It was the evening of March 5. And the clock was ticking.
Samoli Palili quietly asked his wife and four children to pack what they can and leave everything else behind. Samoli told his wife that there was a ferry in the docks departing for their hometown in the province of Tawi-Tawi. It was already filled with Filipinos who wanted out of Sabah so they had to hurry – the boat wasn’t going to wait for them. And it was his only ticket to get his family to safety.
For Samoli, there was no time to think or hesitate. No time to think about what they were leaving that night – a stable job, a small house they rented and the dream of having a better life.
But even if they had time to think, Samoli knew he still had no choice.
News of the breakout of hostilities in Lahad Datu and Semporna resounded in Sabah. Tales of violent clashes between the Malayian police and the armed followers of the Sultanate of Sulu were passed from lip to lip, whispered from ear to ear. With no end in sight, Samoli feared for the safety of his family.
Three months ago, he brought them to Sabah through backdoor channels – lured by a job as a painter with a construction company. With rumors of the Malasyian police hunting down undocumented Filipino workers in Sabah swirling and with security on lockdown, he knew he had no choice.
Samoli and his family made it on time. They had to pay the boatman with the little money his wife has saved up. But it was enough. They were all headed home.
“Masaya talaga kasi nandito na ako sa lugar ko. Dito ako sa Pilipinas. Salamat talaga Pilipinas. Thank you very much talaga. Buhay na buhay kami.”
Today, I met Samoli and his family in Manuk Mangkau – a small village in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi. It has only been a few days but his family has quickly settled back into their old lives. He has no problem telling me the story of their escape from Sabah. For him, there was no better ending that to say that they were home.
“Sinong hindi matakot? Kasama ang asawa at apat na anak ko. Nanginginig katawan ko nung malaman ko na may gulo.”
Samoli tells me that to be Filipino and undocumented in Sabah is the most dangerous thing right now. His 7 year-old daughter, even at her age, felt the tension.
“Pag nakakita siya ng pulis doon, Tay, pulis, natakot siya. Sabi ko huwag ka maingay, relax ka lang, lakad-lakad ka lang. Wala tayo papeles dun Malaysia. Daan tayo backdoor. Ingat tayo sa paglakad natin kapag nahuli tayo.”
And fear, Samoli says, that is shared by everyone left behind. When their ferry left, he swears that he saw Filipinos rushing to reach the boat, waving from the docks, asking them to come back. But it was too late.
“Nagmakaawa na kami sa may-ari ng lantsa para makasakay ‘yung iba.”
Samoli is only one of the many Filipinos who returned home to seek refuge. Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali reports that about 100 to 200 Filipinos have returned.
“Kung mag-isa lang ako, walang problema. Pwedeng magtago kung saan-saan. Yung iba doon, may anak may asawa. Kung saan-saan magtatago. Kaawa-awa yung mga kababayan natin doon.”
Most of them, Samoli says, are now in need of government assistance. Their local barangays have activated their calamity funds to help them but it’s not enough.
With no livelihood, no homes, no money, and no food – they’re starting from scratch.
Safe and sound and away from Sabah. But now, Samoli and the others are worried about how to reclaim what they’ve lost.
It’s March 8. And they’re still waiting for assistance from the government.
The clock is ticking.
Three months and I finally find the time to write a blog entry.
And on a night when all you want to do is drift into some good old-fashioned unconsciousness, your brain starts dancing around ideas that are both fleeting and becoming.
Of course, there’s nothing much else to do here at night in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi – a small town in Southern Philippines where journalists have swarmed like locusts to cover the Lahad Datu standoff that ended in a bloodbath last Friday. 12 Filipinos dead along with two Malaysian police officers. More violence linked to the standoff has also erupted in Sempora town where other Malaysian policemen and gunmen were reportedly killed.
This begs the question: So what’s in Simunul? Clearly, the story is in Sabah.
Miles away but Simunul is close enough to feel the gut-wrenching effect of the clash. It’s where the heart of the story lies. Afterall, it’s where home is for a lot of the followers of Jamalul Kiram III who claims to be heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu.
With only about 5,000 households, Simunul is as small as small towns get. When you first step foot in the island, you’ll be greeted by a picturesque stretch of houses on stilts – a village seemingly floating over water – coupled with the smell of grilled fish wafting in the shoreline air. Peeking from the wooden houses, aged and weathered, are the people of Simunul – curious to the presence of people they don’t know but smiling nonetheless. Hospitality is no stranger here.
In Simunul, you walk. And by walk, I mean…walk a lot. With only a few motorized vehicles, people mostly get around by foot. You’ll be lucky to see motorcycles roaming around town. Even rarer are vehicles mostly owned by the local government and police.
