On Basilan, the last time we were there with Elpidio and Nick (circa 1971), an American expatriate community working on plantations and living within their compounds there probably never saw the war coming. They probably didn’t want to see it coming. They probably lived in a bubble. With security guards (for bigger plantations, private armies), they probably felt safe. Yet 1971 proved pivotal. Within a short time, most of them would pack and leave their homes and lives on Basilan.
I’ve often wondered what happened to David, the American fisherman we met at the Antaka Hotel and who offered us his hospitality. You might remember later he became Elpidio’s first kidnap victim. During our last visit to Basilan, we didn’t look him up. We were rushed and didn’t look him up. We felt insecure and wouldn’t have gone to Basilan if Nick hadn’t insisted. We were clearly on the run. And perhaps more than other Americans we grasped the magnitude of the struggle because of Nick and Elpidio, and because we saw the savagery of ILAGA or Christian rats.
Nick and Elpido’s jungle camp wasn’t blessed with amenities like surrounding compounds of expatriates. They and their men lived in huts without running water or modern toilets, or a swimming pool or an airstrip, but their spirits remained high. They revelled in roughing it like Spatans. They didn’t feel deprived and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. They wouldn’t have wanted to change places with their neighbors, many of whom lost their homes within a short period of time.
But though these neighbors were Americans and rich, most of them were native, and most of them hadn’t lived anywhere else. Take David … the American fisherman … though he went to San Diego State, he identified more closely with Basilan and returned when he got a chance. On occasion, I’ve wondered if he survived. There were many casualties on all sides, once people chose sides.
For our benefit Nick and Elpidio dressed in western business suits. They wore colorful ties, colors that were loud. They dressed up for us and took us to dinner in Isabella. They went all out. It was to be our big send off. I took a picture of them for posterity. I took a picture of the two of them and then one of them with Susan. They let us choose a restaurant.
“What do Muslims eat,” I asked Nick. It was a stupid question, and he gave a stupid answer.
“Rice like we do.”
“Certain foods are forbidden. Never pork or booze.”
“Well … “
Whereupon, both Filipinos smiled. Then Nick said, “When around Muslims, do as Muslims do. Enjoy.”
Saying goodbye to good friends was hard. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it would be hard. I hadn’t factored in that we were also leaving the Philippines and perhaps leaving for good. Too much had gone on … too much. The right words never came. I hate goodbyes anyway. Elpidio and Nick … though I sought them out, they always made me feel welcomed. They never acted superior, though in many ways they were. I was never willing to die for a cause. I was a draft dodger, a draft dodger, who loved pork … especially lechon, whole hog on a spit, and sisig! Thanks Nick, I really miss Filipino food.
The four of us…a Muslim, a Christian, and two Americans … good friends, cohorts looked for the right place to eat in Isabela … a good place for a sendoff. One of our options, believe or not, was pizza. Pizza at a one-counter stand, a place lacking pretensions and without a jukebox, and located down near the harbor. We had our pizza and belted out the only Beetle song we all knew, “Hey Jude,” and it stuck in Susan’s and my head for days.
Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song make it better
Remember let her into your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.
One could hear us walking through the Basilan jungle singing, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Make it better.” Don’t make it bad, please! Don’t make it bad. Make it better. The people of the Philippines don’t need.it! Don’t make it bad. Make it better. Each of us tried to out sing the other. Don’t make it bad. Make it better. We sang it in Tagalog, English, and Bahasa Sama, and we didn’t care who heard us. “Don’t make it bad!”
Nick saw us off the next morning. We hadn’t expected him to accompany us back to Zamboanga. We didn’t say much on our short ferry ride or while he waited with us until we boarded our ship for our “tour” of the Sulus.
Within two days, we were back in Bongao, with ports of call in Jolo and Suisi. We had been on this ship before. The captian remembered us, and Jolo and Suisi looked about the same. But that was all about to change.
Remember the trouble our captain had in Jolo with the constabulary over a carton of American cigarettes and how our captain handled it by giving away the carton. This time he offered us his cabin. It was generous and typical, but we preferred sleeping on deck. We preferred sea breezes to his cabin and didn’t mind sleeping with other passengers. We didn’t want to offend him, but this time we didn’t care so much because we were leaving the Philippines. We didn’t go to shore at Jolo, fearing an incident. Suisi didn’t interest us either. But we left ship in Bongao, and looked up Fr. Deon.
We bought roundtrip tickets, giving an impression that we planned to go to Sitankia and then come back to Zamboanga. So we made up a story for the captian that he would buy. We told him that Fr. Deon was an old friend, which wasn’t a lie. We told him that we wanted to spend time with an old friend and see Tawi Tawi and would catch him (the captain) on his return trip. That gave us three or four days on Tawi Tawi. We were on vacation and said it was like a second honymoon. This satisfied him. More than satisfied him. It pleased him. Or our vacationing in the Sulus at that time was crazy enough for him to accept anything.
Fr. Deon had always been kind to me. And remembered Susan. Both times I was in Bongao he went out his way for me. He served us meals again and gave us a place to stay, as he arranged for us to leave the Philippines. I imagine it was ticky for him. A risk, it was tricky.
