MANILA, OCTOBER 3, 2007 (STARweek) By Jaime R. Laude - Being sent on assignment to Sulu or Basilan is no holiday for reporters covering the military beat. The presence of journalists in these two places means only one thing: Trouble.

We can no longer remember when Sulu and Basilan were havens of fun and adventure. Today, it is nearly hell for the thousands of soldiers sent there to battle the homegrown terror-bandit Abu Sayyaf group and their Indonesian ally, the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Located between Zamboanga Peninsula to the north and the progressive Sabah to the south, Sulu and Basilan are in truth ideal places for eco-tourism – if only peace reigned.

Look at what the islands have to offer even the most discriminating traveler: the incomparable beauty of virgin forests, unexplored white beaches with fine, powdery sand, clear waters in the richest shades of blue and green, bountiful diving and surfing sites, and pearl farms.

Add to that exotic fruits: the foul-smelling but tasty durian, nutrient-rich mangosteen, the intoxicating marang, and sweet lanzones the size of pingpong balls – all out there for the picking, at your own risk.

Simply sitting on the ridge of Mt. Bud Datu in Indanan, watching the sunset over the not-so-distant Sulu sea, is an exhilarating experience long denied those seeking tranquility and isolation in this troubled isle.

“Ano ang sinabi ng Sipadan sa Sulu?” former Marine commander in Sulu, Brig. Gen Juancho Sabban, boasts to military reporters.

“We have the best diving, surfing and snorkeling sites, not to mention the fine white sandy beaches. Talo pa ang Boracay.”

As former commander of a Marine brigade in the province, Sabban has not only dedicated himself to hunting down Abu Sayyaf bandits but has also devoted his time and energy to developing this lesser-known aspect of Sulu by putting up a tourist stop in Patikul.

It is called Buhanginan Beach and Adventure Resort, put up within the headquarters of the Marine Battalion Landing Team-5 (MBLT-5), the location chosen due, obviously, to prevailing security concerns.

Only 10 kilometers from the capital city of Jolo, Buhanginan Beach and Adventure Resort has complete facilities to accommodate visitors – with a touch of wry humor. The accommodations have been named after popular tourist resorts.

There’s Parang Shangri-la Hotel, a two-room, two-bed per room air-conditioned cottage. There is also the El Nido Cottage, the Dakak Hideaway, Boracay, Bay Watch and the resort’s Kapihan sa Buhanginan, a tree-house where visitors can sip coffee while enjoying the breath-taking view of a clear sky and blue sea. There are few other places that can beat this.

Lt. Col. Nestor Herico, commander of the 5th MBLT, says that while in the resort guests can learn the popular sport of knee-boarding when they tire – if they ever do – of surfing and diving.

“Maganda dito. Libre pa,” entices Herico, adding that because the resort was built by the Marines, three cottages have been named after the Corps motto: “Karangalan,” “Katungkulan” and “Kabaniyahan.”

“The place is open to the public,” Herico adds, saying that a handful of locals from Jolo have availed of the services currently being offered by the resort. Admittedly, there is always the issue of security.

Sulu’s thick forest cover has offered sanctuary to some of the most wanted terror suspects, including the remaining chiefs of the Abu Sayyaf as well as Indonesian bomb experts Dulmatin and Umar Patek. With the prospect of clashes erupting at any time, even the most tranquil waters carry a tinge of danger lurking.

Recently, we were back in Sulu to cover the sortie of newly-installed Army chief Lt. Gen. Alexander Yano to visit the troops in the frontlines.

It was mid-afternoon when our Fokker plane had a rough touch down on the runway in Jolo, which doubles as lovers’ lane for adventurous couples in the evening and jogging area for local health buffs in the morning.

We were met by battle-scarred troops aboard several military vehicles, backed up by two tanks. “Kung gabi tagpuan ng mga syota itong airport. Sa umaga naman jogging area ng mga tao,” one of our Army escorts explains as we make our way to Camp Bautista located just beside the runway.

He says soldiers have shied away from the airport area months ago after an Army jogger was killed by a sniper fire.

