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For now, the mice are hiding
Publication Date : 12-05-2014
In Jolo town, the kidnappers play a cat and mouse game with the police.
According to the newly appointed Jolo police chief Major Junpikar Sitin, the mice (the kidnappers) are currently in hiding as the cats (police) are out.
Before Major Sitin was made the top cop in the capital of the Sulu province in southern Philippines, there was a spate of kidnapping of residents in Jolo town.
“Starting from February, almost every other day there was a kidnapping in Jolo,” said Dr Raden Ikbala, who leads an anti-kidnapping non-governmental organisation in Jolo town.
“They even kidnapped poor people like a fried banana vendor, asking for 5,000 peso (US$114) ransom. Kidnapping became such a regular business that it alarmed us.”
The world might know Jolo island as Philippine’s cross-border kidnap capital.
There is a United Nations of hostages held in the island the size of Perlis.
The latest is probably fish farm manager Yang Zai Lin.
Five Filipino gunmen kidnapped the 34-year-old Chinese national from Silam in Lahad Datu at 2.45am on Tuesday.
What the world might not know is that kidnapping of residents in Jolo town is as common as the lapu lapu (grouper) fish being sold in its wet market.
Jolo island is in Sulu, the poorest province in the Philippines.
“We remain the poorest because of constant war since the time of Marcos (Ferdinand Marcos was the Philippines president when Jolo was the war theatre between Manila and Moro National Liberation Front from 1972 to 1976),” said Dr Ikbala, a Tausug (or Suluk as the community is called in Sabah) like the majority of the population in Sulu province.
“Even now Manila still sends its military to Jolo island (in operations against the Abu Sayyaf).
“Jolo is a laboratory where AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) puts into practice the theories they learnt in the military academy.”
In 1999, when Father Romeo P. Villanueva was posted in Jolo town it was at the “height of trouble”.
“Our bishop was killed. Another bishop was killed in 2000. Kidnapping was rampant in 1999, 2000 and 2001,” recalled the 70-year-old Catholic priest.
“The authorities tried to do what they could. But they still could not stop it.
“In 1999, the governor at that time, Sakur Tan, told the media that his government had a no-ransom policy.”
The next day the head of a hostage (a son of a doctor) was found at a petrol station in Jolo town.
“The message was this is what you get when you have a no-ransom policy,” said Father Romeo.
All of Dr Ikbala’s five children – aged seven to 18 – live in Zamboanga City in Mindanao, a 40-minute flight from Jolo town.
“I was afraid they would get kidnapped (in Jolo town). Twelve years ago we were warned that children of doctors will be kidnapped,” related the 49-year-old doctor at the Sulu Provincial Hospital in Jolo town.
In February, he sent his youngest child to Zamboanga City after a kidnapping spree in Jolo town.
“How was it living in Jolo town during that spate of kidnappings?” I asked Shamira, Dr Ikbala’s 40-year-old wife, during dinner at Zamboa-nga City.
“I was so scared that I didn’t even want to go outside my home. We were told that my husband and I were on the kidnappers’ list,” she said.
The 11-year-old son of the Ikbalas’ obstetrician friend was kidnapped together with an eight-year-old cousin, maid and driver as they were travelling to school at 7.30am in February.
Six men in tabligh garb and armed with Armalite rifles abducted them at gunpoint.
A month later, they were released when the boy’s mother paid 1.56 million peso to secure their freedom.
“They negotiated from 7 million peso to 5 million peso to 3 million peso to 1.56 million peso,” said Dr Ikbala.
“How was the boy after he was released from captivity?” I asked.
“Like most of the other released victims, he was not terrified. It is either because they became religious or experienced Stockholm syndrome (capture-bonding),” said the doctor.
His mother told Dr Ikbala: “My son has now become a mutawa (religious police in Saudi Arabia).”
Every morning as a reward for waking up for Fajar prayer, the boy’s captors allowed him to talk to his mother. He now prays five times a day.
“Who are the kidnappers?” I asked.
“They are always attributed to the ASG (Abu Sayyaf group) but not many of them belong to ASG. We believe the kidnappers (some aged 16 to 25 years old) are children of powerful politicians in Sulu,” said Dr Ikbala.
The middle-class in Jolo town started sending private messages via Facebook to Dr Ikbala to do something about the kidnapping spree.
The doctor and his wife formed Bangsa Sug Against Kidnapping and Other Crimes (Bassakao).
On March 14, they organised an anti-kidnapping rally in Jolo town. The rally attracted the attention of the Philippines media.
Taking note, one week later, Philippines National Police made Major Sitin the police chief of Jolo town and deployed 300 extra policemen.
The police chief of Jolo town believes that when the cats are out (visible police presence), the mice will not come out to play.
“I make myself visible so that people feel that their police chief is with them,” said Major Sitin whom I stumbled across twice patrolling the small town on the day I arrived in Jolo.
The situation in Jolo town, said Major Sitin, was peaceful but volatile.
“Bad things can happen any time,” he said. “The kidnappers are waiting for an opportune time to carry out their plan.”
*US$1 = 43.61 pesos