Following instructions I stepped off a bus at a roadside dwelling in the central, mountainous interior of Basilan. I was told where to go and where to get off the bus and where to wait for a guide. With a bandana around my head, I arrived with a name of a contact. It was supposed to be someone I could trust … a reliable contract and someone I could trust. But I wasn’t sure I could trust anyone.
In his early twenties, Aga was a lean, short Muslim man. I usually think of Filipinos as shorter than Americans, and compared to me, Agra was short. He insisted on blindfolding me. I’m not sure why that was necessary, but necessary or not he insisted on it. It made it difficult, and I wasn’t sure I trusted him. After the recent kidnapping of David Jr., an American, how could I have been sure or confident about anything. But Aga didn’t carry a firearm, which made me feel better.
Even though I stumbled, we moved pretty quickly along a network of trails. It was hard to keep track of all of the turns, as we crisscrossed the countryside. Before walking through each settlement, Aga took off my blindfold and put it on when we were on the trail again. It wasn’t long though before he left it off.
“We’ll have to put it back on when we get closer to camp,” Aga explained. His English surprised me. Aga’s English surprised me. I don’t know why it would … would surprise me. As if he needed to explain everything, he went on, “Elpido wanted to come himself, but you can understand why he couldn’t. Elpido is a good man, but these are difficult times.”
We were now walking between rice fields and under coconut trees. Sometimes people walked along with us; other times we met someone coming in the opposite direction. I hadn’t expected this. It felt as if Elpido wasn’t hiding.
“I hope this isn’t too far for you,” Aga said.
“It’s fine. I didn’t expect it to be easy,” I said. We hadn’t stopped, and I was beginning to feel it, but I didn’t have a right to complain. “I’m a bit surprised that everyone around here seems to know everyone.” I asked how that worked.
“Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, does and doesn’t work” Aga said. “Sometimes we can avoid the army and the Constabulary, and sometimes we can’t. They know where we are, of course? We keep tabs of them too … we keep tabs of each other.”
“Elpido must have connections all over Mindanao and Sulu,” I said “He has a friend in Bongao. He was admitted to the university with the help of this friend.” I was proud of what I knew about Elpido.
Aga didn’t respond.
I than said something about how open everything seemed.
“People here work their own land. The government wants them to give up their land, but they don’t want to do it because they don’t know if they’ll get it back.”
“Basilan doesn’t seem to have a huge population,” I said.
“There used to be more people here.” Aga pointed to a mountain, to the jungle on the side of it, and said, “That’s our security, but we’re not going up there now.” Indeed, we skirted the mountain; while at the same time he gave me a landmark, and it gave me a sense of security.
After the blindfold went back on, we arrived at a rectangular-shape house built on stilts, and, with the blindfold off, we climbed up the steps. The house had only one large room. A kitchen adjoined the house.
Elpido immediately greeted me. Sitting on mats in a circle of men, David Jr. talked as if he were a member of the circle rather than a captive. “You can see I’m treated very well,” he said, “and am very much alive.”
“Our friend, however, is not free to go just yet,” Elpido said. “We haven’t agreed on terms. He sent word to his people and reassured them that he wasn’t hurt. And it took some of the heat off us. Our crime has unfortunately been highly publicized. I say unfortunately, though the publicity has been good and bad. How is Fr. Deon? He wrote that you were anxious to see me. You’re either a brave man or a fool.”
As we were served scoops rice and dried fish with cassava, David Jr. interjected, “There are no spoons in the house. The family that lives here temporarily moved in with relatives. It may surprise you that they haven’t objected and consider it an honor.”
Several men and women, women dressed within limits of sharia, came and went from the kitchen, back and forth with food. Men actually served us.
“How is the food?” Elpido asked.
“Good. The cassava and rice were locally grown, but people here can’t grow enough to meet their needs.”
“It’s something we can correct,” David Jr. said, confidently. “With the green revolution, it can be corrected.”
“Our friend is an optimist,” Elpido said. “The Yakans are hard working, and each family has a garden. They are happy people.”
“They’d be happier if they were left alone and grew enough food,” David Jr. added.
“They’re not starving, ” Elpido said.. “Besides they haven’t gotten help they need.”
At the end of the meal, servers removed the plates and brought pots of hot tea and cans of Carnation condensed milk. We all severed ourselves tea and, with milk, made ourselves chai. There was some discussion about the status of David Jr. It wasn’t clear to me … whether or not he was a prisoner. Elpido claimed that David Jr. could easily escape.
“I keep telling him he can escape. I don’t like how we’re portrayed in newspapers,” Elpido said. “They make it up as they go along and get away with it.”
“The kidnapping part was accurate,” David Jr. said.
“But you’ve liked it here,” Elpido said.
“But if I were to try to escape … “
“He doesn’t trust me. You can see that he doesn’t trust me. If he trusted me, he would escape.”
“When I was first kidnapped, I was very angry about the disruption. Disruptions are very costly,” David Jr. said. “I didn’t know what would happen and was angry and blamed myself for putting my guard down. I shouldn’t have been kidnapped. I shouldn’t have allowed it. I shouldn’t have let my guard down and given so many of my employees time off. I thought pirates were the biggest threat. Elpido would say, ‘the government is.’ In the Philippines, threats abound, especially here in the Sulus.”
“The government is far more invasive,” Elpido added. ”And now the government wants to evacuate the Yakan because us. Here you see the Yakan have welcomed us.”