Since he came to Bongao, he hadn’t left the Philippines, and by 1971 admitted he missed Canada. He was then a well known educator and peacemaker and had to have felt frustated. He didn’t say much about it, but he had to have felt frustrated. He consided it his mission, the peacemaking part his mission. This was before the place exploded. He seemed sad. Perhaps he knew the place would explode. Perhaps he’d around long enough to know the place would explode. He was respected for his work … as an educator and peacemaker. He was a quiet person though, when you’d think he’d be the opposite.
On March 4, 1970, Fr. Deon, then sixty-six, seemed frustrated and withdrawn. He was worried, had been worried for some time and even more so after learning the latest news. The constabulary just seized some villages on Tawi Tawi and elsewhere in the Sulus. He knew people in all those places and in recent years mediated many disputes in the area. He didn’t know if his hard work would every bear fruit. One step forward, then two backwards. He saw progress and then saw it evaporate. He had been around long enough to sense trouble. Christians and Muslims were already killing each other. And already that year, he had worked with countless refugees fleeing to Sabah, and he had seen young men he knew return from Sabah … now armed and trained for jihad.
We spent the weekend with him. He tried to put up a brave front. He tried to smile, but he couldn’t keep his lips from quivering.
We told him about our evening with his star student, Elpidio, in a business suit, eating pizza and singing “Hey Jude”. His face lit up. He chuckled, and seemed very pleased. Hey Jude, don’t be hard on the Philippines. Make it better. He asked many questions about Elpidio and said he would give his mother an update.
Then he took us to his school and told us he had housekeeping to do. “I can’t sit idly by. I have to keep busy. Of course, I pay janitors. The local economy needs Catholic money.”
We pitched in. It didn’t hurt us.
“It’s Biblical,” Fr. Deon said, mopping. “Most things are. It helps when you’re down.”
Fr. Deon told us how to avoid the constabulary and police. He arranged everything, the small boat for crossing the border, and said, “They’re reliable. They were students of mine.” And he gave us instructions: what to say and how to act. We weren’t to say much.
When police arrived at his house, Fr. Deon handled it. He talked to them on the steps of the porch, while I sat in a barber’s chair on the porch near the front door. I knew what Susan was thinking. I knew she was sweating because I was sweating too. But the police didn’t talk to us, nor ask for our passports. We had had close calls before. I was afraid because I always look guilty when I’m not.
Fr. Deon operated with impunity in Bongao and on Tawi Tawi. He was a pal of Congressman Datu Ombra Amilbangsa and knew how to use his influence.
A group of Moro leaders had just published a manifesto asking the government to take action against Christian death squads, but the government instead threatened them. Fr Deon said that he was afraid that the cycle of reprisals would become uncontrollable. He also was afraid that his school would be closed or even worse, attacked. The situation was bad.
As atrocities continued, Datu Ombra Amilbangsa was running for reelection to the National Assemble and thought ILAGA gangs were soldiers of Marcos. He asked Fr. Deon for his support. He hoped the friar could stem some of the violence. And it looked like the election was going to be more violent than normal. During a meeting, the Datu noticed that the friar lacked as much enthusiasm as he normally had, but thought it was because he was trying to do too much. He still thought he could count on Fr. Deon. The friar told us that it was going to be a long, hard-fought struggle. He said it would be a long, hard-fought struggle and there would be few winners. And children would suffer the most.
Fr. Deon arranged to go with us to a small island near the border. He went as far as he could go without crossing the borders. It seemed as if he often did this. He said that he needed to make a “courtesy call” anyway. He said he wanted to count refugees “hung up there, waiting to cross.” His constabulary friends told him that there were people there.
It sounded good to us. To have his company sounded good to us because it made it safer. We trusted Fr. Deon, and it made it safer. It wouldn’t eliminate risks entirely, but it made it safer.
We didn’t know how much influence the friar had over pirates, those who roamed those seas and often preyed on refugees. From newspaper accounts we knew how they preyed on refugees. And we were were refugees and were well aware of heinous acts committed by pirates. I didn’t know which was worse: Sulu pirates or ILAGA gangs. Somehow sea gypsies and pirates co-existed, more or less peacefully.
We boarded a red sailboat before dawn and sailed from Bongao just as the sun rose. We huddled together, except for two young boys who stood on the bow. We didn’t want to be conspiculous. I remember that Fr. Deon kept himself distracted by talking to refugees, something he did naturally.
“Ted, look!” Susan said. “They’re playing chicken, those boys are playing chicken. They’re seeing which one will jump first … which one will wait the longest … which one will have to swim the farthest. See how they feint jumping, hoping to trick the other one into jumping first.”
Susan looked worried.
With the shore no longer in sight, I said, “They know what they’re doing. They won’t drown. They’ve been around water all their life. It’a game to them.”
As he declared martial law, President Marcos addressed the nation:
“No matter how strong and dedicated a leader may be, he must find root and strength amongst the people. He alone cannot save a nation. He may guide, he may set the tone, he may dedicate himself and risk his life, but only the people may save themselves.”
I was one of those people who naïvely thought that Marcos would evenually save himself and by so doing save his nation. Or Christians and Moros (people as in people power), would one day push him out. But casualties continued to mount and for all sides continue to this day. Hey Jude, don’t be hard on the Philippines. Make it better. And as for Susan and me, we’re not dead yet.