We should have grabbed a flight the day after Christmas and enjoyed a week of sightseeing in Zamboanga, that picturesque city of flowers near Mindanao’s southern shore.
Instead, we watched aghast as Islamic terrorists bombed a morning Mass at Marawi’s Mindanao State University, killing four students. “Security is pretty tight now,” my long-time Zamboangueno friend, Al Jacinto, warned. Worried about the potential for more attacks, he informed us, officials in Zamboanga had temporarily banned backpacks, water bottles, baseball caps, and hooded jackets.
If Jacinto’s name seems familiar, it’s because his by-line appears regularly in this newspaper above stories emanating from that 40% Muslim city by the Sulu Sea. “It might be best,” the seasoned reporter advised us now, “to postpone your visit until after New Year.”
Ah, but then several days before Jan. 1st, three members of the communist New People’s Army, not to be outdone, got themselves killed in what Jacinto described in print as “fierce encounters with government forces.” And so, we postponed our trip again, this time until an unspecified date that has not yet to come.
Which reminds me of my first trip to Zamboanga in 2003. “You want to go where?” asked the incredulous woman at Los Angeles International Airport, looking like she’d seen a ghost. “Please don’t. The terrorists will cut off your head!”
Not exactly what I’d expected from a Philippine Airlines employee checking me in for my inaugural flight to these tropical isles. So, I spent the next several hours pacing up and down a terminal corridor, only mustering the courage to board after imbibing an abundance of alcohol. Landing at Zamboanga Airport wasn’t much better; attendants literally escorted us off the tarmac between lines of well-armed guards. And I felt almost imprisoned at the famed Garden Orchid Hotel where protective carbine-carrying employees watched my every move.
Returning two years later on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, was an entirely different experience. For starters, the then-reigning Miss Zamboanga met me at the airport with flowers. And too, I was reporting on the pilgrimage of 1,700 former residents-turned-expats determined to prove that it was safe to go home. “We wanted to set an example,” California-based organizer Randy Dagalea explained. “If even we Zamboanguenos are afraid to go back to our own city, how will others feel?”
Undoubtedly, the most memorable event of the trip, however, was reuniting with Al Jacinto, who enhanced my story with his masterful photos. And so, we renewed our friendship. And rejoiced last April when government officials finally declared the region free of communist rebels. As we had the year before, hearing that scores of Islamic extremists had finally tamed their ways.
“Sulu is relatively peaceful,” Brig. Gen. Benjamin Batara told reporters then, speaking of the nearby province where radicals once held sway. “For quite a long time, there’s been an absence of violent clashes.”
He was speaking at the ceremonial groundbreaking of a 25-million-peso reformatory then under construction for former Abu Sayyaf warriors. When completed, he said, the halfway house would prepare them to lead more productive lives. “There is a marked change in the peace and order,” Batara said, adding that some of the former terrorists would be trained as tourist guides.
That last bit got my attention; terrorists-turned-tour-guides, what a rich story! To report it, though, I needed a guide of my own, and Jacinto volunteered. So, I pitched the idea to several U.S.-based publications as we planned our long-delayed re-reunion. And heck, I figured, why not bring the wife and kids along to enjoy Zamboanga while Al and I did Sulu? Then the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, scattering bodies everywhere and diminishing the power of my tale.
I still plan on making that trip one day, hopefully fairly soon. Just to be on the safe side, though, I’ll leave the family at home.
David Haldane’s latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. An award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster, Haldane divides his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.