Last May 19, 2014, I had the first chance of a lifetime to travel by land one of the most dangerous places in the Philippines, or so they say; the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
We departed from Davao City at 1:00 P.M. I was seated on the passenger seat next to the driver. Mr. Driver asked me if I have any issue regarding speed limit, sighting that he intends to drive at an average of 130kph. I immediately asked why and he told me that there are areas along the way that are very critical after sunset; critical because the residents living around that certain area make “kidnapping” a way of living. After hearing his reason, I immediately said “no” (of course 🙂 ). So, the ultimate goal is to arrive to our destination before the sun sets. I had mixed emotions; thrilled and excited, but at the same time, worried. It was my very first road trip to the infamous home of terrorists in the island of Mindanao, Philippines.
During the first hour, I was asleep; I was still confident because we are still within the boundary of the southern part of Davao Region. When we passed by the Municipality of Bansalan, that’s when I was so wide awake and all my senses activated. I want to witness every inch of the road less traveled by. Mr. Driver was very calm and careful at his 130kph speed, but I can see his urgency to come past the noted areas. The roads are well-cemented; a good sign of progress, but the houses along the way are mostly shabby. The people we passed by looked at us with discerning eyes.
I can observe tarpaulin prints and paint posts saying proudly “Congratulations! Bangsamoro Government” pertaining to the newly signed comprehensive peace agreement between the President of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) last March 27, 2014, that gave them sovereignty over their ancestral lands in exchange for deactivation of rebel forces by the MILF. I can feel tension everywhere, with frequent sightings of War tanks at every AFP (Philippine Army) checkpoints.
When we arrived at our destination, one of the Substations of the company I work for, I still never felt safe because the Security Guards and the Staff were said to be members and relatives of the MILF. We had to be careful of what we say and do around the place. Right in front of the gate of the Substation was said to be the newly built Office Building of the MILFs.
I also got the chance to see where the Maguindanao Massacre took place in November 2009; the municipality of Shariff Aguak. It is also known as the “Ampatuan Massacre” because the alleged mastermind is one of the members of one of the most powerful Muslim Political clans in Mindanao, Andal Ampatuan, Jr. The victims were composed of the wife of the Ampatuans’ political rival, Toto Mangudadato, and her sisters, journalists, lawyers, and civilians mistaken as part of the convoy; a total of 58 casualties, kidnapped, brutally killed and buried in a mass grave.
I also got to see the castle-like residence of the Ampatuans surrounded with small houses made of dilapidated bamboo matting; a very extreme manifestation of uneven distribution of wealth and corruption. It was said that the small houses are home to the Ampatuans’ personal army and guards.
On the lighter side, I was so amazed at the beautiful Mosques. It was my first time to see Mosques at almost every kilometer interval since we entered the Muslim Region. There was this particular Mosque somewhere in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao that really caught me; it was like a castle in a Disney movie; so pink and so beautiful. It is situated more or less 500 meters away from the road. I cannot get close enough to take pictures; just a snap from our running vehicle, such a shame I can’t stop over and rejoice in its beauty. The mosque is the one over the shabby hut.
When we got a few more kilometers away from the critical areas, me and my colleagues stopped to breathe fresh air and taste the sweet water melon abundant in the place called “Esperanza”. It was the safest place that we’ve ever came across with; the inhabitants were mostly ilonggos and ilokanos.
Further down south, we passed by the Provincial Capitol of Sultan Kudarat; a very grandiose mosque-like building located at Isulan, North Cotabato. The travel was already relaxing as we were nearing Tacurong City; a part of North Cotabato with a more liberal Government because majority of the residents are Christians.
My road trip experience was really very interesting. Having had close encounters with members of one of the most notorious rebel groups in the Philippines, and around the World as well, was very amusing for me. I felt happy and fearful all at the same time. The experience could have me broken, but I loved the hype and the risk.
I am home now, safe and sound, writing this experience.