“You want to go where?” she asked. “Zamboanga? Don’t go there, the Muslim terrorists will cut off your head.”
That wasn’t what I’d expected from a Philippine Airlines employee checking me in for my very first flight to the Philippines. “But I have to,” I countered, rather meekly I’m afraid. “I’m going to see a woman I met online and already bought a ticket.”
“Have her meet you in Manila,” the Filipino ticket taker insisted.
In the end, I didn’t cancel my flight. Instead, I paced up and down the terminal corridor for an hour, summoning the courage to get on board. That was only accomplished, finally, with the help of tranquilizers and an alcoholic beverage or two. It all happened 20 years ago. Now, they tell me, military officials are calling for tourists to come on back and be guided by those selfsame terrorists.
“Sulu is relatively peaceful,” Brig. Gen. Benjamin Batara told reporters recently, speaking of the island province just off the Zamboanga Peninsula in southern Mindanao. Previously, the area’s chief claim to fame was as headquarters for Abu Sayyaf, the country’s cruelest band of Islamic insurgents. But times have changed, according to the general. “For quite a long time, there’s been an absence of violent clashes.”
Batara was speaking at the ceremonial groundbreaking earlier this month of a 25-million-peso reformatory being built for former Abu Sayyaf radicals. When completed, he said, the halfway house will serve as a center for what the Philippine Daily Inquirer calls “ideological reorientations and livelihood training to help them integrate into mainstream society.”
“There is a marked change in the peace and order,” Batara said, adding that some of the former terrorists will be trained as tourist guides. “The last kidnapping was two years ago.”
Indeed, there have been a few changes since my first flight to Zamboanga. In the last five years, authorities say, more than 400 Abu Sayyaf warriors have surrendered. Recently Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi—all former terrorist strongholds—signed an “integrity pledge” ahead of last month’s general election. And in Basilan, the wives of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters have started a program to keep toy guns away from their children.
“They are just toys,” one mother explained, “but the way [they] have been ingrained in the minds of our young kids, there’s a corresponding price to pay…Banning these toy guns…will encourage children to be better members of society.”
All of which differs greatly from the atmosphere prevailing in the area back in 2002. Landing at Zamboanga’s airport that first time, we were literally escorted off the tarmac between lines of well-armed guards. I remember feeling almost imprisoned at the Garden Orchid Hotel where protective attendants, also armed with carbines, watched my every move. And when a Muslim police friend offered to set me up for an exclusive interview with an Abu Sayyaf fighter in Jolo, well, I felt compelled to turn him down. No point, I figured, in making myself available for a terrorist kidnapping.
Three years later, returning to the city on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, I had a slightly different experience. For starters, the then-reigning Miss Zamboanga and provincial tourism director met me at the airport for a guided tour. And yet, one woman I interviewed lived in a house still punctured by bullet holes from a recent rebel attack.
But I’m glad things are finally settling down in southern Mindanao. That said, will I rush out tomorrow to buy a ticket for the country’s newest tourist hotspot? Let me put it this way: if you go first, I may follow.
David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists,” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is a journalist, author, and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.