Just a few meters from the port, you’ll come across what is perhaps the most important structure in the entire town – the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque. It’s said to be the first one built in our archipelago in 1380. And it’s a rather holy sight. Most part restrained, somewhat elegiac, and definitely elegant – the mosque still stands with its original pillars inside the new structure. It’s a stark reminder of our past and how it remains a strong force in the present.
These past few days, the mosque houses prayers from residents who want an end in the bloodbath in Sabah. It’s a quiet village but news of what has transpired in Sabah echoes throught Simunul.
There’s no electricity in the island, save for a few a houses and a police station that could afford generators to supply energy. But even then, it only runs for a few hours at night – just enough for a bulb-lit dinner and a dose of the evening news where residents await updates from Sabah.
Even here, the debate over the attempt to reclaim Sabah rages – ones you’d most expect from furrow-browed members of the academe, politics or media in Manila. But here, neighbors regularly discuss the result of the Sultanate’s move.
Most of those who disagree with the move cite economics. Trade is important in these parts of the country. And with relations with Malaysia hampered, trade is hampered. Prices are soaring – even in small sari-sari stores here that sell essential supplies, lukewarm soda and stale cigarettes.
Others disagree for fear that their relatives who work in Sabah might be affected by the clash. Earlier, I was just talking to a policeman who was in constant contact with his cousin in Sabah – figuring out how to safely salvage his life and livelihood there.
“Sira-ulo talaga ‘yung pamilyang ‘yan. Dinadamay pa kami sa gulo nila,” whispered a local government worker to reporters earlier. Of course, the family that they are referring to are the Kirams.
Keeping up with the Kirams are their sympathizers – and there’s a lot of them here in Simunul. Ask them and they’ll tell you that the land I’m standing on in Tawi-Tawi is no different from the land in Sabah. There’s no demarcation line between Southern Philippines and the modern-day Malaysian state.
Yesterday, I was able to talk to Nurkisa Kiram, wife of Raha Muda Agbimuddin who led the standoff in Sabah. When we went to their home, she was busy attending to members of the DSWD – helping them extend government services in this time of crisis.
While talking her, and other women from the sultanate’s Royal Security Force – made-up of both Muslims and Christians — there’s a certain resolve when you listen them speak of the situation in Sabah. It’s as if they’ve long accepted the consequences of the action taken to recover their Sabah. It’s as if they knew that surrender – and goodbyes – are not part of the equation.
Even if the fight turns them from wives to widows.
“Huwag matakot. Lalaban kayo lahat dun. Kung sila pumasok doon kung nasaan kayo, lumaban kayo lahat.” This was Nurkisa’s answer when I asked her if she had any message to those who went to Sabah.
But more than the land that they are claiming, Nurkisa says that the sultanate is fighting for the Filipinos who she says are maltreated in Sabah. The fight isn’t just about the past but also the present.
“Yung mga babae mga buntis, nag-anak na doon sa kulungan; hindi nila dalhin dun sa hospital. Yung mga matanda, yung mga bata, doon na mamatay doon sa kulungan tas yung mga babae dalhin nila doon sa foreign boat, ibenta nila doon at saka yung mga lalake yung mga ihi nila ipapainom sa kanila. Yan ba ang Muslim?”
While walking to the police station where our crew has set-up a tent, I asked a member of the Royal Army why they wanted to continue. “Para saan pa? Susuko na sila kung kailan may namatay na?”
Today, I also met Capt. Akhmad Ibnohasim. He travelled all the way from Basilan to Simunul a few weeks back just to join the fight for Sabah. He was also one of the dozens who were not able to travel due to the limited spaces in the boats that brought the sultan’s men to Sabah. He was left in the bench, in the sidelines of battle. But left with him, he says, is a promise.
“Sabi nila, magiging sundalo ako ‘dun. Parang mga kapatid natin na mga militar. May sahod, ganyan. May retirement. Makakatulong sa mga anak ko.”
“Handa po ba kayo mamatay para sa Sabah?”
“Oo. Para sa mga anak ko. Saka sa atin ‘yun.”
For the likes of the captain, taking over Sabah not only rectifies the past but also the future. Some say the fight for Sabah is a lost cause. But fighting for your children? Is that ever a lost cause? It’s quick to judge on this Sabah issue but the details in the fabric make you think.
While heading back to camp, where we’ll have another sleepless night in a tent under the stars, my cameraman reminded me of a line in our national anthem that echoed the captain’s sentiment:
Ang mamatay ng dahil sa’yo.
With the violence continuing, I wondered how long the standoff will continue. I thought about the Sultanate’s fight for the past and at the same time, the future of his followers. With no resolution in sight, and with grievances still in the air, I wonder if they’ll ever be able to sing a different line and a different tune.
Ang mabuhay ng dahil sa’yo.
Three months and I finally find the time to write a blog entry.