Yano’s visit was aimed at boosting the morale of the troops, who only last month lost 27 of their comrades in three days of intense fighting with Abu Sayayf terrorists in Indanan.

Passionate and firm, Yano in talks with the troops inside the headquarters of the 104th Brigade rallied them to hit hard and finish the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, pointing out that peace must be won and achieved in the province at all cost.

Yano also told the troops that two battalions of Army engineers were coming to the island to hasten the defeat of the terrorists through developmental and humanitarian projects.

There are already 10 Army and Marine battalions, or roughly 5,000 soldiers, spread all over Sulu running after the Abu Sayyaf, who only months ago also abducted and beheaded seven innocent road construction workers.

The presence of terrorists and lawless elements explain why, despite huge financial and logistic resources the government has put into the province, it is still underdeveloped and a majority of the people remain poor and under-educated.

Local business is greatly limited, with farmers still at the mercy of local wholesalers who dictate the prices of their farm produce.

Sulu’s economy depends mainly on agriculture, fishing, fruit preservation and coffee processing.

On top of the sea- and land-based products such as tuna, crabs, lobsters, coconuts, lanzones, durian, marang, and mangosteen, there is also an abundance of abaca for knitting.

But due to the lack of development and the absence of outside traders to buy these products at reasonable prices, most of the province’s more than 600,000 inhabitants are forced to sell their produce at very low prices.

For example, P120 can get you a kaing of the sweetest lanzones, while P20 will buy you a big bunch of mangosteen. Durian in turn sells for P10 to P15 per piece.

“Mura lang dito sir ang mga prutas, kasi wala namang bumili ng maramihan nyan dito,” says one soldier who asked his wife to buy these fruits for us in the Jolo market.

But there might be a solution in sight, as earlier this month the first shipment of what has been called “fruits of hope” took off from Jolo bound for Manila. A unique experiment had a military C-130 cargo plane which brought in supplies for the military fly home loaded with tons of produce. The plane would otherwise have flown back to Manila empty.

In Manila, representatives of big supermarket chains quickly snapped up the fruits.

Hope is precious commodity here in Sulu, and sorely needed. As the long Army convoy that brought Yano and his party to one of the Army’s advance command posts in Mt. Bud Datu cut through downtown Jolo, one can conclude that the people, many of them staring blankly as the convoy rumbled by, don’t care anymore.

“Hindi na naninibago ang mga tao sa sundalo dito. Normal na sa kanila itong klaseng military movement. Ang iba dyan baka mga kalaban pa,” says one soldier who admits to have developed some amount of mistrust of the local residents.

Reaching Mt. Bud Datu in Indanan, former bastion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) now occupied by the Army, Yano told the assembled troops to spare civilians in the fighting, reminding then that they are not enemies but unwilling victims of the ongoing conflict.

Flying back to Zamboanga City for an early helicopter flight to Basilan, Yano and Task Force Comet commander Maj. Gen. Ruben Rafael echo the common wish that the elusive peace will finally come to the people of Sulu.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. had declared that this time, the military will directly involve itself in developmental projects in the province.

For starters, the AFP is sending two battalions of Army engineers to build the unfinished and unpaved circumferential highway in the province, as well as put up farm to market roads.

These road construction projects, which were previously left to local politicians to implement, will now be executed in tandem with military troops, Esperon said.

Aside from this, the military leadership is also mulling an idea to sponsor out-of-school youths in Sulu back to school. “It is only through education that we can break the culture of violence in Sulu. We should start with the youth,” Rafael says.

He adds that sponsoring educational field trips of local students outside the province would also open young minds to what it is like living in a developed community.

Rafael observes that only the moneyed families in Sulu can send their children to study outside the confines of the island province, while majority of the youths are denied the luxury of even just seeing these already developed communities.

“The purpose of this is to open their eyes to the reality that guns don’t solve problems,” Rafael says.

Indeed, that is a lesson that Sulu has been forced to learn the hard way. The people of Sulu have suffered for decades; it is about time peace begins to dawn on this paradise in the south.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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