standard, or was it MMNS or Agence France-Presse, I couldn’t recall exactly.


When we got back to the city a few days later, Merpu got the banner story the day after the commemoration. Me, maybe in one of the papers using MMNS or wire stories, but I’m not sure.

That, boys and girls, was how journalism was during your fathers’ time, beating deadlines no matter what, despite the Jurassic technology back then.

P.S. We never got to eyeball those girls with beautiful voices. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)