At the turn of the century, Gen. John J. Pershing asked Colt Industries to make a handgun ‘powerful enough to knock over a running Moro'. Even with the Colt .45, the US Army could not subdue the Moros and end a Muslim secessionist movement that dates from Spanish contact. Following Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972, fighting between the army and the rebels, now the Moro National Liberation Front, intensified. The Peace Corps stopped placing volunteers in southern Muslim areas, which includes a broad swath of islands that connects Mindanao to Borneo, the Sulu Archipelago. Travel to Sulu was expressly prohibited; any PCV who did so would be immediately expelled.
That’s why I was determined to go there.
On a return visit in 1982 I learned the Philippine Government had just lifted its travel ban to Sulu. An American friend and I hastened down to Zamboanga and grabbed a PAL flight to Jolo, the Sulu Provincial capitol. Upon arrival, the airport authorities searched us, then turned us over to a group of tough-looking young men who looked every bit the part of the fierce Tausug warriors romanticized by Filipinos everywhere. Any further travel into Sulu, they told us, would require the approval of the Sultan of Jolo.
It felt like we were being abducted. But we were merely meeting the Moro National Liberation Front.
On our way to the Sultanate we saw bombed out buildings and burned down huts. The road was littered with wrecked vehicles. We were the first Americans to arrive in Jolo in ten years, our informants told us. They seemed disappointed that we were not journalists. But we promised to tell their side of the story and that satisfied them. We never saw the sultan but approval for further travel was mysteriously granted.
The next morning the same escorts took us down to the crowded ferry which would carry us to Sitankai, Tawi-Tawi and several smaller islands in between. We pushed our way aboard. The boat soon left, its engines throbbing, the double-decker decks swaying ominously with the swells.
We had no idea how we would get back to Zambo. Nor did we care.
The next three days we spent island-hopping and exploring this stunningly beautiful place. Everywhere, white-trimmed coral islands lay like beads from a broken necklace, scattered in the lime-green waters. Pods of dolphins frolicked as our boat plied the deeper, purple channels. We passed the occasional fisherman checking his traps or trailing a line from a trim outriggered binta. At each stop the same drill occurred. The boat would take on freight and passengers and out of the crowd would appear another group of tough-looking, young men waiting for us. They invariably spoke perfect English. Later we learned why.
That night we were honored guests at a Badjao wedding. The Badjaos are an animist tribe that eschews land and migrates perpetually among the Philippine, Malaysian and Indonesian waters. They have co-existed peacefully with the Muslims for centuries. We squatted with perhaps fifty of them in the hold of a large houseboat. As the ritual unfolded, drummers began to play. Soon they glistened with sweat in the candlelight. Then the young women danced, their bright saris swirling, their smiles beguiling. When words fail, smiles do the work. I remembered hearing of an early PCV falling in love with a Muslim princess in Sulu. Legend has it they eloped and live somewhere out here still.
As a child, I used to spin a globe, close my eyes and point to a spot. Tawi-Tawi was one of those imaginary end-of-the-world places, like Timbuktu or Tingo Maria. At last there it was, a Gibraltar-like rock on the horizon. Our first stop was the American Jesuit missionary high school where so many of our MNLF informants had studied. At the rectory we dined with Fr. Timothy, a gracious man who betrayed no surprise at two scruffy, backpacking Americans turning up at his door. He arranged an overnight trip for us to Sibutu, the westernmost Philippine island. We would be just off the coast of Borneo. On the way we would pass Siminul, revered for being the first Philippine island touched by Muslim missionaries. Marcos had made it his private hunting refuge.
The next morning we were the only passengers on a ten-ton junk chugging its way to Sibutu to pick up a load of copra. Our captain was a young Chinese man with whom I had trouble communicating in English, Tagalog, Ilongo or T'boli. As we turned into the Sibutu Passage the boat began to vibrate. The humidity and air temperature dropped. Flocks of seabirds caromed about excitedly, diving for fish amidst the flotsam and jetsam. We had entered a strong current, its edge visible like the curb on a street. Every year this current reverses direction, the captain managed to tell us. The Badjaos take it down to The Celebes and back. Suddenly he fell silent. Off the port side, far in the distance, a small boat appeared. It was shiny and black with two long antennas and no markings. It was heading toward us. The captain reached down and lifted an M-16 from below the floorboards. He checked the magazine, cocked it and set it next to us. "They are either pirates, smugglers or police", he said. As the boat drew nearer my heart began to pound. This was no-man's land, international waters where anything could happen. We had no radio and there was no place on board to hide. Maybe they still need that travel ban, I was thinking. But now it was too late. No one in Manila or elsewhere even knew we were here. I remembered how hard it is to shoot an M-16. Just when we were within shouting distance the mysterious boat stood up and sped away, powered by twin inboards.
We returned to Tawi Tawi the next day, tired and preoccupied with our return to Zamboanga. Our concerns soon evaporated. Fr. Timothy had arranged a flight for us back to Zambo with the Governor of the province, no less. The next morning we boarded a twin-engine Cessna. In the copilot's seat sat the Governor, a worldly, affable Tausug. All the grievances we reported fell like drops off a duck’s back. The problems his people faced, he felt, were more economic than anything. He envisioned investments, new airports, expanded trade. He believed it would come. All we need is peace, he added. I remembered that bumper sticker: if you want peace work for justice. But we had said enough. Seated behind us in silence were his two bodyguards who kept their rifles pointed at our backs the whole time. The bejeweled waters below glistened in the brilliant sun.